By Mark Kemp
If you don’t know who Sammy Walker is, you can be excused. The folksinger didn’t get nearly the attention he deserved for his incisive lyrics and crisp fingerpicked songs and ballads that sound more like the early 1960s than the mid-’70s, which is when Walker’s first album, Broadside Ballads, Vol. 8: Song for Patty, arrived on Folkways. Few heard the record, which had been produced and championed by protest singer Phil Ochs towards the end of his life. Walker would record other albums through the 1970s, but none sold well. By the mid-’70s, Greenwich Village-style folk had been overshadowed by punk’s new breed of literate protest singers: Patti Smith, Joe Strummer.
It’s never too late to discover or rediscover a lost gem, though, and Acoustic Guitar magazine is proud to premiere Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’, a brand new set of 10 early lost demos from Walker. The album is due out April 8 on Ramseur Records, the North Carolina indie label that spawned the Avett Brothers.
When Ochs first heard 22-year-old Walker’s songs — such as “A Cold Pittsburgh Morning,” which the young songwriter had pulled from the pages of a newspaper story about a city obsessed with sports celebrity — Ochs identified with the singer on a personal level. The melody and fingerpicking guitar is pure Ochs, during his “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” period. As for the the news-inspired lyrics, Ochs was famous for that — he even named his first album All the News That’s Fit To Sing. Dylan even once famously criticized Ochs for being little more than a singing journalist. And Dylan was right. In the early ’60s, Ochs would scour newspapers for topics that he transformed into powerful and moving songs of social justice–like “The Ballad of William Worthy,” about the African-American journalist who got into trouble for traveling to Communist China and Cuba to report the news, and “The Ballad of Medgar Evers,” about the African-American civil rights activist who was murdered by white supremacists.
To Ochs, Walker was the next great hope for folk music. “Phil liked to say, ‘This guy’s better than Dylan,'” Walker says, referring to himself in the press materials for Brown Eyed Georgia Darlin’. “Of course, there ain’t nobody better than Dylan. Phil heard something he was impressed with. I think he saw in me more of himself than he did [in] Bob Dylan.”
Listen to these recordings closely: Walker manages to combine the best elements of both Ochs and Dylan–not to mention Woody Guthrie–with sharply detailed storytelling set to gorgeous fingerpicked folk guitar.
Ochs committed suicide a year after he produced Walker’s first album, and though Walker continued on, releasing albums for Warner Brothers, his music never captured a large audience. Eventually, the native Georgian moved to North Carolina, where he met and befriended the Avett Brothers’ manager Dolph Ramseur and recorded a comeback album, Misfit scarecrow, on Ramseur Records in 2008.