Remembering John Walker

Longtime Lincoln musician Dr. John Walker passed away on Nov. 19, 2018. There have been few performers as generous toward KZUM with their time, talent and treasures as Walker was over the last 40 years and we will be forever grateful to him for sharing so much in his life. So many people in Lincoln and beyond have been brought together by Dr. Walker’s music over the years and we are all supremely privileged to have had those experiences and to be able to keep enjoying so much of the important music he made.

We invited many of his friends and fellow musicians to contribute their thoughts, gathered here.

On behalf of everyone at KZUM, our thoughts are with John’s family, his many friends and everyone who was impacted by his life over the years.

Thank you, John.

By Pete Blakeslee
Longtime collaborator; dobro, John Walker and the New Hokum Boys

Since 1969, I have been a more or less a constant sideman for Dr. John, and I think the only rehearsal we ever had was to work out an arrangement of "In My Life" by the Beatles. That was a long time ago. Yet without a doubt the creativity spawned by the seat-of-the-pants spontaneity was one of his greatest assets. While other sideman like Dave Morris and me were perplexed by some of his eccentric arrangements (i.e. how many beats were in that measure?), we proudly persevered because we knew that ultimately we were playing with a true original, a gifted singer/songwriter, and a true friend.

John Walker and the New Hokum Boys perform at KZUM's 40th Birthday Bash at The Bourbon Theatre in February (KZUM)

John Walker and The New Hokum Boys with Sam Packard on fiddle and Günter Voelker on guitar (Courtesy Dave Morris)

By Dave Morris
Bass, John Walker and the New Hokum Boys

I have failed at several attempts to write something deep and insightful and articulate about John and his influence on me and the local music scene.  It's hard for me to put my thoughts and feelings about John into words.  I was lucky enough to be one of John's partners in musical crime (as he would say) during the last 49 years, off and on.  John and his music have obviously been an important part of my life.  I don't think I fully realize yet how much I will miss him - and not just as a partner in musical crime.  We shared a love - the love of the St. Louis Cardinals, and during the baseball season, we talked almost every night about the foibles and successes of our team.  I think I will miss our conversations about baseball as much or more than I will miss backing him up on some country blues.  And I will miss that terribly.

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

By Tom Ineck
KZUM Programmer

John Walker performs at a 1978 memorial for mutual friend Mike Barton at Jesse's Lounge (Tom Ineck).

Dr. John Walker was a force on the Lincoln music scene for as long as I can remember. He not only influenced many other singer-songwriters, but he served as the conscience of the community in his work as a university professor of philosophy, an anti-war activist and an advocate for peace and justice. He was a gentle soul who loved laughter, friends, good food, hoops and the Loup River. But first and foremost, he was a gifted songsmith.

My earliest recollections of John performing on stage coincide pretty closely with my earliest experiences at local live music clubs, beginning at the Zoo Bar in 1974, but also at Little Bo’s, Jesse’s Lounge, and the Howard Street Tavern in Omaha. John could keep the most restless and rowdy audiences captivated with his interpretations of the blues and his own witty observations and provocative songs. Sometimes, he would prepare red beans and rice for listeners. The sound of his voice was like comfort food for the soul, and his lyrics were as pungent and nourishing as the vittles.

During the 25 years that I hosted the weekly jazz program “NightTown” on KZUM, John was an occasional caller, just to let me know he was listening and appreciated my choice of music. One of the last times he called, I had just played a recording by singer-songwriter Mose Allison, one of John’s favorites. He said, “Man, you could play Mose all night long. It would be just fine with me.” John was an avid and loyal supporter of Lincoln’s community radio station. He championed all things at their most basic, authentic and homegrown.

John Walker and Friends perform at a March 2014 house party and attic concert. (Tom Ineck).

One of my fondest memories of John was hosting a 2014 house party and attic concert featuring John and his music-making cohorts Steve “Fuzzy” Blazek, Gunter Voelker, Dave Morris and Nate Morris. It was my 62nd birthday and the music they shared was the best gift ever. Powered by my fresh-brewed coffee, John regaled the audience with stories, songs and sing-a-longs through two intimate sets, renewing friendships and making new friends and fans. The performance confirmed his status as a Nebraska icon.

