I spent a weekend with Peter at his home in Woodstock several years ago, and gained a deeper appreciation for his talent, dedication, and discipline as a guitar player and artist. Waking up to the dulcet sounds of him practicing for several hours each morning, is a permanently etched, very pleasant memory. He’s a master of Spanish guitar these days, from a lifetime of study with Gypsy masters in the caves of Spain, as well as being a life long student of the lessons learned from Ali Abkar Khan, Ravi Shankar, and life. I’d gone to Woodstock in search of more Karen Dalton tapes – and got ‘em! - and left quite transformed into a Peter Walker fanatic. To be in the presence of a true artist – let alone one who has rubbed elbows with a staggering variety of infamous characters and has a bottomless number of fascinating stories to share about his adventures – is beyond a precious thing. While assembling the lost ’69 sessions that became “Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?” I asked Peter to write something to accompany the release. A week later he sent a 4300 word essay that only scratched the surface of his memories of that era. — Mark Linn (Delmore Recordings)
So here you have it; an unedited e-mail interview with Peter Walker conducted by writer Theo Constantinou:
I am back in the US and have a little time free to answer some of your questions
“Can you talk more “about your run-ins with the FBI?”
Strange question, it assumes that I had “run-ins” at all. Not so. At different times there were many agents from many agencies with whom I crossed paths. Most were good guys, a very few, not so good guys. In fact it was agents of the Justice Department who were friends of the Kennedy’s that rescued me from an obsessed, maniacal, corrupt agent from a lower ranking agency who had planted drugs in my Loft in 69.
During the aftermath of the Robert Kennedy murder the campaign for Biafra became a top political priority, underlying the callous indifference of the Nixon regime, to both the murder of the second Kennedy brother, and to the starving children of the break away country of Biafra.
I had volunteered to be the caretaker of the White house photo collection which was was housed in the former NYC studios of Jacques Lowe, who had been the official photographer of the JFK administration. I was using the two story loft/studio/office complex as a base for my involvement as one of the named founders of the “Americans for Biafran relief” committee formed by Senator Ted Kennedy. I had recently organized a series of benefit concerts in St. Mark’s Church, Steve Paul’s “Scene” and NYC’s Town Hall which had generated $25,000.00 in support of the Catholic Relief and World Council of Church’s “Airlift”. Clandestine flights into where the need was greatest.
During this period, The Loft, The photo collection, The activities of all visitors, (some of whom came to steal some of the photos) and of course my own activities as activist, administrator, publicist (for the cause), gather of intel using a network of friends of friends to use as filmmaker for widely released commercials demonstrating how easy food deliveries would be with a single C130 dropping pallets on a hook system from low altitude fly-bys, for pennies, and drafter of flow charts and presentation data for the Senator to use on his evening news releases. I went from being a performing artist to being an administrator for “the Cause”
To the 7, yes 7, agency’s watching intently, ranging from city to state, to multiple federal the scene must have appeared a little like “Forest Gump” meets “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”. It was the 60′s after all and the life style was, to some, outrageous. To others inspiring.
With all the comings and goings it was hard to tell the players without a score card. There was a complex interplay with brave agents volunteering to fly the actual aircraft at treetop level from the Portuguese island off the coast to deliver the food. I remember Flight Maps of the African – Nigerian coastline spread out on the floor. A couple of the more politically active agents were ass-kissing the Nixon administration, and looking to make trouble. One wanted to control the activities, another wanted to entrap me if possible. What I had to keep in mind, was that my hands were clean, and that there were many different agencies involved, and for different reasons, and that I had both a lawyer and The Senator’s office only a phone call away.
Fortunately in my case having the confidence and support of Senator Kennedy went a long way to convince nearly all agents and agencies that I was a good guy with genuine passionate motivations and loyalties. The incident with the planted drugs by a agent of a now defunct agency resulted in an apology on behalf of the government from the Justice guys, who will forever define for me what is ”Good, and Noble” and a reminder that our system isn’t perfect, that the corrupt elements tend to sink to the lowest levels, and the tenure regulations of the Federal bureaucratic system make it difficult to get rid of the “bad apples”
This several month epoch ended with engineering a donation of a plane load of medical supplies from Children’s Hospital in Boston to fill the highly publicized and successful relief flight by Abby Nathan towards the end of the conflict. I moved out of the Loft and back into the Chelsea Hotel. I went back to work as opening act at the Cafe Au Go Go. The Woodstock Festival was coming up, The movement against the Vietnam War was peaking. These were busy times.
