Rik Palieri 23 December 2015 on Rocket Shop
WORDS BY TOM PROCTOR, PHOTO by JAMES LOCKRIDGE
Like all good folk singers, Rik Palieri knows how to spin a good yarn. Bedecked in denim, cowboy hat on head and sporting a handsome handlebar mustache, he strikes you immediately of a man that loves to tell a good tale and doesn’t disappoint the image he embodies. Known in the region for his prolific and storied career, he’s been everywhere, met everyone and gone down his own road coming out on the other side a great in his own right.
Visiting the studio to pick on his guitar and tell a few handpicked fables he sits down with us to discuss the true definition of the Hobo, Native American sweat lodges, and how life usually works out when you let it do its own thing.
Tom Proctor: You’ve had some incredible mentors, including Jimmy Driftwood and Pete Seeger, what would you recomend to young musicians looking for mentors of a similar caliber?
Rik Palieri: Life brought them to me. With none of these mentors did I have a plan to try and meet them. They all came to me through a natural way. Jimmy Driftwood for instance. When I was doing my school tour I was traveling around all over. I was playing in this tiny town in Arkansas, a town where everyone gathers around a wood stove and plays music together. It looked like something from a postcard. People were sitting there with guitars and banjos, women were knitting, men were whittling. This one man playing the windpipe, a man called Snowball, said to me “Jimmy would like you”, so I asked, “Jimmy who”, and he replies “Jimmy Driftwood”. I knew the name but I wasn't exactly convinced. When he found out I was sleeping in my van he told me to follow him and stay at his place. I drove nine miles out of town and when I got there he pointed across the street and told me that was Jimmy Driftwood’s place and I was to have breakfast with him the next morning. I thought he was pulling my leg, but I get up in the morning and knock on the door and there’s Jimmy Driftwood. He’s wearing his cowboy hat and a bright red shirt and says “Hi! Breakfast is on the table, been expecting you, come on in” and that was the beginning of our friendship. He taught me a lot about the music business, how I should never give up.
TP: So do you feel you career has a whole has developed through chance?
RP: Yeah, everything has developed that way. Let me tell you how I met Pete Seeger. I was a young kid, learning the banjo and a big fan of Pete. My sisters, who are a lot younger than me, they saw all my albums and assumed that I knew Pete. I did not know him at all. I had his records and occasionally went to the Clearwater environmental meetings which he ran, but I didn’t know him. He was playing in Central Park in 1975, and my mother takes the two girls to see the museums around the park while I watch the concert. My sisters get curious about what's going on, they hear Pete Seeger and immediately think that I must be backstage with my “good friend” Pete. So sneak backstage, find Pete’s trailer and go talk to him for a while. I know nothing about this. Pete’s playing in Hoboken the next day, so I get down the next morning and join in with a jam session that’s happening. Pete walks by, hears us playing, unzips his guitar case and starts playing along with us. I am floored, I’m playing with Pete Seeger. He looks at me and asks me who I am, I introduce myself and he replies “Rik. I met your sisters yesterday, they told me you were a good banjo player. Why don’t you come up on stage and we’ll play a few songs together”. So he took my hand, brought me up on stage and my life changed. With all of these major events in my life...it’s not that I don't try but it seems like the things that happen the best are the things I have nothing to do with. When things are right they organically come together.
TP: You “hobo’d” when you were younger, is that even an option for people to pursue these days?
RP: You certainly can do that, but it is very dangerous and very hard because of the increased security. There are still people out there riding the rails, just not the old Hobos that I knew. Those guys weren't skylarking, the Great Depression hobos were out there because they had to be, the guys that came back from the Vietnam war were out there because they had to be. It’s very similar to when the hobo culture began back after the civil war, that's when the whole idea of the hobos came into existence. The guys that fought in that war, they saw all this carnage and bloodshed and they couldn't go back to reality. The whole idea is a Hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders and a bum just drinks and wanders. Hobos were not bums, they were walking workers. These guys were known as homeward bounds, they had a home they were just taking a while to get there. A lot of the guys that I met early on were some of the last kind of guys, the guys from the steam train era. It differs with different generations--in my time we hitchhiked. But the hobo is a state of mind, the idea of not living under someone else's thumb, the idea of freedom.
TP: Did you embody that spirit when you were going from school to school with your truck?
RP: When I worked with Pete Seeger and Clearwater I did lots of festivals, I wanted to pull away from that and find out who I was. So I got this idea of living in Poland away from everything, so I got this fellowship and lived there for a year. Thats where I got my survival skills. I couldn't have done all the other things in my life had I not done that. They wanted me to act as an ambassador for the banjo, working in schools and doing concerts over there. Everyone only spoke Polish so it was really sink or swim. When I came back the guys I was living with in Poland asked me to take what I learned and share it in America. That's when I approached the national school assembly program. There was part of me that really just wanted to live on the road, so that was certainly in the back of my mind, but I didn't realise how hard it was going to be. Four or five schools a day, every school in a different town, no GPS, really remote areas, lots of Native American reservations.
TP: Is that where you met Kevin Locke the Native American flute player?
RP: Yeah, the reservations were always very welcoming. When I was on the Standing Rock Reservation out in South Dakota they told me that they would like to show me something about their culture and I had expressed interest in the flute. They said they had a master and they would arrange the meeting. When I talked with him he said he couldn't just pass on the knowledge freely, that he’d have to think about it and we really needed to sit in a sweat lodge and pray. So we sat in the sweat lodge and he told me all about the history of the Lakota people. You can’t talk about an experience in a sweat lodge, I didn't know how long I was in there, time just faded. At the end of it he said yes.
TP: So you wrote a book during this experience, how did that come to be?
RP: Well another reason I did this school tour was to see if my wife and I could live our lives apart for a time. So while I was away I sent her these letters telling her about my life and my experiences. While I was at a Hobo convention I got some help from a guy on how to compile a book together, I didn't really think anyone would read it--it was more a personal thing. So I was really surprised when people started to really like it. Pete Seeger really liked one of the stories and had it printed in Singout magazine. That opened it up to get it published elsewhere. The story has now spread to the point that it’s now licensed in Japan as a way to teach people English. You just don't know what seeds you plant will sprout.