"The string, when it vibrates, if you pluck a string in front of your eyes from left to right, you'll see the pattern fluctuate," Peter Walker says about the virtuosic guitar playing on his new full-length Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms? Recorded in 1970, the tapes sat stored in the trunk of Walker's car, weathering four long decades of post-countercultural malaise before Nashville label Delmore Recording Society issued a slightly edited version of Walker's one-take solo session late last year. Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms? is a complex masterpiece that provides verbal content along with the fluctuating patterns of Walker's guitar — its momentum never weakens.
Cut in New York City in December 1970 after Walker had spent the year refining its material, Freedoms displays his talent for rhythmic strategies that imply a ground beat as much as they state it. Creating a tangle of drones with a Gibson Hummingbird steel-string guitar, Walker lends his immaculate touch to a series of melodic cells that occur above the drones, and sings his lyrics in a transfixed, distracted tone that suits the music perfectly.
Born in Boston on July 21, 1938, Walker grew up listening to his father's guitar and mandolin playing, and learned about country music by listening to the radio. "The country music from the Grand Ole Opry was the standard American music that I knew of," Walker tells the Scene from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. "I could only receive two radio stations — one was [WSM's] the Grand Ole Opry, and the other was WWVA in Wheeling, W. Va."
Walker left home as a teenager in 1952 on a pilgrimage to Nashville. "I sat on the front steps of the Grand Ole Opry for an entire morning, and played my harmonica," he says. "Then I found the route out of town and stuck out my thumb. Traveling through the Deep South when I was 14 years old, being able to play 'Dixie' came in handy."
Coming of age in the early '60s, Walker traveled to Spain and North Africa to learn gypsy and Arabic music, and studied Indian music at Ravi Shankar's Los Angeles school. By 1968, Walker had moved to New York, and had already recorded Rainy Day Raga and Second Poem to Karmela, or Gypsies Are Important, which featured flutes, violin and tamboura. Made for Vanguard Records, they're gentle even when the rhythms get hot.
By contrast, Freedoms is an agitated, forceful record, which has something to do with the content of Walker's songs. Singing about ordinary men and women who struggle to make a good life for themselves, Walker achieves a spare, vexed poetry: "Come for to be a soldier / Cold and stormy night / And your awful black undertake / Cold and stormy night," he sings in "Johnny Cuckoo."
"Freedoms was really a highly focused, highly polished record that would've been my third record for Vanguard," says Walker. "But it turned out to be an independent record, because we had recorded it after the contract had expired with Vanguard. We couldn't find a new buyer for it, so we just let it sit."
Walker would eventually create a version of Freedoms to sell at his shows, but he spent the rest of the '70s and part of the '80s traveling in motor homes and campers he built himself. "I did all these off-the-grid experiments in living, and I traveled almost constantly," he says. "I always had a guitar with me and I was always playing, but not for money. It wasn't until I went on tour with [guitarist] Jack Rose that I realized I could make money playing the guitar."
Moving to New York City in 1985, Walker spent a decade there working as a paralegal, and put his sons through a Manhattan school. An accomplished flamenco guitarist, Walker plays daily exercises to maintain his chops, and he says he's still learning.
"I asked my teacher, 'What do I do now that I've passed the exam and understand the concepts?' " says Walker. "He said, 'Now, what you play is up to you.' "