“of being the only gringo allowed to play in the hardcore flamenco clubs of Spain?”
I am sure I am not the only one. Besides Rolf Caen who was a friend and teacher in the early 60’s I know at least one other, we bump into each other once in a while over the years at some airport or another. He lived with the Gypsys in Jerez (de la frontera) for a couple years in 1960, great player! Last time I saw him I asked him where he was playing, he said in the Private Flamenco Associations of Madrid. Pretty much the top shelf of the Flamenco World.
I would say based on my own experience, that if you have a genuine passion and interest in the music and the culture the gypsies will recognize this and respect you for it, and teach you, and help you.
The first time I played in a very hard core dangerous club where I was absolutely NOT welcome, before I played, was quite typical. These peoples music is private stuff. It’s how they communicate whit their ancestors, and departed friends and family. The spirits are sensitive to vibes, and don’t like strangers. They won’t come if there is hostility, or lusting leering gringos who act like they have never seen a pretty gypsy girl before, or tourists who think thzat the dancing and passionate improvised singing, telling the spirits of the family joys and tragedy’s are “entertaining”. uh uh, hard-core means it’s like Church. they take it seriously. Dressed in their best clothes, groomed. This is a Family and Private activity.
I played for the armed group that first time, and in other places later including Antonio Carmona’s “Cueva Bulerias”, and ”Casa Anselma” in Seville, where I had the honor to play lead for several weeks a year for almost 6 years.
That 1st time in 2000 I played a Soleares that I learned in Valencia in 63. I played it with the passion of a person who had been practicing it for 37 years. They were amazed! They put away the knives and said “My God, he plays exactly like someone from thirty years ago!” Then turning back to me with a cordial smile one of then said “what else can you play”? So I played the other pieces in my repertoire at the time. Alegrias, Tarantas, Farruca, and a couple others. They liked them all, bought drinks, they played, and sang, and drank, and danced till dawn and beyond. After that I was welcome at the various caves, and clubs, etc. There were only a couple of rare occasions of obvious displeasure, I asked why, and the response was that “most gypsies are friendly, not all” Over and over again, the music was a total icebreaker. People just lit up. 5 years later I was in a cave in the Sacromonte in Granada, an old man, a famous singer, who had been there that first night in 2000 asked me to play the same tunes as before, and after each, he would name the next, in the same order as the originals. Remarkable memory. Eventually the local young people began calling me “El Jaleador” (The Spirit Caller) because I would go down to the caves early and play to “call the spirits” who liked my music and would come.
Playing for Anselma “Queen of the Gypsies” in the Triana of Seville was a total fluke. I was in Seville for the “Word’s Fair of Flamenco” in 2001 and went to her club/venue/bar/church in the Triana. She opens at midnight 4 nights a week. There is always a crowd waiting to get in. Somehow I got a dance/performance side table in front. I had my guitar with me in a light travel case. After a couple tunes a member of the band, Fernando, leaned over and said “whats in the case?”. ”A Conde” I told him. “Well get it out man, lets hear it” ”Are you sure it will be okay?” I asked. ”sure, come-on” rolling his eyes at the other musicians. Who rolled their eyes in return.I young man at the next table covered his mouth in laughter gleefully pointed out to his date, “look, the Gringo’s going to play, this should be good”
The next tune was a “Solea de Triana” A Soleares with a G7th chord instead of a G major chord in the basic progression. I was familiar with the progression so just took off and played my heart out. Expressing my joy for the moment and my passion for the culture and music. The piece ended and the applause was deafening. The kid at the next table was sitting stunned with his jaw dropped open, and the band members were nodding approval. Fernando was my new friend. Anselma bestowed a smile of welcome. The next piece began. I can tell you that it was in the key of G. As soon as I realized that it was in G Major I dropped my low E string to D and my A string to G and took off again. I am not sure where I went, I remember being there and it was a wonderful place. I remember doing a high arpeggio way up the neck on the top strings and opening my eyes, and seeing the entire band surrounding me in a circle, DRIVING ME! It was one of the top musical experiences of my life, one of several similar experiences, standing ovations, great moments, warm loving receptions, respect, and the opportunity to play and be heard. I still have a lot to learn, about song structures, traditional accompaniments. For the next 5 years from 2001 to 2006 I played at Anselma’s 5 – 6 weeks every year. It became my first and last stop for every trip. Tickets at the time were $350 round trip from NY to Malaga. I would arrive on a Wednesday afternoon three times a year and head straight for Seville in a rent a car. Rent a room in a hostal next to the gig and play for four nights, then head to the coast and Granada. average trip was three weeks so it made 9 weeks a year. During these same years the “Worlds fair of Flamenco was held in Seville” each year. When the fair would close many of the big wigs of the Flamenco world would go to Anselma’s and I would be there playing lead for the Band often with Fernando shouting encouragement in my ear and Anselma cuing me with hand signals. I felt totally life fulfilled. Standing Ovations, Glory, Love, and on a couple occasions my sons got to witness it, great memories, great times. I went back a year ago October and played again, another great night and moment. Planning to return in the fall with a French film crew as part of a Documentary film..