In the summer of 1978, my dear friend Mike Barton died when his heart gave out at age 25. A memorial benefit at Jesse’s Lounge drew many friends, but also many area musicians who knew Mike as a talented guitar player and bass-baritone singer in swing and honky-tonk bands. John Walker performed at the memorial, as did Dave Fowler, Sally Cowan, Gary Howe and others. John was so moved by Mike’s death and his great promise as a musician that he wrote “The Guitar Player” in his honor. For years afterwards, I would request that tune, even when John and I were probably the only ones in the house who had known Mike personally. As in so many of John’s songs, his lyrics expressed a universal truth that still resonates 40 years later:
“When there’s no more honky-tonks or cannonballs to ride,
no departed loves or haunting delusions,
it’s time and the river that stands by us all
and the guitar player’s music
still shines on.
What seems to us to be here and gone,
some say it’s just an empty illusion.
But it’s the one and only thing that goes on and on:
You might have heard it in the guitar player’s music.
So here’s to the river and the dancing.
We are children of the stars o’er the mountain.
And on and on through all that are changing
The guitar player’s music still shines on.
And the music plays.
And time goes on.
And the music stays.
And we are one.”

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

By Rachel Mulcahy-Lowe
Miss Katie Rae and the Ebenezer Boys; Aunt Bunnie's Parlor

For a decade, Patti Hoage and I had a KZUM radio show called Acoustic Cafe.  John Walker's "Sandhills Rag" was our opening theme. More recently, Aunt Bunnie's Parlor released its first album on John Walker's Prairie Dog Records label. Now it seems it may be the last release on Prairie Dog.

John and his music were part of the tapestry that lit up Lincoln's music scene for decades. He always had a hug for me and he  always had kind words for people in general. And his music affected me in wonderful ways. He was fond of saying the only difference between blues and gospel was that on Saturday it was "Baby Baby" and on Sunday it was "Lordy Lordy." That  last part was the root of a little band we formed for a brief period with John, CA Waller, Shawn Cole and me called Miss Katie Rae and the Ebenezer Boys. John knew Lordy Lordy well. It was the music of his childhood as it was mine. He was the son of Methodist pastor. He was also  philosopher, a poet, and full of spirit.

Performing at KZUM (KZUM archive)

By Terry Keefe
Fiddle, The Toasted Ponies; Paddywhack

The phone would ring immediately following a game. Sometimes I wasn’t able to answer right away. It didn’t matter; John would leave a message if need be. The calls were always to analyze the game, or the team. Usually, but not exclusively, the call was following a Nebraska basketball game, because John knew I was a fan and because he and I shared a love of the game. We played basketball together regularly over the years. John was a good player. He had a smooth shot and could make a pass. But he wasn’t shy about shooting. This was not out of selfishness, but rather in keeping with John’s philosophy as expressed in a song that he played called the “Hesitation Blues.” John didn’t write this song, but he did add a talking part to the beginning that included the advice, “If you’ve got the ball don’t hesitate. Go ahead and shoot it your own self.” That sentence encapsulates the essence of how John lived his life: without hesitation, without regret, and with all the energy he could muster. In an interview with Tom May on the radio show River City Folk, John was asked about his songwriting. He replied, “I like the process as much as anything. As much as the final product that comes out of it. You kind of loose yourself in that. And it’s extremely rewarding and gratifying.” That’s just the way that John Walker lived his life—completely absorbed in the living of it.

I don’t know how many people I have met over the years that told me they had had John Walker as a philosophy professor at Wesleyan, but I never met one that didn’t say they loved his class and learned a lot from it. He was a teacher. He encouraged others not to hesitate, to go out and take their shot. And this encouragement wasn’t limited to his classroom. He inspired young musicians to do the same. And young writers too. John came out several times to Steve Hanson’s Bluegrass Camp in Long Pine, Neb., and held a songwriter’s workshop. He shared some of his songs and emboldened everyone else to share theirs. His kind words expressed an appreciation for all.

