Interviews and Articles

Acoustic Live feature: "Pat Wictor: The Quest to be An American", June 7, 2005

By Richard Cuccaro

First Encounter:
Lanky and just shy of six feet tall with shoulder length red hair and a goatee,
Pat Wictor walks onstage and sits down. He places a Guild DV-52 flat across
his lap and begins playing slide guitar.The sounds are snaky and sizzling. He
sings in a steady and clear voice, sometimes displaying a riveting falsetto.
Between songs and off-stage, his demeanor is taciturn, gently expressive, avoiding
the bombastic. Soft-spoken and articulate, in the1930's he could have been a dust
bowl preacher. The sermons, accompanied by the choir of his slide guitar, would
have brought comfort to many a soul. The songs he sings, some original, some
borrowed, connect with the history of a nation.
The nation is America.

Both Far and Near
The story of Pat Wictor's quest begins in Venezuela, where he was born. His father
was an employee of the oil industry during a period of exploration abroad. His early
life was an odyssey leading to stays in the Netherlands, Norway and England in addition
to Venezuela. While there was a brief period between the ages of six and nine that
was spent in East Texas, Pat spent most of his early years abroad. He went to American-run
private schools for Americans working overseas.Tuition was often paid by the corporate
employer. In his own words, this is how it was: "It sort of varied from community to
community. I was a kid when we lived in Venezuela. The last place my family lived, which
is really the only place that I remember, was a town called Tia Juana. There were actually
camps. Pretty much all the residents were employees of the various oil companies. Each
company had its own camp. There was barbed wire and armed vigilantes keeping out
Venezuelans, except the ones that came in to do domestic work. That was the most extreme
apartheid-like situation. People would leave the camp to do various things and then come
home to a place where their neighbors were all Americans. In the Netherlands, we were
down the street from a big apartment building that had a lot of mostly American military
personnel in it, but otherwise the neighborhood was all Dutch folks. We rode Dutch buses,
We had a few Dutch neighbors that we talked with, although in general, they were not
super-thrilled with Americans living next to them. When I lived in Norway, there just
weren't that many Americans, and I ended up building some friendships with some
Norwegians. It was a more integrated kind of situation. I still went to American schools in
all of these places. There was certainly an institutional kind of infrastructure with a school
and sometimes there were churches and all this stuff, so that people could have their
own language and culture, I guess. That's true pretty much all over Europe. The schools
that I went to, for example, were parts of sports leagues that were comprised of American
schools all over Europe. Kids who were in the same boat as us, pretty much.

Pat was in Holland from about eight or nine years old until he was twelve. The family
then moved to Norway, where Pat attended the seventh grade. He lived there until he was
sixteen and then the family moved to London when he was a junior in high school. He then
went back to Norway for his senior year of high school.

Coaxing the Inner Clapton
Pat had music at his core, always whistling, clapping, keeping time to inner rhythms and
melodies. In Norway, in eighth grade, he was forced, initially, to learn guitar. He states:
"It was a small school. There were 30 of us in class and they had 30 broken down nylon
string guitars, some of them with strings missing. Whenever class was going to start, I would
do my damndest to get in the front of the line, so I could get in there and get a guitar that
actually had six strings on it. That was the period of the day that I looked forward to the most."

The students were taught basic first position chords, some strumming techniques, a little basic
fingerstyle and some very simple sight reading. Shortly after the classes began, Pat got his
first guitar, an electric, and an amp. It was not well made, "unplayable," with gigantic frets.
With fingers close to bleeding, it was sheer passion that kept him going. However, by 10th
grade he'd formed a rock band (1981-82), basically doing cover songs. It started out as a
hard rock band and eventually morphed because the personnel kept changing and it got
slightly less hard rock as it went along. At the time he was very much identified as a guitarist.
"I wanted to be a flashy, fleet-fingered heavy metal style guitarist," he remembers. "I was into
Eddie Van Halen and all that kind of stuff &emdash; what a lot of teenage boy guitar players are
into at that time."

The Path to Jazz
Pat was into learning on his own A lover of guitar solos, he got a lot of theory books and did
a lot of exercises to understand what was going on harmonically and melodically. He studied
from records by Eddie Van Halen and Jimmy Page for their improvisation. The shift began
around the age of 15-16, with Jeff Beck records &endash; Blow by Blow and Wired, which also have
a bit of a jazz bent. The fusion of electric violinist Jon Luc Ponty became another bridge. One
record by Ponty had jazz guitarist Alan Holdsworth on it. In Pat's opinion, "Holdsworth is so
facile on the instrument, that he puts all of these other big-name hot-shots to shame. He plays
so legato, he sounds like a saxophone player. He sounds like Coltrane on the damn guitar!
It's unbelievable stuff. There are a couple of records that he did that I got that I just wore out.
Even in 1982, he was playing this Coltranish kind of stuff. A very smooth, very even tone,
these flurries of notes, saxophonic kind of vibrato on it. It was at that point I realized, "OK,
I am never gonna learn to play the guitar like that! That's completely out of reach. That's
exactly what I want to sound like but I am never gonna play the guitar like that."