”of loaning Karen Dalton the longneck banjo she plays on the best tracks on her two studio albums”
I don’t believe I did this. I may have loaned Karen a long neck Banjo to perform with during the days of the Folklore Center in Cambridge, but I don’t recall the incident. I do wonder what your source might be for that rumor? If Karen said it I wont dispute it, because it’s possible, I just don’t remember.
“of studying, alongside Donovan and George Harrison, with Ravi Shankar.”
I met and hung out with Donovan for one evening at Ben and Mickey Shapiro’s house in Hollywood. Ben was producing the “Indian Music Festival” in the “Rose Bowl” and was a major promoter. He hosted social get-togethers with Dylan, Mimi Farina, Ravi, Donovan Etc. I had met Ben and Mickey through John Barrymore. John and I were friends from Mexico. He was very kind to introduce me around Hollywood when I returned to the US in 65 after two years away in Spain, Morocco, and Mexico. When I met Donovan it was shortly after the release of “Rainy Day Raga” in late 66. We did not “study together”
I did study with Ravi at his evening classes at his “Kinnara School, It was a small group, maybe 20 -25 people, I sat, or more correctly squatted cross legged, directly behind George, Who was a heck of a nice fellow, He told me that he had heard my album and “loved it”. We shook hands, and that was the extent of things. I confess to being at that time more fascinated with the bridge of a Sarode that was in the back of the classroom at the time. I wanted to know how the instrument worked, and a couple days later at the Indian Music Festival, Ali Akbar Khan literally tapped me on the shoulder and invited me to his school in Berkely. I left the next morning.
“Carl Sagan said, ‘These days there seems to be nowhere left to explore, at least on the land area of the Earth. Victims of their very success, the explorers now pretty much stay home.’ With the extent of your travels through the 50s and 60s it seems as though travel was still something mystical and less purchased adventure. Today you can Google or read reviews about your journey before you even embark. Can you discuss this stark contrast in the traveling you were doing then versus what you see now in the culture?”
Travel is always interesting, mystical in the sense that in some ways you are traveling in time as well.
In Spain, or South America I often deny that I speak English. In Peru I only wear Peruvian clothes, only speak Spanish, and have a ready explanation for my odd accent. An average of three trips a year, two months in Lima and a month in Mexico has been my norm for several years now, and three tours of Europe recently. Many places stand out as special memories, Paris, Berlin, Sweden, Finland, Catalonia, Madrid, When traveling to gig it is a fast pace, with a different city every night or so.
In Lima for a few months a year I live like a rich person in NY but on a really low budget. Penthouse for 600 month, nice dinners for 10 bucks etc. Speaking the language and playing the music opens a lot of doors. Economically and socially. Being able to function in the culture, makes it not like travel, but more like coming home.
These days the difference with the internet is that you can walk around the neighborhood of a potential rental and decide if you feel comfortable etc. Otherwise, because I avoid tourists and tourist areas, (Gypsy point of view) I find travel in the Latin World to be a particularly good way of living a standard of living that I cant possibly afford here in the US. Also I love much of the culture, people, traditions, etc.and of course especially the music. I will be returning to Spain in a few months to work on a film and hopefully play some festivals etc. Travel years ago was cheaper, and always into the unknown, now apart from gigs, I travel to my haunts, and favorite places, where I draw comfort, and inspiration.
“After the release of his Second Poem in ’68, you removed your self from the public eye. You got married, had children and took a variety of jobs to support your family. Yet he continued to stretch himself musically. Was there a deeper philosophical or moral reason you stepped away from the scene and focused on your family instead ? What kind of jobs did you do and was it challenging for you working ‘odd’ jobs instead of getting paid from making music ?”