When playing music John kept the audience involved. He always thanked them for showing up. He invited them to sing along and on certain songs he would invite audience members to come up with their own lyrics for a verse. John also told jokes. The audience and John were both fully engaged, interactive, and a warm feeling permeated the room.

Of all the different settings in which I had the pleasure of interacting with Dr. John Walker though, my favorite was sitting around a table with a glass of wine, or maybe a glass of scotch and exploring all the big questions that life presents. We didn’t have any answers, but we sure had a good time looking for them. It was like he said about writing; the process of exploring was the reward and John’s attitude was infectious. I will miss those nights and I will miss the opportunities that I have had of playing music with John. I will miss his jokes and I will miss his phone calls. I wasn’t surprised at his passing. I knew it was imminent. But it is like when I go for a shot at the doctor’s office. They tell you there will be a little prick, so that you know what to expect. And yet, there is always a small shock when you first feel the needle. And despite being prepared for it, there is pain.

Terry Keefe, John Walker and Steve Hanson (Courtesy Terry Keefe)

Terry Keefe and John Walker (Courtesy Terry Keefe)

By Reynold Peterson
Drummer, The Lightning Bugs; The String Demons

I will always be indebted to John for his simple request. I was playing at the Zoo Bar with the New High Flyers and John came up during break to ask me if I would consider doing a LAFTA folk concert in his back yard. I said, "John, I'm a drummer, drums and folk music don't get along that well." He said, "So what. I'd like to hear you sing without all this electric stuff going on. Think about it." I mentioned it to my friends Jim Pipher and Steve Hanson and the Lightning Bugs played our first gig in John's back yard May16, 1987 while his neighbor mowed his lawn and a few real bugs made a fly over that magical evening. We're still at it.

He will always be the Godfather of the Bugs.

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

By Jim Pipher
Bass, The Lightning Bugs; The Toasted Ponies; The Melody Wranglers

I first met John Walker in 1972 on the stage of the Brownville Music Festival during the music contest finals. John had won that year’s guitar picking contest. In the years that followed, I was lucky enough to play music with John in all kinds of gigs and settings. John always made music fun. He was a full-time, enthusiastic bundle of encouragement and even though he would be playing in the band, John always enjoyed the playing and singing of his bandmates as much as any audience member.

At jam sessions and musical gatherings, John was generous and inclusive. All comers were welcomed to join in singing and playing along. Our ensembles were frequently loose knit and last minute, but if we managed to play a song with some degree of skill and cohesion, John would declare —“just as if we had rehearsed it!”

John volunteered for decades to play music at Lancaster Manor where he described the oldsters as “the best audience in the world.” We usually included some gospel tunes and John’s rendition of The Old Rugged Cross was the most soulful, beautiful version of that song that I have ever heard. He and I played the funeral services of several departed friends and naturally at those occasions we wanted to do a good job and may have experienced some pre-performance jitters. John noted that being nervous was no big deal and simply meant that what we were doing was important—that it mattered and could make a difference.

John’s life-loving spirit and music certainly mattered and made a difference in my life and in our community and in the lives of countless friends, fans, musicians and loved ones.

My love to you Dr. W—thanks for the tunes.

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

By Günter Voelker
Jack Hotel

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

One of the many hard things about death, for me, is resisting the urge to project my own emotions onto the deceased. I can't help wondering, did he know what was happening in his final moments?  Was he scared? Cancer is cruel, the indignity of it. What did he think, this distinguished professor of philosophy, of being subjected to it?

This is what I think.  I don't think John Walker was afraid of death, not exactly, but I also don't think he wanted to die. I think he was, if not resentful, at least impatient with the whole business. I think he disliked aging.  I don't think he liked watching his body disobey and sabotage him, his fingers, his lungs, his heart. When some of us played a tribute show for him a few years ago at Crescent Moon, a show at which he was present, I think he felt honored and loved and celebrated, but I don't think he liked the valedictory tone that occasionally crept into the proceedings. If there was a torch, I think he rightly wanted to hold onto it.

Or maybe I was the one who didn't like it. We never talked about any of this.  I just can't help thinking these things. Someone else can set me straight.

