When I asked Earth Science Professor Jeff Walker what drew him to folk music, his answer was simple. With zero hesitation he said, “Oh, it’s just always been what I was interested in.” This straightforward, modest love for music is the driving force behind the Walker Family Band, who performed a set on Sept. 26 at Fishkill Farms.
Fishkill Farms is a familiar venue for the Walker Family Band and a convenient, half-hour drive from Vassar College. A family-owned farm since the late 19th -century, they frequently host weekend community events with live music. “You can pick your own orchid fruits, and then they have sort of a farm store, and you can probably pick your own vegetables, too,” Walker told me. We were sitting in his office in Ely Hall, framed by a gorgeous, arching window and a wall-length, fully-stocked bookcase, chatting about the event. Walker explained that the Fishkill Farms concert was the band’s first performance the band had had since before the pandemic, and that the band was abbreviated to just Walker and Kathy, with their youngest daughter now off to college. As he spoke of the onlooking orchard dwellers and the stage, he remained perfectly still and smiling in his chair, clearly content.
In full, the band boasts nine musicians. Walker primarily plays guitar but is versed in banjo and hammered dulcimer and his wife Kathy plays on the fiddle. Each of his 7 children come with their own unique skill set as well: Peter is on the bagpipes and accordion; Laurel, is on the mandolin, mandola and fiddle; Marie Claire is on bass; Patrick is on the hurdy-gurdy and the flute; Forrest is on the drums and the jaw harp; Rachel is on the penny whistle; and Hannah is on the cello and the mandolin.
Music has been a consistent link between the family members. Walker met his wife, Kathy, about 40 years ago while they were playing music. In graduate school, the two began playing contradances, folk-dances made up of long lines of couples. They’ve been playing together ever since, and their love for music has only grown, spreading throughout their family. Though Walker and Kathy were careful not to pressure any of their children into learning an instrument, they always took them to contradances. Walker explained with a laugh, “You don’t have to play music, but you do have to come with us.” Over time, each of the kids began to gravitate towards an instrument or two, and soon they were all playing together.
Walker and his family like to see concerts as practice: “We play entirely by ear…It’s good to play the tunes a lot, so you remember them,” he said. The tunes that the band plays all fall under the umbrella of New England-style folk music, which draws its inspiration from Irish, Scottish, French-Canadian and Nova Scotian melodies. As Walker put it: “It’s kind of nice for us because…it’s all kinds of different things, so we don’t just specialize in one thing. We just sort of play tunes from all different traditions.” One of his favorite songs, “The Golden Keyboard,” is a fun, Irish-style composition showcasing the hammered dulcimer’s full lilt.
The Walker Family Band remains free of responsibility and expectations, and is largely a family experiment or a means of being connected. “We’ve all kind of learned together,” Walker said. “Even when I met my wife—she was just learning to play the fiddle and I was just learning to play the hammered dulcimer, so we didn’t know any better,” he shared. “We could play together, it sounded wonderful to us, so, you know—we could just kind of grow together.” The Walker Family Band was born naturally, and for that he feels very fortunate.
Above all, Walker detailed his niche, advanced expertise in folk music with incredible humility. When describing the concert, he did not focus on the performance itself; instead, he centered the audience. He said, “The funnest thing about it—we’re standing on this stage, and there’s people all over the place, eating, talking and doing whatever, but whenever anybody walked by the stage, if they had any little kids with them—the little kids were…bright-eyed and looking up at us, and we thought that was really fun.” The sense of community he described is akin to the heart of the Walker Family Band, wherein the purpose of playing music is to bring people together.
Looking around the office, I thought of the intersection between the physical sciences and New England folk music. Walker said that he likes folk music because of its accessibility: “Pop music and stuff like that—everybody knows one arrangement, you feel like you have to duplicate that arrangement; whereas, if you’ve never heard ‘The Masons Apron,’ then the way we play it sounds good to you.” For a moment, I thought I related to Walker’s love for music because I grew up in a musical household. Then I realized it was a more universal connection—if not musicians per se, we are constantly humming, even quietly to ourselves, and constantly listening. In many ways, music is essential and therefore connected to everything we engage in; it inspires us.