Coltrane and Miles
Pat read interviews with Holdsworth and discovered that. he listened to saxophonists, so Pat
started checking out saxophone players. He relates: "It turns out that my brother had
Kind of Blue, the Miles Davis record. John Coltrane is all over that record, so I pretty much
wore that record out. I would just skip to all the Coltrane solos. So, I started getting into
Colrane. He's one of the easiest saxophonists for a heavy metal musician to understand. A
lot of his later stuff is modal. There aren't a lot of tricky chord changes. A lot of it has
a driving beat, and it's very incendiary, it's very passionate. Coltrane was sort of my entrance
point to listen to a lot of other saxophonists."

Jazz Snobbery
Pat went through a period of jazz snobbery, which lasted a couple of years. The one year
he spent in England was a year where he didn't have a "whole ton of parental supervision,"
as he put it. However, he didn't use it to "go nuts." What he did, as much as he could was
go to see live music. He'd look in a weekly publication with all kinds of musical events.
Pretty much at least a couple of times a week he'd go out and see live music, going to a lot
of jazz clubs. He went to Ronny Scott's and saw Dizzy Gillespie. Others he saw included
Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Chet Baker and Pat Metheny. He also saw U2 in 1982 when they
were almost unknown.

Pat also started playing the bass in the high school jazz band that year. With his typically
piercing self observation, he states: "Even though I was a terrible sight reader, I had a good
enough ear that I could fake my way through it." When he gotback to Norway for his senior
year, he was still heavily into jazz and at that point picked up the tenor saxophone. He
studied with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad learning about listening and the
importance of space and improvisation, using listening and responding
exercises &emdash; sometimes with no horns &emdash; hand clapping, and verbal responses. He states
"They were almost like theater improv games except with musical and sound components.

Back in the U.S. of A
Pat returned to the United States to attend Occidental College in Los Angeles. He played for a
couple of years but realized he did not have the discipline to become a very good saxophonist.
He met players who practiced their horn up to four hours a day and had complete control
over the instrument. He recalls, "I was really just an enthusiast at improvisation who didn't
have a whole lot of chops and who could come out with some pretty wild thing every now
and then." Pat's involvement in playing music diminished when he gravitated toward political
activism. In 1989, he graduated from Occidental with a degree in History and moved to New
York, to work as an activist. "Some of the stuff that I wanted to work on was here," he states.
"I kind of left off music for a good four, five years doing that." As an activist, Pat worked on
"mundane things" &emdash; electoral reforms, opening up the ballot to independent candidates and
opening up the debate process.

There were lessons learned that he now uses in his musical career. One of them was patience
when it comes to developing an audience. "Simply go and look for folks who like what you're
doing and not try to win over the world." Just look to put out what you're doing and find the
people who want o support it. That's a perspective that I've used from day one when I started
playing in public. I had no illusions that I would sell 30 million records or anything like that.
All I just need to do is get up on stage in front of an audience. I have the confidence that I will
win over the people who like what I'm doing.

Music Rises Again
Around 1993, Pat developed chronic fatigue and was forced to make a complete reassessment
of his life. Realizing that music was this terribly important thing to that he had put off for
5 or 6 years, he got myself a guitar and got back into playing. He started writing songs around
that time, feeling that he had something to say. He says, "I had no pretense that what I had to
say was of importance to anybody besides me, but I felt compelled to write songs at that time.
That was a new experience because I never felt a compulsion to do that." He played alone for
a couple of years. It took about a year after getting back into playing to screw up the courage
to play in public. He played in a number of places. At one place in particular, The Exotic Caf,
(now defunct), on East 10th Street, the proprietor liked what he heard and welcomed Pat there
to play every few months. "So I got my feet wet, playing in public, in a very lowpressure
situation," he recalls

During this time, Pat also developed a career as an educator. He got his pre-service teaching
degree at Fordham University and taught global studies at the high school level for six years
before quitting to play music full-time around 2001.

Jest Plain Folks
Pat met Jim Ypsilantis around 1995 and together they performed as a duo called Tall Tales.
I first met Pat when Tall Tales performed at The Fast Folk Cafe when I was a volunteer
manager there. Initially Pat did not consider himself a folk musician. He thought he was
playing acoustic pop rock. When Tall Tales performed, people would tell them they were
playing folk music. He incredulously responded "Really?!! Folk music!! I don't know anything
about folk music!!"

As time wore on, he realized of natural affinity there. He needed to find out why people heard
him as a folk musician. He discovered that when he played for people who considered
themselves fans of folk music, he felt very connected to them. At rock clubs, the duo found the
atmosphere just awful. They couldn't stand it. After talking to people Pat discovered Vance
Gilbert, John Gorka and other singer/songwriters. Then came Kelly Joe Phelps. A slide player
with prodigious chops, Kelly Joe had previously been a jazz player who had switched over to
roots music. After discovering the Phelps recording Lead Me On, Pat started working his way
back to more rootsy stuff. Kelly Joe turned Pat completely around. Pat realized that this kind
of playing was what he wanted to do. He started reading interviews with Kelly Joe to find
out 'where did this guy come from musically?' He listed all his influences, like Robert Pete
Williams, Skip James, Son House and Fred MacDowell. Pat started buying their records and
soaking it all in.

