Sammy Walker

TrackAlbum
Catcher In The RyeBroadside Ballads, Vol. 8: Song For Patty
Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’'Sammy Walker
A Cold Pittsburgh MorningSammy Walker
My Old FriendSammy Walker
LegendsBlue Ridge Mountain Skyline
Carolina Soldier BoyBlue Ridge Mountain Skyline
The New Alabama JubileeSammy Walker In Concert
Not Just Another FadOld Time Southern Dream
Another Sad Song About YouMisfit Scarecrow
Marvin And PaulaMisfit Scarecrow

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Contributor: Kasper Nijsen

One evening in 1975, former protest singer Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was listening to the radio in his New York apartment. When he heard a songwriter singing live with a voice like young Bobby Dylan’s, he was so impressed that he went out and took a cab to the radio station; the disc-jockey introduced him to a shy young man from Georgia, by name of Sammy Walker. Shortly afterwards, Ochs organized and produced Walker’s debut album for Folkways Records. Though little-known, the discovery of Sammy Walker is one of the final great achievements of the troubled Phil Ochs.

Anyone who first listens to Walker’s records will hear echoes of Bob Dylan, along with hints of Guthrie, Ochs and perhaps John Prine or Townes Van Zandt. To those who have been touched by Dylan and Guthrie, Walker’s music immediately feels like home. But Song For Patty (1975), and especially the subsequent albums for Warner Brothers, reveal a distinctive voice and compelling songwriter, a blend of folk and country with poetic lyrics and story-telling.

It was the self-titled second album (1976) that first drew me in; though the backing band includes the likes of James Burton and Waddy Wachtel, it’s the lyrics and voice that resonate:

The hoof-beats of a stallion stir the dusty ground into a powdered rain
That lifts and curls until it’s done and settles down into his flowing mane

These are the first words of the album’s opener Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’, a powerful evocation of a hot and sultry desert ride. It ends with a haunting vision of redemption by a man ‘in a snow-white flowing gown’ who offers a drink from ‘the dipper that is filled with all our dreams’.

My Old Friend is less optimistic. It tells of sorrow bordering on despair, and the singer’s only comfort is a ‘friend’ who will stick by him till the end, mending all heart-aches with a ‘dark and valiant magic’. It probably depends on the listener whether this ‘friend’ is human, religious, musical, alcoholic, or even narcotic in nature. Yet based on the unsettling music, with some terrific slide guitar playing – I’m guessing by Waddy Wachtel – I doubt whether Walker is offering any transcendental hope here.

I wish I could include more songs from Sammy Walker, but his third album, Blue Ridge Mountain Skyline (1977), deserves at least two entries as well. I could never omit the Sammy Walker song that still moves me the most. Legends is a tribute to his friend and mentor Phil Ochs, who committed suicide shortly after the two met. Walker’s sadness is tangible in every note and word, but so is his abiding love and admiration for the great 60s songwriter, who’ll never again be a ‘boy in Ohio’ or anywhere else:

The last time that I saw you, you weren’t really even there
I cried when I heard you come across out on the air
You bid your last farewell just like your first hello
And I’ll always think about you when I pass through Ohio

After one more album for Folkways, a collection of Guthrie covers called Songs From Woody’s Pen (1979), we have to fast-forward to the early nineties for more. The live album, Sammy Walker In Concert, was released in 1990 and contained old and new songs with only voice and guitar. Old Time Southern Dream (1994) was his first studio album in about fifteen years. It did not quite live up to expectations, but Not Just Another Fad is an interesting tribute to musical legends who died too early: Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Phil Ochs again, and Tim Hardin.

There’s a stark honesty to Walker’s best recordings; the finger-picking is crisp and melodic, the lyrics precise, and the voice intimate and commanding. His ballads are melancholic but never sentimental. The excellent comeback album Misfit Scarecrow (2008) features Marvin And Paula, a tale of love gone wrong that wouldn’t misfit on Springsteen’s bleak Nebraska (1982). As a marriage disintegrates, the refrain that ‘young love is fine’ takes on an increasingly sinister undertone; but even at the song’s tragic ending, the words retain a wisp of their hopeful meaning.

I’ll admit that my first discovery of Sammy Walker was tinged with the same kind of nostalgia that, it seems, first alerted Phil Ochs. Hearing Sammy Walker at 26 was much like hearing The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan at 18, one of my fondest musical memories and my first encounter with a voice that changed the course of musical history (including my own). Yet I have since gotten to know Sammy Walker as an original artist with roots deep in the past and a strong voice of his own. Sadly, it seems his honest and heartfelt song-stories never quite reached the audience they deserve.

NB: It’s good to know that all of Sammy Walker’s recorded music is available on digital music services (such as iTunes); though less romantic than picking up the records in a second-hand record store, it does mean that his albums are now only a click away to music lovers everywhere.

Sammy Walker biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #127

1 Comment

  1. Tory Troutman
    Dec 13, 2013

    Sammy has never gotten his due, but it’s not too late. When I look at your top 10, I want to argue…then, I DON’T want to argue, but just want to look at how many great songs he has written, and may still write. I put “Legends” at the top of my list, but “Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?” always gets me too. The first WB album is fairly bleak but you are right, it starts off on SUCH a poetic note. We could go on and on. GREAT stuff!

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