All his life, Walter Tragert has channeled music. He’s wrangled a living from it for 30 years and partnered with some of Austin’s finest musicians, including Scrappy Jud Newcomb and the late Ian McLagan. His solo outings (the 1996 CD “Heavy Just the Same,” 2004’s “Lousy with Desire” and the 2012 recording “A Single Drop of Rain”) have showcased his soulful singing and wistful ballad writing and prompted some critics to compare him to a young Bruce Springsteen or an American Elvis Costello.
With his latest creation, “American Folk Songs for the Family, Volume I,” Tragert taps his deepest musical roots while sharing a lifelong passion — teaching music to children.
The illustrated songbook and accompanying CD celebrate traditional Americana, with 11 standards sung, played and arranged by Tragert. Self-published and recorded in Tragert’s teeny South Austin studio, “Folk Songs” is a labor of love that reveals its creator to be an armchair archivist, an astute folklorist in a flannel-wearing slacker’s clothing who has had a five-decade love affair with music, from the time his daddy first sang him a lullaby (“I’ve Been Working on the Railroad”) to his coaxing those first painful notes from a Boy Scout bugle and beyond.
“I intentionally made this very personal,” says Tragert, who has had multiple sclerosis for more than a decade. “I’ve gotten to the point in my life where I want whatever I do creatively to be very authentic and not contrived in any way. So I really put myself back in the place of, ‘What was I thinking when I was 7 or 8, when I started playing instruments?’
“I mean, the initial reason I did this (project) was that I had to quit teaching a couple of years ago, and I had to find a new way to make money, to eat. And I didn’t want to do the rock ’n’ roll performance thing anymore — there’s no money in it, and besides, I can’t get around very easily now. … I had been teaching kids for 12 years at the Armstrong Community Music School, and I was very successful at it, and I’d miss it every day when I got up.”
The project started with a kernel. Tragert’s dad sent him an old book of folk standards a couple of years ago, and it got him thinking about the deep importance of music — not just in a child’s life, but in a human’s life, and how that music simultaneously grows out of and shapes a society.
Tragert recorded the 11 songs on his computer, played most of the instruments, wrote personal anecdotes for the book, assigned the illustrations, crowdfunded for the project (raising $15,000 in two months), enlisted the goodwill of countless musician and artist friends — and did it all in his 4-by-6-foot studio.
“American Folk Songs” also reveals Tragert’s appreciation for the work of musicologists like Alan Lomax. The CD includes a number of songs whose origins are unclear or unknown but are an amalgam of American cultures dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are a blend of African and Irish roots, like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad,” or come straight from a time and place, like Will Shade and the Memphis Jug Band’s “Stealin’.”
Other songs include “Oh, Susanna” by Stephen Foster, one of America’s first professional songwriters, and “Skip to My Lou,” a song from the 1840s and a product of “play parties” — some Protestant denominations didn’t allow singing and dancing, but they would allow a form of it at children’s parties.
There’s “Oh, Shenandoah,” whose author has been lost to time but whose rendition on this CD is heartrendingly delivered in Tragert’s rich baritone; “Li’l Liza Jane,” a New Orleans brass-band standard; and “This Little Light of Mine,” a 1920s hymn that Tragert had the unexpected fortune to sing with civil rights icon Marian Wright Edelman at a rally on the Washington Mall in the late ’80s.
Tragert is currently working on a video for Volume I, featuring “John the Rabbit,” and has recorded many songs for his Volume II, which he hopes to release in a year.
On the CD, he plays guitar, bass, banjo, trumpet, trombone, baritone horn, penny whistle, harmonica, spoons and jaw harp, with cameos by a dozen local and nationally known artists. The list of contributing musicians includes Stanley Smith (clarinet), Newcomb (slide guitar, mandolin), Walter Daniels (harmonica), Pete Stiles (mandolin), Phil Davidson (fiddle), Landis Armstrong (guitar), Steve Belans (percussion), John Chipman (snare drums), Larisa Montanaro Chipman (vocals) and Larry Fulcher (bass and longtime player for Taj Mahal).
