By Günter Voelker
(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."