I've listened to John Walker my whole life. When my sister Hannah and I were kids, Mom would put John's record An Okie Boy on the turntable while she was cleaning, right before or right after David Bromberg. I didn't know then, or have any reason to know, that John was living right here in Lincoln. These were simply the sounds of my childhood: fingerstyle guitar, upright bass, dobro, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, harmonica.

Is it a coincidence that I am describing my band?

I have a place in my heart of deep, abiding affection for John, and of appreciation, and admiration. I think the first time I got to play music with him was at a party at Cinnamon Dokken's house. I couldn't believe it. I looked at him the way Donovan looks at Bob Dylan in the movie Don't Look Back.  I played "Ditty Wah Ditty," eager to impress him. I made some requests, which he indulged.

John was a generous teacher, enthusiast, and steward of the arts. He sent me colorful notes of congratulations on the release of both of our albums. When he learned that I was a fan of his friend, the writer Kent Haruf, he sent Kent a record and Kent responded by giving me an inscribed copy of one of his books.

He didn’t devote much time to what he saw as nonsense.  Chance Solem-Pfeiffer, onetime host of Hear Nebraska FM, told me a story about John calling the station:

John: “Yessir, thanks for playing Jack Hotel. Yippee.”

Chance: “Thanks for calling, John. How are you?"

John: “Just fine. Gotta go.”

The handful of times I got to sit in with his band, the New Hokum Boys, I couldn't stop smiling. Looking over my shoulder and realizing I was onstage with John, and Pete Blakeslee, and David Morris, with Dave's own son Nate playing percussion, it all just seemed very significant.

People know John was good, but I don't think it's fully appreciated how good he was. In his prime, this preacher's son from Oklahoma could pick. Just listen to the records. Listen to "Sand Hills Rag." He learned from Bukka White and Brownie McGhee and Big Bill Broonzy and Huddie goddamn Ledbetter. He could sing. He could write. From the stage, he could flirt with an entire room.

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

Jack Hotel visited John not too long ago in hospice. I brought him a "snort" of bourbon. We crowded in and played him some tunes and backed him up on a few, including "Banks of the Ohio," "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah," and his originals "Child of God" and "Fourth of July." One thing that never completely betrayed him was his voice: that strong, distinctive baritone that you could build a house on.

We played him our song, "From the Window of a Train." Now and then I'd look up and he'd be weeping and I'd have to look away. He was calling friends and family and putting the phone down on his tray so they could listen.

I gave him a big, lingering hug when we parted that evening. We talked about doing it again. He said, "See you later."

See you later, John.

"I would like to live forever. I find the prospect of leaving this exquisite world--I find it devastating. I find it infuriating. I keep thinking, what kind of day would I like to die on? Would it be one of these beautiful, pearl-gray, slightly mauve days in June? Would it be one of those days in September with those puissant skies? Would it be the depths of winter? You know, those bleak, midwinter days? None of them suits me. I don't want go on any day. I want to stay forever. Curiously... I find the older I get the less afraid of death I am. I have practically no fear of death now. But I don't want to leave the world. It's like being at a tremendously good party. I just don't want to leave, you know? I know that I'll have to leave. But it's just so good, it's so beautiful, it's so exquisitely beautiful being here."

-John Banville

(Courtesy Reynold Peterson/Prairie Dog Archives)

By Mike Semrad
Sower Records; The Bottle Tops

In the Fall of 2013, I remember asking Dr. John Walker to be a part of the 'Stopping the Pipeline' Solar Barn Project. I think at first he was a little confused at why we wanted to record music in a barn in the middle of a cornfield. But, I explained it was for BOLD Nebraska and the resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline that was threatening our aquifer along with countless miles of Nebraska farmland. He then instantly was on board. I knew we were both on the same team, talking about the terrible methods and tactics of corporate greed and how terrible the whole idea was. I gave him details and said "See you soon". My hope was to come together as "one Nebraska voice" and show "big oil" and "big money" what we can do.

I remember him pulling up and getting out of his car. He then grabbed his classic Martin guitar case that was covered with years of amazing stickers and clearly had been used by a pro player. We all moved inside the barn and began setting up for his session. John opened his case and I was instantly drawn to his guitar. I could tell it had stories. It had hours. It was beat up in just the right way. Dr. John even wrote a song specifically for the cause that day, entitled 'Windmills not Oil Spills'. That song quickly became a favorite for many and myself. They even made t-shirts with a windmill and the title on it, that I later saw so many people wearing, including my son.