Another factor in in digging for America's musical roots was September 11th. Pat states:
"Something about the whole aftermath intensified something which has been at work in my
life a long time, which is a quest to be an American, Having grown up outside the states for
a chunk of my youth and spending years as an activist, taking the stance of the dissident, I'm
somebody who loves my country enough to try to change it for the better. This has been an
ongoing theme in my life &emdash; how to be connected with what it means to be an American.
The process of digging into this older, deeply American roots music intensified after 9/11.
Whatever it is in our country that produced that music that is so extraordinary, so timeless, so
beautiful, I want to be connected to whatever that is. I want to be a part of that. I knew I didn't
want to be an American simply by waving a flag and saying that 'America is the greatest'."

Sliding Upward
After working out some lap slide chops on an old guitar owned by his great-grandfather,
unplayable by any other means, Pat began stretching out. A repair shop was persuaded to
raise the nut 1/4 of an inch on the Guild he now uses. He then started playing in the subways
in New York to supplement his income while he continued playing in small cafes and working
as a substitute teacher on occasion. He recalls: "I was putting in a lot of hours just playing the
instrument. I was getting pretty good and people were starting to notice. It
was a response I had not gotten doing my singer/songwriter acoustic pop thing."

In 2003, with two Tall Tales CDs on his resume, he began working on his first solo recording,
Temporary Stay. He says "The record began evolving as I started developing all these lap slide
arrangements. We ended up chucking out tunes that we had recorded, and started emphasizing
all the lap slide stuff." He continues: "In late 2001, 02, and even into early 2003, I was playing
a lot at Borders Bookstores pretty much all over the Northeast. I started meeting other musicians
who would recommend other places to me a lot of which were small cafes, I hadn't really caught
too many breaks getting into too many venues. I'd sent out CDs and they were "lost in the mail,"
and I couldn't get anybody to write back"

The Point of Turnaround
"I did the The Point open mic in Bryn Mawr, PA on a whim, just to check it out. It was Spring
of 2003. The fellow who runs the open mic there, Leigh Goldstein, turned to the audience after
my two songs and said, 'That ladies and gentlemen, is a ringer.' He made a point of having a
conversation with me after I played. Leigh loved my stuff and began lobbying for me to get a
show there. I did the open mic several more times and met a ton of musicians, including Gene
Goldsmith, who later on ended up producing Waiting for the Water. Gene was another person
who immediately declared his enthusiasm for what I was doing Leigh's lobbying for me to get
a gig at The point, which I eventually got in the early summer of 2003, and my chance meeting
with Gene, who introduced me to a lot of people in the Philadelphia Folk Song Society were
pivotal events for me that got me much more oriented toward the existing folk community."

Pat also asked for a chance to perform on Philadelphia folk DJ Gene Shay's show. Gene heard
about it and Pat appeared there in July of 2003.

Incidental Connections
Pat cites Bruce Cockburn as one main inspiration for his societal stance, his writing skills and
his guitar chops. He has also found inspiration in the work of Townes Van Zandt, The Stanley
Brothers and the late, highly revered Dave Carter. Pat appears to have an especially strong
affinity to Carter. In an interview with WFUV's John Platt this past January, he recalled seeing
Dave perform with his partner, Tracy Grammer and talking with him for about 10 minutes after
the show. Pat told Dave that he perceived a lot of philosopher/teacher Joseph Campbell in his
songs. Campbell (1904-1987) was a proponent of finding spirituality through music and art,
as opposed to formal religious means. Dave responded that he found that interesting and
then stated that he'd actually studied with Campbell. Songs came to Dave Carter in dreams.
Tracy would drive them both everywhere, letting Dave sleep and dream.

When Dave Carter passed away suddenly in 2002, a bereft Tracy Grammer posted this e-mail
to friends and fans: "In the center of our hotel window earlier tonight, by lamplight, came the
shadow of a bird to my curtain. He held steady for a four flaps of the wing, maybe five, and
then he pivoted away. My heart froze for an instant and then I felt some relief. I took this
midnight messenger as a sign. You know that I have been desperate for a sign...
My love to you,... Tracy" Seemingly like a tuning fork, in touch with the humming of a hidden
universe of feeling and thought, with no intention of any expression toward anyone in particular,
except as an expression of loss, Pat wrote "Where Did You Go."
Where did you go, darlin'? Where did you go?
How will I find you again?
'Tween righteous and wrong, silence and song
Somewhere between prayer and "amen".

Send me a sign, darlin', send me a sign
Send me a sign from above
Feathered wings ferry you, spirits they come
bearing you
Carrying a sign of your love

What did you dream, darlin'? What did you dream?
What do you dream of at night?
Dreams bright and blissful, dreams for an angel
Dreams filled with beautiful light

Where did you go, darlin'? Where did you go?
How will I find you again?
'Tween righteous and wrong, silence and song
Somewhere between prayer and "amen"
Perhaps Pat is tapping into a current of higher consciousness. A river of history runs in his veins
and it guides him on his quest. Safe travels, Pat. As far as we're concerned, you're already home.

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updated 6 years ago