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An Appreciation of Travis Edmonson
September 23, 1932 - May 9, 2009
Seventh generation member of an Arizona pioneer family, Travis Edmonson's life and career has centered around the state, though his song has spread the breadth of the world.
With a seemingly infinite vocal range, He could take an audience's breath away one moment, but the next, have them rolling on the floor in mirth. Travis Edmonson remains one of the most intensely loved artists in folk music, not least for that captivating personality, one which assured all - both on stage and off - that he was ever at one with them.
An early singer-song writer, he always proffered a widely variegated repertoire, and has secured his place in musical history not just for all the above, but particularly for being one of the first and most influential to bring a rich trove of music from Mexico to U.S. audiences.
But foremost, there was that wonderful voice. - operatic in its breadth and capacities, with all the drama of presentation that implies. Folk
audiences, seldom treated to more than pleasant singing voices, never failed to be overwhelmed by the incredible number of octaves Travis Edmonson's spanned. The pathos he could put into a song might be haunting or hypnotizing, and so often conveyed uncommon emotion - be it jubilation, tenderness, loss or the more subtle colors of thoughtfulness.
Juxtaposed against the touching feelings was a flair for whimsy which added further dimension to his act. Travis Edmonson's brand of platform comedy was a continuous romp full of improvisations and seemingly harmless, but pungent one-liners. Never padding, the humor was an integral part of the performance, sometimes even woven into the songs (such as the classic “Sloop John B.”
Irrepressible, bright, charming and even at times, anthropomorphic (“let's all room together next semester!”), he was the essence of wit, his humor having the uncanny mixture of spontaneity and longevity (e.g. the aforementioned song still eliciting smiles after decades of playing the live concert recording). Pulling it all together was a perfect sense of timing, the ability which makes or breaks a comedian, regardless of the quality of their jokes.
But with all the madcap antics, intelligent silliness and brittle humor, what audiences picked up loudest and clearest was the warmth, sincerity and pure affection he felt for them. And if they thought they were only imagining it, those who went back stage discovered that he would not only speak personally to each and every one of them at length, but might also offer a guitar lesson in the bargain. Precious few entertainers would take the time with fans that he did, and the result began as appreciation, and usually tended to mellow into lasting devotion.
Those who availed of such opportunities encountered not just a courteous and interested human being, but someone who remained a figure of inspiration for the rest of their lives. No hyperbole. That is a story told more than a thousand fold! Perhaps a byproduct of his lifelong interest in anthropology, that understanding for people was not merely a personal attribute, but one which enabled him to constantly relate back and forth with those whom he entertained.
Content and programming were also a key to his individuality, and his own compositions (“Cloudy Summer Afternoon,” “If I Were Free,” “Guess I'll Go Home,” “I'm A Drifter,” “The Web”) contributed to that quality. The eclectic mixture of old and new songs from near and far was also consistently peppered with the music of Mexico and other Latin countries. His “Malaguena Salerosa” bears legendary stature, but it is only the crown jewel in a tiara of melodies which he imported for the listening pleasure of Americans, such beautiful songs as “Sin Ti,” “Rayito De Luna,” “Caminante Del Mayab ,” “No Me Quieras Tanto,” Cielito Lindo Son Juasteco,” “Sabras Que Te Quiero”, “Vamos Al Baile” and “La Vaquilla Colorada” among so many favorites.
The source of these was his Arizona background which saw him growing up along the Mexican border before breaking into show business as a solo act at San Francisco's Purple Onion.
Following his two-year stint with The Gateway Singers, the duo of Bud & Travis was born in 1958, one which allowed for total venting of the comedy ideas and full-bodied arrangements he produced. From night club to concert hall to after-hours coffee house among friends, the pair inevitably created the kind of excitement which made them unforgettable. The caloric value of even a casual performance could feed an army for a week. Their live Liberty albums give only a hint of just how electrifying these were.
One of the remarkable distinctions of their time together was the honor of a unique appearance before a joint session of the Houses of Congress to sing Travis Edmonson's thought-provoking song of conscience “The Time of Man.” Among thousands of gigs, it had to be the ultimate.
However, preferring the pace and scaled-down commitment of a solo career, at the height of his celebrity, Travis Edmonson returned to his native state in the late sixties, making it his base for another decade and a half (which in addition to folk music also included creating a musical score for an exhibition of paintings by his good friend , noted artist Ted De Grazia).
Though a paralyzing stroke (resulting from an aneurysm) in 1982 made subsequent performing impossible, music has continued to be a focal point in his life - writing, arranging and coaching, among other activities . Despite over two decades out of the limelight, fans talk about Travis Edmonson's shows with a passion as if they occurred only yesterday, his LPs winning top prizes within record collections for most worn-out grooves.
Having so successfully developed an impressive style all his own, that kind of reaction was inevitable. A poet and painter from his early teens, the key word for everything he touched or created was artistic sensitivity. It was surely the wellspring for his own appreciation and selection of material, as well as the foundation of the gift to move audiences so profoundly with his voice.
The last two and a half decades of his life, while profoundly upset by the aftermath of a stroke that left him paralysed on the left side, revealed to all the enormous courage and character of the individual already so greatly admired for his inspirational qualities. A man who knew no end when it came to giving of himself, his benevolent and optimistic nature is as much a part of Travis Edmonson's legacy as the exquisite music.