Just about one year later, in the late Fall of 2014, the CD we made together spawned an appearance with Neil Young and Willie Nelson at the 'Harvest the Hope' concert. I’ll never forget the smile on Dr. Walker's face when we all got on stage with Willie and Neil that day. He and Jim Pipher were like two kids in a candy store, squirming their way up behind the icons before anyone else could. That made me so happy to see. Because I knew they earned it and that is where they both belonged.

John was a true master of Folk Music. A real icon himself.

John and I had only met one time before our meeting at the barn. It was at the Zoo Bar, when a mutual friend introduced us. I was so excited to meet him, perhaps a little too excited actually. I remember wanting to explain to him who I was, how I too ran a record label in Nebraska that was similar to his(Prairie Dog Music), and how much I loved his music and what he's done for the scene. I later heard from that mutual friend as I walked away, he asked him if I was "salesman". That made me laugh.

I’ll forever regret not visiting him in the last few weeks, after hearing of his state. It was on my mind to record a conversation about Nebraska music history. We always talked about completing a split record together, which I could tell he was excited about. But, I know his influences are prevalent everywhere amongst players I know and he will forever live on in these songs, melodies and words he left.

In John's last email to me, he wrote in French:
Lessez les bon temps rollez,
John
"Let the good times roll."

Such a fitting good bye.

By Mike Semrad
Sower Records; The Bottle Tops

In the Fall of 2013, I remember asking Dr. John Walker to be a part of the 'Stopping the Pipeline' Solar Barn Project. I think at first he was a little confused at why we wanted to record music in a barn in the middle of a cornfield. But, I explained it was for BOLD Nebraska and the resistance against the Keystone XL pipeline that was threatening our aquifer along with countless miles of Nebraska farmland. He then instantly was on board. I knew we were both on the same team, talking about the terrible methods and tactics of corporate greed and how terrible the whole idea was. I gave him details and said "See you soon". My hope was to come together as "one Nebraska voice" and show "big oil" and "big money" what we can do.

I remember him pulling up and getting out of his car. He then grabbed his classic Martin guitar case that was covered with years of amazing stickers and clearly had been used by a pro player. We all moved inside the barn and began setting up for his session. John opened his case and I was instantly drawn to his guitar. I could tell it had stories. It had hours. It was beat up in just the right way. Dr. John even wrote a song specifically for the cause that day, entitled 'Windmills not Oil Spills'. That song quickly became a favorite for many and myself. They even made t-shirts with a windmill and the title on it, that I later saw so many people wearing, including my son.

Just about one year later, in the late Fall of 2014, the CD we made together spawned an appearance with Neil Young and Willie Nelson at the 'Harvest the Hope' concert. I’ll never forget the smile on Dr. Walker's face when we all got on stage with Willie and Neil that day. He and Jim Pipher were like two kids in a candy store, squirming their way up behind the icons before anyone else could. That made me so happy to see. Because I knew they earned it and that is where they both belonged.

John was a true master of Folk Music. A real icon himself.

John and I had only met one time before our meeting at the barn. It was at the Zoo Bar, when a mutual friend introduced us. I was so excited to meet him, perhaps a little too excited actually. I remember wanting to explain to him who I was, how I too ran a record label in Nebraska that was similar to his(Prairie Dog Music), and how much I loved his music and what he's done for the scene. I later heard from that mutual friend as I walked away, he asked him if I was "salesman". That made me laugh.

I’ll forever regret not visiting him in the last few weeks, after hearing of his state. It was on my mind to record a conversation about Nebraska music history. We always talked about completing a split record together, which I could tell he was excited about. But, I know his influences are prevalent everywhere amongst players I know and he will forever live on in these songs, melodies and words he left.

In John's last email to me, he wrote in French:
Lessez les bon temps rollez,
John
"Let the good times roll."

Such a fitting good bye.

2018-12-04T10:23:32+00:00November 28th, 2018|Home, Music|