For a crowdfunding video, Tragert tapped his pal Nevie Owens, film editor for the 2016 documentary “Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny” by Louis Black and Karen Bernstein, which aired on PBS’s American Masters series. For the illustrations in the book, Tragert enlisted artists Lori Armendariz, whose whimsical colored pencil drawings accompany several anecdotes, and painter Shelley Yates McNair, who created lush, dreamlike oil and acrylic works for the book.
When asked how he assembled such an array of illustrious talents, Tragert says, “One of the things I’ve realized is, if you live in one place for 30 years and you’re not a (jerk), it pays off. I’m a lucky person, I’ll tell you that. I feel very lucky. It could be a lot worse.”
The destiny and purpose of the “American Folk Songs” project have come to Tragert in pieces, as a school here and a nonprofit there have purchased the book and CD for musical education.
“I’m realizing that one of the reasons that I wanted to do this is that music is being so minimized in the public schools now,” the 52-year-old says. “People aren’t getting it; the families aren’t sitting around singing the songs anymore. That needs to come back, just culturally.”
Through teaching kids, Tragert had a sense that he was a keeper of the flame, passing down cultural gems to younger generations. But the current project has taken him into a deeper meditation on the truest, purest nature of music: what role it serves, why almost every human has an affinity for it.
“Historically, music was something that people did,” Tragert says. “Not something you bought. It wasn’t a commodity or a CD or recording. 120 years ago, if no one was playing music, you didn’t have music. So someone around you always knew how to play the piano or something, and even if they didn’t, you just sat around and sang. People have been doing that for tens of thousands of years. But it’s become separate from a human function, and it’s become a commodity, something you buy.”
Tragert accepts that (he’s been peddling music for decades), but what he wants to remind the audience for this project is how intrinsic music is, like a heartbeat. Whether a lullaby or an acoustic folk tune, songs were originally meant to be passed down, to convey knowledge and history.
“The way I think of lullabies is, they’re like an heirloom, like a legacy that a parent passes down to the kids,” Tragert says. “My dad sang ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’ a certain way to me, so I sing it that way to other kids. And maybe they’ll sing it to their kids, and it’s just passed down that way. That’s totally in the spirit of what folk music is about.
“It’s an oral tradition, and it’s normally not written by one person. It’s usually written by groups, different groups combined.”
“A lot of these songs were used in minstrelsy, and they don’t have this perfect, politically correct history,” he adds. “They reflect the culture of the times. … A lot of these groups slowly co-opted each other’s cultures. It was just music. And it became a collective, and it reflected the society of that time.”
For Tragert, the attraction to music goes back as far as he can remember. Back to when his father would sing to him before bedtime or to when he learned trumpet and trombone in school. To when he bought his first garage-sale guitar at age 10, or to a fictitious character from his early 20s by the name of Dr. Jones the Yodeling Paleontologist.
“I played this character in a traveling puppet show called ‘Dinosaur Rock,’” Tragert says with a laugh. “Dr. Jones the Yodeling Paleontologist was this guy who brought dinosaurs back to life with his magic spells.”
“Dinosaur Rock,” which operated out of Washington and was led by Grammy-nominated writer Michele Valeri and puppeteer Ingrid Crepeau, featured huge dinosaur puppets and a musical score geared toward education. The company performed in schools and civic auditoriums around the country, with Tragert as its leading human for almost three years.
To become the wizarding Dr. Jones, Tragert left his job at a record store in D.C. and hit the road, eventually landing in Austin after a performance in College Station in the early 1990s. The Dr. Jones experience, along with Tragert’s more recent teaching background, influenced his latest project as much as any of his other seminal experiences.
It all comes down to sharing history with a willing listener.
“Music is about telling a story. It’s natural. It’s human. It’s comforting and soothing. Performing is totally different. Performance is pretty new. … But for thousands of years, maybe tens of thousands of years, music has served a cultural purpose to bring people together and give them something to do. You know — it’s freezing cold outside, you ain’t got no lights, it’s wintertime and you’re in a little tar-paper hut, what are you going to do? Look at the fire and start singing, start telling stories, right?”
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‘AMERICAN FOLK SONGS’
You can buy “American Folk Songs for the Family, Volume I” ($24.95), listen to the songs online and learn more at waltertragertmusic.com.