JoeMc on 08/26/2009 at 07:59AM
Of all the new pieces of vinyl to show up in the WFMU "new bin" lately, my favorite may be Harte Records' reissue of Peter Walker's 1966 Vanguard LP Rainy Day Raga. It's a record that is so purely conceived and executed, so total unto itself, that I find it hard to select cuts to play from it. It always feels as if it should be played all at once so that you can become immersed in it, like taking a long, warm audio bath instead of the quick MP3 showers we're always taking these days.
Rainy Day Raga is so perfect that its creator, after releasing one more gem two years later, simply stopped recording. In the past couple of years, though, Peter Walker has become visibly active again, and today's post is a souvenir of that still-ongoing resurgence: an exclusive improvisation from his appearance on Irene Trudel's program in June of last year. Its informal title bears witness to a touching relationship between two folk legends.
Peter Walker is one of those guys from the 60s who seemed to get around. He jammed with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan in San Francisco, became Timothy Leary's "musical director" in upstate New York (he played music while Leary's students took their psychic journeys), and knew all of the lights of the Cambridge and Greenwich Village folk scenes. One member of the New York division was Karen Dalton, the so-called "Queen of Greenwich Village," whose bluesy vocal style and rugged banjo playing made her something of a hero to the locals. Bob Dylan was in thrall, as was many of the other denizens of the folk clubs. Fred Neil, himself an inspiration to many of the younger folk singers, famously wrote in the liner notes to Dalton's first album that "she sure can sing the shit out of the blues."
Dalton, a half-Cherokee from Enid, Oklahoma, came to New York fleeing a failed marriage and seeking kinship with like-minded musicians. A famously cantankerous personality, she seemed to prefer informal jam sessions to playing live, and it's well-known that she hated recording so much that she had to be tricked into it (Fred Neil didn't tell her he was recording her). For this reason, probably the best Karen Dalton recording is an informal home recording from 1963 that came out as Green Rocky Road last year. She sounds relaxed and as if she's enjoying herself, which doesn't at all come across on the two studio albums released during her life.
Peter Walker met Karen Dalton sometime in the early 60s as they floated around the clubs in Greenwich Village. They became friends, and although Walker didn't indulge in some of the same poisons as Dalton's other friends (among them Tim Hardin, derailed by heroin use early in his career), he maintained contact with her throughout the years. Dalton's performance anxiety, her family troubles, and most of all her drug and alcohol abuse, sent her down a not-so-green rocky road. She nearly OD'd a handful of times, her guitars and banjos ended up in hock more than once, and she found it difficult to maintain living quarters. Ultimately, she ended up the victim of a dirty needle and contracted AIDS. It was Peter Walker who stepped in to help Karen Dalton during the last months of her life: He gave her a place to live as she unsuccessfully battled the disease. She died in 1993.
Back in 1962, Walker sold a favorite guitar to Dalton; miraculously, this guitar was back in Dalton's possession when she was dying, and she gifted it back to him. This is the guitar used for this piece. A nice piece it is, too. These days, Peter Walker favors two distinct modes, a steel-string Eastern mode (which he admits feels like a throwback to him) and a nylon-string flamenco mode. This piece is in the former mode. In concert, Walker evenly divides his material between the two styles, but it's clear that his heart is more in the flamenco. His album from last year, Echo of My Soul, his first in 40 years, concentrates on this side of his musical personality. Unsurprisingly, the mood of the record is far less "rainy" than his earlier material; it speaks of sunny Spain, not the meditative East. Still, Walker remains one of the most adept players of "raga folk" around, and his influence on younger players like Jack Rose and James Blackshaw can't be underestimated.
If you like the sound of this piece, there are several other Peter Walker tunes on the FMA, including a full session with acolyte Jack Rose. Check them out! Also, be sure to check out Peter Walker's recently released Long Lost Tapes 1970 on Tompkins Square. For Karen Dalton, I recommend Green Rocky Road and Cotton Eyed Joe (both on Delmore), although some fans swear by her first solo album It's So Hard to Tell Who's Going to Love You the Best (most recently available on Megaphone, but the older Koch-issued CD is still around, too).