Welllll the experience’s with all those agents and agencies during the Biafran campaign, the threats, Drama, the Politics, and the general stampede in every direction involving money or power, convinced me that a life out of the “lime-light”, and away from the microscopic scrutiny of so many different persons and interests with “axes to grind”: might be a saner course for a while. I had friends in Woodstock, went for a visit, which was not unusual, but after a couple weeks I decided to stay. Lack of Stress, fresh air, an old pick-up truck, the country life had a healthy allure. One day it was time to go back to the city, I didn’t go. A friend gave me the use of an old factory building with an attached apartment, run down but a big space. I played music on weekends for the Joyous Lake, and worked on the first of several camper designs to fit the back of Pick-up trucks and small flat bed farm trucks. It was the beginning of what the visiting Indian Musicians called my “Mechamania period”. For the next several years I continued to play at the Joyous Lake on weekends, and built my “campers” and “House cars” during the week. I would go away for months on “road tests” every year across country, or deep into Mexico and return. Based out of a small strip of land in the Woodstock Village, living in the various “working models, it became a outdoor, traveling life style for the next ten years. Eventually my mechanical experience landed me a job as night honcho for a taxi fleet in Aspen Colorado during high season. Blizzards and adventures were great, but the kids were coming up to school age, so I had a chance to move to NYC and took it. Returned to school got a Paralegal certificate from Baruch, and put my kids through a really good school. Then I was able to return to the study of the guitar, in Spain. Just about when I was getting somewhere in Spain, in 2006 Thompkins Square did the tribute album, and the resulting publicity launched my career again. Big surprise for me, I was trying to get work in Spain at the time.
“Actor Tom Hardy recently said, “a great man doesn’t stand on top of a mountain waving a flag saying, ‘Look at me – I’m a great man.’ A great man often disappears into the ether.” Do you believe that a great man is largely forgotten by the public?”
I think, that, unfortunately, many great men are entirely unknown to the “public” and perhaps, in many cases, are the better off for it. Great men appear when needed. It is the saving grace of our species. Gandhi, JFK, MLK, Bobby, John Lennon, Seems like a dangerous occupation to be a great man.
“You said this about Timothy Leary, “His free thinking about internal personal freedom and his interest in inner and outer space exploration stretched the imagination in healthy ways.” Can you discuss what you mean about internal personal freedom and inner / outer space exploration stretching the imagination ?”
Internal personal freedom extends the logic of Roe v Wade to all human bodies, and who is sovereign over them and what chemicals they have a right to ingest, or not to. We live in an era when leaving the planet altogether will soon be an option for a few. Exploring the frontiers of outr present technological revolution will bring some of us to the stars, and our imaginations have been stretched during my life time from primitive electronics, to space age tech, available to all of us at our fingertips like science fiction come true. Tim wrote about “L5″ and “biospheres” pointing the way for future generations to explore and grow, beyond just this planet.
“It seems as though you’ve met a lot of people over your lifetime. Seen lots of decades and generations of individuals. Regarding our current technological interactions [i.e. Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat] … Society used to create real communities of people who interacted, who had associations and bonds, people supporting one another, talking to each other freely, something which is missing in the whole of society now, especially inside of virtual reality. Do you think there has been a conscious effort to atomize the society, to break people up and break down secondary associations ?”
“Why do you think that the concept of social solidarity is considered threatening to central power ?”
cmon now is that a serious question? maybe because in a theoretical democracy the people hold the power? Like George Carlin said: The OWNERS of the country are going to do what they want.
“And what do you think of technology dominating our social interactions?”
Makes communication easier, faster, life becomes more convenient. I call other countries like i’m calling the neighbors, Writing books, publishing, chatting, hahahaha even checking up on your girl friend, the world has become more transparent. I love the access to information. and that I can maintain friendships internationally. Expands my horizons, gives me a global point of view.
“The motto of the old Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci provides a starting point for tackling the crisis of politics today, Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will … Do you agree with this motto and what would you say to young activists and people today wanting to make positive change ?”
I have no opinion about the quote, assumes facts not in evidence in re intellect and will being separate things. Just because I am cynical doesn’t mean I won’t try to do the right thing. Advice to young activists? Sure! Same as I teach my kids. THE WISE MAN KEEPS SILENT IN THE KINGDOM OF THE TYRANT!. Be careful kids, if you are effective the bastards will kill you. Rule number one, maintain a LOWWWWW profile! ;) These days with facial recognition software, lists, advanced tactics and “area denial: techniques,” there is a need for a whole new set of strategy’s. None of the traditional protest models appear to be effective, and just feed into the machine. New techniques of communication, non-cooperation, and non participation are going to have to be developed, and of course ALWAYS non-violent, anything else just gives them an excuse to ratchet up the violence, oppression etc.