Tuesday, June 09, 2009

SAMMY WALKER: Ochs Protege, Dylan Soundalike

Returning to the Illfolks reason for blogging in the first place - giving some attention to unusual folkies - we pay tribute to Sammy Walker. When Phil Ochs heard Sammy perform on Bob Fass's WBAI late night radio show, he instantly vowed to produce a record for him. That Walker was a "Dylan sound-alike" had all kinds of implications.

Following the Ochs-produced "Song For Patty" (with Hearst on the cover), Sammy was able to move from Broadside to Warners for a two-disc deal. By the second, Sammy was singing a farewell to the late Phil Ochs (on the song "Legends')...and his own major label career was at an end. He has surfaced now and then for indie releases.

Your sample comes from "Sammy Walker" his first Warners album, and his best release. The Illfolks choice is naturally the morbid "My Old Friend." The rest of the album isn't quite so emotionally rending (stand-outs being "Catcher in the Rye" and "Decoration on the Wall.")

The song is either about one woman who went through three horrid stages of life, or a trilogy; a look at three people in hellish misery:

"The rain was cold in Cedartown, the street lights hurt my eyes. The shoes were wore out on my feet, the air was stiff with lies. Not a thousand lords or prophets know the pain that's filled my head, a message come from Utah sayin' my long lost son was dead..."
The second story opens this way: "My husband left me years ago, the children they're all grown, and scars from the fire won't ever leave me alone...."
The third misery: "When I had to fight I fought, and when I had to die I died. And when I had to live without my legs oh heaven knows I tried. But what's the use, who really cares? Please tell me who's to blame. We always seem so different even though we're all the same."

The song seems be about three different people, since one person couldn't absorb so much pain, and in the first verse the singer has shoes, but in the last verse has no legs at all. Otherwise, it's one pretty star-crossed woman singing about three different stages of her life.

Each refrain is the same "...so I turn to you, old friend...with your dark and valiant magic, all the heartaches that you mend."

Just what that "dark and valiant magic" might be, who knows. Are we talkin' about a real friend? Jesus? Or is Death the old friend, come to take away the pain? Could each stanza's misery refer to a different "friend" who got the person through? No wonder Sammy was considered another Dylan...his lyrics here are slightly elusive and ambiguous.

People often ask, "Imagine what Sammy's friend and mentor Phil Ochs would be singing about if he were alive today..." Maybe the melting ice caps and the world foolishly looking to God for help rather than helping themselves. That's Sammy Walker's subject matter on "If Jesus Don't Show," on "Misfit Scarecrow," an album released last year...a rare re-emergence for this enigmatic artist.

The track sounds like a demo, with the piano a little more prominent than the vocal, but indie artists can not afford a lot of studio time or back-up musicians. If this song was more lushly arranged and better produced, and sung by Springsteen or Mellencamp, "If Jesus Don't Show" would be known around the world. Instead, here it is, on the Illfolks blog.

Remarkably, all of Mr. Walker's music is still in print, either on CD or via download on such sites as lala.com. Artists do not get to record if nobody supports them, and they aren't as likely to write new songs without encouragement. That probably explains the gaps between Walker's releases.

The comparison of Sammy Walker to Dylan can be heard in both tracks. Like Bob, Sammy started out spry and passionate, and is now often gruff and prone to dark meditation.
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Takako said...

Thanks for the great note. I'm a big Phil Ochs and Sammy's fan also. I'm excited because I've never heard anyone mentioned about my favoritest song My Old Friend. But I have one question to you: Is the lyrics in here the correct one? I'm sorry if I sound impolite.. Just being curious for I'd never have the official lyrics, and been thinking the chorus part you written "with your dark and valiant magic..." as "in your darken valley of magic". Is mine misheard, maybe?

Takako said...

"In your darkened valley of magic.." Sorry, but I think it also makes sense..

Ill Folks said...

Yes, "In your darkened valley of magic.." could be right. Especially with Sammy singing about "Lords and Prophets."

The second chorus uses "with" instead of "in."

It's still Dylanesque and obscure either way. "dark and valiant magic" denoting a sorceror on the side of good, or "darkened valley of magic" referencing the same thing, the Biblical valley of death redeemed by somehow ending up in heaven...thanks to faith.

Lyricists often suggest that interpretation is in the ear and mind of the listener...maybe doubly so with the guys who don't bother including lyrics with their recordings!

Anonymous said...

hey, pal, have more Sammy Walker songs?
I REALLY loved his music!!!

Debra Walker said...

Lyrics are : With your dark and valiant magic" coming froma source of knowledge Samy's wife-

Ill Folks said...

Thanks so much, Debra. Sammy's work is timeless and classic...his albums don't lie on my shelf...they get regular play.

Sometimes the lyrics reveal more on one listening, and then conceal again on the next. Great paintings are like that, too.

A fascinating, talented man, Sammy Walker. Would be nice to read a good long interview with him but I guess, to quote an Iris Dement song, "Let the mystery be."

Kasper said...

Thanks for this. I love Sammy Walker too, as well as this song. Here's a brief interview, if you're still interested in something like this: http://somethingelsereviews.com/2013/12/11/something-else-interview-singer-songwriter-sammy-walker/

Ill Folks said...

Thanks, Kasper, for the link to the Sammy Walker interview.

Sammy: "Sometimes it seems a lot of people have forgotten to listen to the words to songs. I mean, the general listening public. I don’t know how many people today can still sit and listen to the words and contemplate what they’re hearing."