The albums of guitarist Peter Walker and songwriter Bob Frank don’t have a lot in common. Walker emerged in the mid-60s as an adventurous multi-instrumentalist, a peripatetic polyglot whose enthusiasms would ultimately make him a student of both Ali Akbar Khan and flamenco guitar, plus the musical pied piper to Timothy Leary’s lysergic Millbrook hideaway. His tunes epitomize late-60s psychedelic experimentation, with tufts of notes from his nylon-string guitar or sarod blooming into ecstatic bliss. But Bob Frank was a Tennessee kid who liked the blues and country music, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. He’d tried to write commercial hits in Nashville, but his sharp-penned historical ruminations and lyrical snapshots never climbed any charts, due in part to his own obstinacy about them. One seemed to be the Okie From Muskogee, the other the dope-smoking California hippy who would’ve been arrested on his way through town.
But Walker’s second album, “Second Poem to Karmela,” or Gypsies Are Important, and Frank’s self-titled debut are the first two titles of an exciting new series from the resurrection-prone imprint Light in the Attic, in which they will raid the deepest vaults of Vanguard Records. Established in 1947, Vanguard served as an essential syndicate for the folk music of the world, with albums from The Weavers and Doc Watson and Joan Baez countered by recordings from Israel and Norway and Asia. It’s one of the most intimidating catalogues in American music history, a story as rich as those of Paramount or Okeh.
Something that Walker and Frank did share was a deep disinterest in playing their record label’s commercial games. As they both recount in the extensive first-person liner notes included in each reissue, they made decisions after the release of their respective albums they knew would get them blacklisted. At an album release concert in New York, Vanguard co-founder Maynard Solomon told Frank to play something from the new record. “If anybody wants to hear the songs off the album, let ’em go buy the fucking album!” he said. Not long before Walker recorded Second Poem, he canceled a string of gigs to study with Khan, a move that dismayed the label but gave him the technical abilities necessary to make the album at all. “You’ll never work again!” they told him. In both cases, these LPs were the last that either musician released for the next 30 years, as both retreated into the private lives of raising their families and quietly building their craft. During the last decade, both Walker and Frank have released more music than in the previous half-century combined, meaning these two albums at least share something else: Though they seemed to be endpoints, they are both now unlikely new beginnings.
Bob Frank was an outlaw songwriter’s outlaw songwriter, a Vietnam veteran and graduate school dropout who had been too stubborn to make it as part of the Nashville music machine. He was tougher than Kristofferson and more spry than Cash, an often-jolly light in typically dark corners. He delighted in trouble, did every drug, wasted most weekends. “Memphis Jail", which closes this debut, might start like a blues, with the protagonist waiting to be released from his jail cell. But the despair is a feint, as the police have only arrested the rebel for public inebriation. They have no idea he stole a car, too. “I got off light,” he whoops, a smile evident in his voice, “considering how bad I am.” The quest for a little more weed leads to stringband delight during “She Pawned Her Diamond for Some Gold", an ode to any partner willing to sell jewelry for a joint. And “Layin’ Around” extends the bucolic vision of escape that infiltrated American and European roots music of the moment—a modicum of success that allows for family, some comfort, “a place of my own.” It’s a portrait of the wild one, coming home to roost. “I circled around and I wound up here,” he croons. “A good place to be this time of the year.”
The record lasts just longer than 30 minutes, but if it feels lengthier and weightier than that, it’s because Frank relates his characters with such strength and poignancy. Some of these sketches are autobiographical and some observational, but all are rich with the annals of real life, little details that pull these people off of the page or out of the record’s black groove. You know what “Wino” drinks and how he smells, where he sleeps and what rodents can’t scare him. “Jones and Me” is a snapshot of a catch-up conversation Frank once had with a friend. In less than two minutes, you learn about their boredom and their anxieties, their preference for booze and their predilections for distraction. It’s as though you’re barside, sitting between the two. Even “Judas Iscariot", an allegory of Jesus and the disciple who betrayed him, feels like an account of yesterday; Frank recasts the Biblical pair as booze-and-weed buddies, drunk at a party and given to the sort of philosophically deep conversations that tend to happen when all the wine is gone. Judas wasn’t a traitor, Frank suggests, but simply misunderstood by a friend too buzzed to listen. You want to stop and ponder these people, to consider them as they might have been.
Unlike Frank, Walker enjoyed some of the perks of being a Vanguard artist before mostly disappearing. His debut, Rainy Day Raga, emerged in 1966, just as John Fahey’s Takoma Records was gaining momentum and as the Beatles began to slip under the thrall of Indian music. He flirted with the zeitgeist; in fact, Walker—for that part of his life, a fortuitous friend of the famous—studied under Ravi Shankar alongside Beatle George Harrison. “It was like a bull by the tail, like a rocket ride, and all you could do was hang on,” he says of the period following Rainy Day’s release in an extensive interview by Glenn Jones that’s included with this reissue. Only two years passed between Rainy Day and its follow-up, Second Poem, but they are worlds apart in source and intention. Despite the Raga reference of his debut’s title, Walker was just learning about Indian music, a young white man from Massachusetts with a guitar. But he studied with Khan in the interim, and Second Poem is delivered mostly with sarod, the guitar showing up intermittently. Nearly half a century since its release, the material remains intoxicatingly nebulous.
Indeed, these 10 pieces often feel as though they’re about to burst, to split the seams of the gathered ensemble wide open. During “Circus Day,” Walker works through a patient sarod circuit, trading lines with Jim Pepper’s flute. When the rhythm arrives, they charge ahead, their melodies wrapping constantly around one another. At one point toward the song’s midsection, it feels as if they’ve all lost the plot and are just playing for the thrill of the sound, not unlike Albert Ayler with his two-bass-and-violin band. They pull it together, though, winding slowly toward the song’s fading end. “Blake Street", which follows, is a short, ascendant piece for guitar, a salve after a storm. Indeed, such shifts in momentum and dynamics are a hallmark of Second Poem. The group smolders over the tamboura drone of “I & Thou” but leaps briefly into hyperkinetic passages. “Southwind” cycles from a lonely sarod meditation into a tense duel with the violin of John Blair.
Throughout Second Poem, you can hear Walker test the bounds of his own experimental realm, his instruments pressing against the possibilities of the moment. The closing “Mixture” is an ominous and enigmatic improvisation for keyboards, violin, tabla, sarod and sitar, where the various players puzzle out in real-time how these elements might work with one another. Remember, this was 1968. Walker made another album after Second Poem, 1970’s Has Anybody Seen Our Freedoms?, though it was only released last year. But it’s more in line with his folk-singer antecedents and solo-guitar contemporaries, not the alien abstraction of Second Poem. Had Walker pursued this path, where might he have arrived?
Light in the Attic’s continued tunneling of Vanguard vaults likely won’t answer those sort of questions, but it will continue to raise them. What’s more, these albums went out of print almost instantly, meaning that they’ve been consistently expensive collector’s items for years. (Despite his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of this broad school of guitarists, even Jones didn’t know about Second Poem until 2004.) How might music sound if these albums had broken through cult obscurity, if Frank or Walker had behaved? That doesn’t matter: For Frank’s humble documents of the commoner, and for Walker’s willful exploration of the fringes, this material demands to be heard by wider audiences. Now, they share that chance. --- Grayson Haver Currin