We only have enough space here to scratch the surface of what an interesting life guitarist Peter Walker has led, but consult the liner notes for his new album, Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?, for details on some of his more notable escapades. There, Walker recounts brushes with Ted Kennedy, Robert Graves, John Wayne, and Mexican Federales, his studies with Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan, his time as musician-in-residence at Timothy Leary’s house parties, and foiling some creep’s attempt to “mindcop” John Barrymore Jr. by way of mescaline in Puerto Vallarta. And that’s just the 1960s.
Born in Boston, Walker played in the city’s folk club/coffeehouse scene before bouncing around and performing in New York, Spain, North Africa, Dallas, San Francisco, Mexico, and Detroit, finally settling down in Woodstock, N.Y. His debut album, Rainy Day Raga (1967), showcased his skillful blend of American folk forms and Indian music, while 1969’s Second Poem to Kamela, or Gypsies Are Important demonstrated his love of flamenco music. Both albums were released on the influential Vanguard label. Walker recorded the Freedoms material in 1970; with no recording contract and dismal offers from labels, the album went unreleased until late last year, when Nashville-based Delmore Recording Society issued it. It was his first recording to feature lyrics and singing; the songs offer an impressionistic overview of the head and road trips Walker and his lover had been through. “It was recorded in one take, no overdubs,” he says. “They caught me on one of my best days. It’s all a true story, and dedicated to my true love at the time. It’s serendipitous, because now I’m back in touch with the same lady, who I haven’t spoken to in years. Life just works out that way. And all these years later, the political content is more applicable than ever.”
Given Walker’s often murky elocution on the album, the political content he refers to is not always overt. But the album title and cover image—a photograph of Walker and famed counterculture attorney William Kunstler—leaves no doubt about the guitarist’s leanings.
“Kunstler was the Clarence Darrow of our generation,” he says. “He was around as counsel to the movement, and if he wasn’t available to take a case, he was always available to give advice over the phone.”
Walker disappeared from public view for a while, until a younger generation of guitarists like James Blackshaw, Ben Chasny, and the late Jack Rose helped spur a renewed interest in his work. Fingerpicking-friendly label Tompkins Square released A Raga for Peter Walker in 2008, featuring pieces by the likes of Blackshaw, Rose, and Thurston Moore, alongside Walker’s first new recordings in almost four decades. He had not stopped playing guitar, continuing to perform around Woodstock, but domesticity sidelined his music career for a bit.
“My kids came along and I had to raise them, so I got a job doing legal work,” he says, explaining the time he spent away from recording. “I put my kids through school and paid off my mortgage and then I was able to turn my attention back to music, so I went to Spain to study. And then they came and found me for the Raga record. I was packing to go back to Spain again and Josh [Rosenthal of Tompkins Square] came and knocked on my door.”
Walker credits John Fahey with inspiring his generation to take up solo steel-string guitar and Sandy Bull for launching his interest in Eastern music. “Fahey richly deserves every accolade—he was the first, and cut a path for the rest of us,” he says. “And Sandy Bull was on the cutting edge of Eastern exploration.” He will enthusiastically hold forth on the history and influence of African and Indian music, and has studied and gigged regularly throughout Spain in recent years.
“Playing for a gypsy audience in Madrid was one of the high points of my life,” Walker effuses. “I played with the Gypsy band, then I played solo, and they really got into it. The queen of the Gypsies said I was proof that Gypsy souls come back in different bodies.”
At 76, Walker says he’s enjoying playing and touring more than ever. He says that he had no idea that people could even make money playing guitar until he toured with Rose. His concerts today are a mix of raga-inspired and flamenco music, with each piece improvised on the spot.
“Life is wonderful,” he says, reflecting on his recent journeys. “You have to get out there and mix it up. I feel sorry for people who don’t leave home. Yeah, there’s danger out there, and yes, it can be a challenge. But it’s so rewarding, both in the musical sense and a life-fulfilling sense.”