Peter Walker plays the Windup Space Feb. 8
About a minute and a half into the song “Me and My Lady,” the solitary acoustic guitar powering it starts producing notes that sound like they’re tripping over each other in a torrid rush. This pulse-fluttering sound is a striking counterpoint to the lyrics of this sprightly folk song, which opens with the cloyingly chaste, “I’m playing in the morning, laughing at the sun/ falling in love and telling everyone/ me and my lady, my lady and I.” The vocalist, who has a New Englander’s easygoing flat vowels, sings-speaks with a counseled calm, as if reciting a script. It’s not so much passionless as direct, even when the lyrics’ personal slant veers into the perplexing: “and has anybody seen the hangman?” the singer asks, not waiting for a reply before he continues, “tell him not to—tell him he don’t have to die.” The verse continues in this aphoristic call-and-response fashion:
and has anybody seen the hermit?
he’s living in his room and he’s got
he’s got it all together and he’s returned to his room
and has anybody seen my lady?
sometimes she comes so close and then she runs so far away
and sometimes I can even touch her but her mind
stays so far away and so close and so near
she’s here now
and has anybody seen our freedoms?
we wonder where they went
Throughout this topsy-turvy verbal journey the guitar sounds like it’s having a gorgeous panic attack, as if the questioning anxiety underpinning the lyrics is being translated into musical morass. Listening becomes this bewilderingly thrilling experience, as if listening to the voice-over narration to arresting footage of the natural world in a documentary. And there’re six more transfixing tracks following “Me and My Lady” on Peter Walker’s Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?, which Delmore Recordings released in November.
Originally recorded in 1970 but never released, Freedoms captures an innovative 1960s artist displaying that the era’s so-called “folk scene” wasn’t exclusively rooted in a rediscovery of early American hillbilly music and the blues. Walker, who left music in the early 1970s and only started recording and touring again a few years back, plays the Windup Space Feb. 8 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Creative Differences series.
Inside Llewyn Davis might’ve mainstreamed the notion of the 1960s folk revival artist that time left behind, but the seeds of new generations seeking out contemporary folk music reissues and rediscovering artists from the era were sown in the mid-1990s with the re-emergence of the finger-picker John Fahey and the Revenant Records label he started. In addition to (re)issuing gems of early Americana such as Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music Volume Four and Charley Patton’s Screamin’ and Hollerin’ the Blues, Revenant also put out albums by contemporary artists who explored and experimented with “folk” traditions, such as Jim O’Rourke’s Happy Days and Sir Richard Bishop’s still-thrilling Salvador Kali.
This output was taking place in the decade following major labels repackaging back catalogs to create new revenue streams via the CD box set: Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings, which Columbia Records released in 1990, sold more than a million copies and won a Grammy. The not-so distant past was ripe for rediscovery, and very soon all sorts of folk and blues albums were being reissued and younger bands were touting their music, from Karen Dalton to Vashti Bunyan, from Robbie Basho to Jim Ford.
As local ethnomusicologist Ian Nagoski and his Canary Records imprint have argued, however, this reissue-quasi-rediscovery process has created a very specific narrative for what early American music is, sounds like, and comes from. In short, folk and blues—aka music that descends from Anglo-American and African-American traditions. That’s a part of the sound, sure, but not the entire picture. Nagoski is a persuasive advocate for music from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and India being just as informative to early American—and, thus, contemporary popular—music’s DNA. And the downright breathtaking output of Peter Walker offers evidence that other ideas outside traditional folk and blues were bouncing around 1960s folk activity.
Jennifer Kelly put together a fabulous Walker profile at the Dusted online music magazine, which charts his diverse musical interests in the 1960s: studying with those Hindustani musical legends Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, traveling to Francoist Spain to learn flamenco. This sensitivity to rhythmic complexity is all over his debut, 1967′s Rainy Day Raga. The Indian influence hinted at by the title is immediately apparent, but it’s more than the surface affectation of technique or meter.
Rainy Day Raga was put out in 1967 by Vanguard Records, which practically had a lock on traditional blues and folk of the era. Eric Anderson, Joan Baez, Sandy Bull, Ramblin Jack Elliott, Fahey’s indelible Requia, Richard and Mimi Farina, John Hammond, Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Country Joe MacDonald, Patrick Sky, Junior Wells—all released Vanguard LPs, so it wasn’t like Walker’s ideas weren’t part of the folk discussion. Vanguard also released his follow-up, 1968′s equally lovely “Second Poem To Karmela” Or Gypsies Are Important.
After recording what would become Freedoms? Walker left music to work and raise his family, but as Kelly reports he never stopped playing. In 2007, Walker released his first new albums in four decades, Echo of My Soul with Spanish Guitar. They’re both gorgeously meditative albums of gentle nuance and mature grace, and display how in his ear and hands both Indian and flamenco music share a percussive intoxication that makes their intermingling quite beautiful.
That musical adventurousness can be heard on Freedoms?, which captures the incendiary energy of a musician hearing new ideas and chasing them down. His “Pretty Bird” here, an interpretation of the traditional folk tune and ’60s staple “The Cuckoo,” is a knockout, utterly transporting a melody that feels deeply ingrained in the soil of early America into something wholly other.