This month, Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop reissues two albums from the Kicking Mule Records catalog: Happy Traum’s American Stranger (1977) and The Bert Jansch Conundrum’s Thirteen Down (1979). Happy Traum and Bert Jansch are each singer-guitarists who launched careers during the sixties folk revival in the States and Britain, respectively. American Stranger and Thirteen Down provide glimpses of their work in the late seventies, an era when many folk singers were trying their luck at the introspective and potentially lucrative singer-songwriter market. Both men share a sophisticated approach to the guitar that, for each, distinguishes a repertoire of songs. Presumably, this is why both ended up releasing at least one record with Kicking Mule (a label specialized in guitar music), and also why I’ve opted to write about the reissues together.
In a BBC radio broadcast spotlighting Happy Traum, Grossman remarked:
“The sign of a truly great guitar player is not how complex he can play but, rather, that the sounds he produces are music… the forte of Happy Traum is that he can take a blues and arrange it in a rather simple fashion to produce a very lyrical and moving and very musical performance.”
The tunes on American Stranger bear out Grossman’s sentiments… clear and deliberate folk and blues guitar playing highlights the collection, and elevates Happy’s unaffected if somewhat plain-sounding vocal delivery. A variety of contributors, including John Sebastian on harmonica, lend accompaniments throughout, subtly building on Traum’s performances. The album opens with its moving title track, “The American Stranger (Plains of Amerikee).” From the liner notes:
“Versions of The Plains of Amerikee date back to before the American Revolution, yet the person in the story seems very contemporary to me. I can identify with his restless spirit and am moved by his conflict… Many of the songs on this album reflect the spirit of the seeker, the wanderer, the stranger.”
These themes reemerge in a number of selections, from the 19th century southern hymn, “I am a Pilgrim,” made popular by Merle Travis and The Byrds, to a redux of Traum’s own fable, “Golden Bird,” which originally appeared on Happy & Artie Traum (1969).
A Bronx native, Traum participated in the sixties Greenwich Village folk scene before relocating to Woodstock near the end of the decade. It comes as no surprise that he befriended Bob Dylan along the way, and on American Stranger, tries his hand at interpreting Dylan’s blues, “Buckets of Rain.” The result is charming. Traum’s guitar pulsates, giving the tune a dimension that barely registered on the original, relatively straightforward arrangement from Blood on the Tracks. He wisely avoids mimicking Dylan’s signature vocal inflections, and while his own, slightly wooden delivery lacks Dylan’s urgency, it does not detract from an effective rendition that is one of the album’s best tracks:
“Dark Road Blues” mines similar territory. It is an interpretation of Charlie Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” that also incorporates the “don’t the moon look good mama?” ¹ line from Patton’s “Poor Me,” famously borrowed by Dylan for “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”
Where American Stranger found Happy Traum carrying the torch of American folk music into the late seventies, and thoughtfully presenting traditional and contemporary material based around a common theme, Bert Jansch took a decidedly different approach on Thirteen Down.
Bert is an icon of the British folk revival. His debut, self-titled album is one of the era’s cornerstones, and his group, Pentangle, based around his collaboration with John Renbourn, is arguably the era’s most memorable ensemble. In the late seventies, he formed “Conundrum” with multi-instrumentalist Martin Jenkins, bassist/pianist Nigel Portman Smith and drummer Luce Langridge. Thirteen Down ² is credited to “The Bert Jansch Conundrum” and would be their only studio album. Jenkins replaced Renbourn as Bert’s main collaborator during the period and had a notable impact on the music, his violin and phased electric guitar accompaniments highlight the sublime instrumental album, Avocet (1978), and his original piece, “Nightfall” is a standout track on Thirteen Down. Portman’s Fender Rhodes piano work and Langridge’s laid back drumming style gave the group a distinct, soft rock character that mirrored popular FM radio music of the time, and certainly provided a new twist to the Jansch discography.
Those familiar with the original LP or 1998 CD reissue versions of Thirteen Down will notice a curious re-shuffling of tracks on this latest reissue. One could speculate that the modified sequence was tailored to emphasize the “vintage” Jansch material over the aforementioned soft rock material. The original sequence began with the Steely Dan-ish instrumental, “Una Line di Dolcezza,” and was followed by a relatively glossy “Let Me Sing,” especially compared to the stripped-down Jansch/Jenkins version that appears in the Acoustic Routes documentary. By contrast, the reissued sequence begins with “In My Mind,” a strong, decidedly more conventional (for Jansch) sounding tune, though perhaps not an ideal as an opening track, since it jumps abruptly into verse with no instrumental introduction. A reworked version of “Sovay,” from the Pentangle repertoire, follows, featuring an interesting overlapping treatment of the verses, with vocals traded off in turn by Jansch and Jenkins.
His biographer, Colin Harper remarks on Jansch during this period:
“His prime concern when recording in the sixties had been the guitar; his work in the mid-seventies would be characterized by a swing to the other extreme, with the presentation of voice and songwriting to the fore.” ³
While this assertion may be more convenient than true, given the appearance of the Avocet album in 1978, it is more or less supported by the majority of Thirteen Down. Bert’s guitar resides deep in the mixes of selections like “Time and Love,” “Down River,” and “Sweet Mother Earth,” in favor of the breezier sounds of the supporting instruments. One wonders ifThirteen Down’s producer, Nic Kinsey, or the group’s other members, or even Jansch himself was steering the arrangements toward a sound that would be palatable to a wider audience. Certainly, this far into his career, it would not be remarkable if Jansch fancied some of the benefits that would accompany a popular single. Yet, not every selection on the album fits this mold. “Ask Your Daddy” is a sweet tune that captures the sense of whimsy Jansch demonstrated at times on earlier records (“Ring-a-Ding Bird” from 1965’s It Don’t Bother Me comes to mind, for example). Its most powerful track, the world-weary “Where Did My Life Go” is said to have been written to commemorate Sandy Denny, who passed away in 1978. The song could also be interpreted as autobiographical, having been penned during or around the time of Jansch’s 1979 tour of the States, which Harper refers to as Bert’s “most horrendous drinking period”.
¹ Patton’s original line was: “By and by, sweet mama, by and by. Don’t the moon look pretty shinin’ down through the tree?”
² According to the liner notes, the album’s title refers to thirteen tracks “down” on tape, but it is also the thirteenth album in Jansch’s discography.
³ From “Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival”