The Blues can often be most pure in its solo acoustic form. The image of the solitary Robert Johnson walking down a lonesome Mississippi road with nothing but his guitar and the devil is romantic and easy to digest. The truth, in contrast, is that Blues is celebratory and handed down. The true Blues artist is distinctly themselves while maintaining their place in a larger history, a larger tradition, that is shared broadly in community. This is exemplified by acoustic Blues master Toby Walker. The Bluesman describes his style as such:
“Well it’s a real hybrid. I mix a lot of improvisation along with say fingerstyle music. So, (ha) literally on one hand, my right hand that’s playing the bass lines, and my fingers are playing lead guitar chords and all over the place. So I’ve taken things like a basic Mississippi John Hurt style and I’m able to now add tons of little tiny licks on top of the bass line, depending on the style that I’m playing. If it’s a Country Blues, I’m playing little Country Blues licks. If it’s a Chicago style where I’m shuffling the bass, I can play all those licks I learned from Buddy Guy and Hubert Sumlin and everybody like that. So it really is a hybrid style that I’m used to playing. You know the one thing that I noticed from the guys down in Mississippi they all had their own style of playing. I was actually very happy to hear somebody turn around and say ‘yeah, yeah I know Toby’s music, within like 30 seconds I know it’s him.’ Because I think there is a unique way I approach the guitar now.”
Toby Walker is a Bluesman, an educator and a road warrior. Toby has studied, and continues to study, every aspect of Blues and Roots guitar. In his long prolific career this solo artist has made many friends and spread the Blues Gospel far and wide. In his 30’s Toby kissed the ring in Mississippi learning from the obscure amateur masters who were ubiquitous in the rural south. A self described “walking Blues gumbo, (haha) there’s all kinds of crap in there right,” Toby pulls deeply and broadly for inspiration.
“Everybody asks me that one (who are your influences?) and I don’t know what to say, really I don’t. There are so many, so many people. If you were to say that like yesterday it would have been Bo Weavil Jackson. If you were to say that last week it would have been somebody else. There are so many people. It’s anybody and everybody. From the 20’s all the way up to people like Derek Trucks. From John Mooney all the way down to people like Curley Weaver. There’s just so many people that continue to influence me. You know both good and bad. (laughs) Cause you can hear something that you really hate and you say ‘nah I’m not gonna do that.’ (laughs)”
When you are a solo acoustic act your guitar is vitally important. Not able to manipulate your sound very much with pedals or amplifiers, many acoustic players rely on vintage instruments to get that authentic sound. Toby has had many vintage instruments come and go through his life. Being truly a ramblin’ man, Toby has moved often and has had to be ready to follow his flights of fancy when they hit. Often selling off vintage collections, Toby has now found a home he plans to stay in for a good long time. As such he has settled into some excellent, if modern, musical instruments.
“My go to instruments right now, I have just a 2004 National Tricone I use for slide. I have a 2004 Huss and Dalton acoustic guitar that I use and I just picked up a little Waterloo guitar. I used to be like a big one for playing the old guitars. Then I realized that when the guys that played the old guitars where recording in the late 20’s and early 30’s they were new guitars then. So I figured (ha) why spend a dump load of money on an expensive and vintage guitar and just have work done it when I could just get like a Waterloo which is made exactly like those it’s just not 80 years old. So that’s pretty much what I’ve been playing a lot lately. I have a Fender Telecaster that I bring out every now and then. When I fly over to Europe I play an Eastman, cause if it’s wrecked you know I’m not gonna cry. (haha)”
Toby Walker was born in Jamaica Queens. At 3 years old his family moved to the center of Long Island. Living in a diverse town, Toby was exposed to many different cultures. Something about the Blues just resonated. Like any young person striving for identity, Toby tried to prove he was hip to the Real Deal in many different ways.
“We lived in Brentwood, it was mixed racially. So you had a lot of people from Puerto Rico, you had a lot of folks like me, whites, you had a lot of African Americas there. So it was a big mix. I think probably in the Senior year of High school, I was in an all Black band, I think it was called Phoenix. At that time they needed a lead guitar player, they were doing a lot of stuff like Kool and the Gang and they were even doing like Ray Charles, things like that. They needed a lead guitar player and I was the only White guy in the band. So I would just be playing at that time, I was playing a lot of electric guitar, so I was doing a lot of electric type Blues licks. Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, you know people along those lines.
I think when I got into the Blues it was via the Rolling Stones. And I saw that they had people like Howlin Wolf and Muddy Waters that they were doing songs from. I didn’t know who those people were. So I went down to the local record store, I went over to the Blues Section which was (haha) really small. But, I did find a B.B. King album, I think it was called LA Midnight or something like that. And I couldn’t figure out what was going on, I think I learned maybe one little guitar lick on there. And I happened to have a neighbor, he was Mexican, he lived 3 doors down. I was probably about 14 or 15 and he was about 22. And he saw me with my guitar case and he asked me what kind of music I played and I said you know Blues, because I was tryin’ to brag to him. And he said who do you listen to, and I said B.B. King and he started laughing at me. He says ‘you want to hear some real Blues?’ and he invited me into his house and he had all these Chicago Blues players, records of these guys, you know. Hubert Sumlin, he had, oh Buddy Guy, people like that. And I remember, he told me he says ‘I work during the day but you can come here anytime you want, my sisters will let you in. You can listen to the records, bring your guitar and see what you can do.’ So I started really studying these albums. I had a friend of mine showed me one little guitar lick on the electric and then everything opened up. And at that point I was on my way.”
The beauty of the electric Blues had a major impact. In fact for an acoustic musician, Toby talks a lot about electric guitar and it’s clear it is a part of his trip. It was during the heady teenage days of discovery and garage bands that Toby was first bitten by the majesty of what is often called the Country Blues.
“I think some point during that time I came across a little book called Fingerpicking Styles for Guitar by Happy Traum. And I started seeing these other people that I never heard of like Mississippi John Hurt. I went out, back to the music store, and I started looking under ‘Folk Blues,’ cause that’s where they put this stuff. And I got turned on to Mississippi John Hurt as well as I was listening to there was an album by Paul Oliver called Story of the Blues a double album. And it had Hurt on there but it also had Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, and Sunnyland Slim. So I was getting exposed to all this stuff and then I think I got turned on, someone told me about some weird guy by the name of Eric Clapton. I didn’t know who he was and I was over a friends house and he put on the record Crossroads. And I was able to sit down and play a lot of it. And my friend said ‘hey, you’ve never heard of this guy.’ And I said ‘yeah but he’s like Buddy Guy.’ (laughs) You know I was listening to the licks and I knew the licks so it was easy. So then I started getting into people like Jorma Kaukonen from Hot Tuna and David Bromberg, so that’s kind of where, the direction I was going. And learning how to fingerpick guitar as well as playing lead guitar.”
Playing guitar was it for Toby. With a restless spirit, a facility for the Blues and the fearlessness of youth, Toby struck out to see America while constantly absorbing music, songs and licks to be re-imagined into his own distinct style.
“When I was 18 I wound up like in between bands. When I had some time off I was hitchhiking across the country. So I wound up doing that 3 times back and forth across the country. You know learning songs and playing songs along the way, then coming back and getting picked up by a band. Playing in various different bands and when the band broke up or if I decided I wanted to get back out, I’d leave the band and go hitchhiking again, always having my guitar. I think when I came back from that I was about 20 and I started teaching in the back of a little music store. I was able to earn my living that way for quite some time, between playing in bands and teaching in little music store. You know, always studying the Blues and learning everything I could. And sometime around then, when I had enough money to get a car (laughs) I started a playing a little further a field off of Long Island. I was performing as a solo act even in my early 20’s. So I was either in a band or doing solo work as an acoustic guitar player. Probably several years before I went down to the South I was playing as a solo performer all over the place. I was playing lots of Blues, lots of Ragtime. Back then I was doing like Scott Joplin arrangements as well as Mississippi Fred McDowell songs.”
After over a decade of traversing the country, playing in electric bands, exploring the depths of solo guitar and teaching in the back of music stores, Toby set his sights on his own take on cultural anthropology. Taking his cue from the Lomax excursions, Toby went in search of the real Blues.
“At some point I decided you know the real way to go here was to go down and do my own researching. So I think I was 30 by the time I started going down and doing my own thing. I started listening to library of congress recordings by John Lomax and his son Alan Lomax. I was just really taken back by their field recordings and I wanted to do that to. So years later I was able to do that. I had a friend down in Clarksdale named Jim O’Neill who used to be the publisher of the Living Blues Magazine. And he would tell me who was still alive, the town their were living in. I would go down there and just search out these people and ask ‘em if they wanted to teach me any guitar, and I was willing to pay them. You know I would just spend weeks at a time down in Mississippi and then come back up. At first I went down there with a cassette recorder and then I started goin’ down there with a video recorder. So I was able to bring everything back up with me and really start to learn their music, that was fun.”
Toby Walker’s mature live performance style is studded with endless stories of his time on the road and his many adventures (and misadventures) in the South.
“Geeze there are so many of them. One was with Eugene Powell who’s in Greenville Miss. I was hanging out with him, this was like I think the first visit, I visited him a few times. But, the first one I had stayed with him all afternoon into the early evening. When I left, I didn’t get like half way down the street and I realized that I forgot my glasses over at his house. So I turned around came back knocked on his door and I (hehe) and I heard the lock open. He opened up his door just a little bit and he stuck out, I’m looking at the business end of a pistol. And he was like ‘Who is that?’ you know (laughs). And I ducked, I said ‘Eugene, it’s me Toby I was just in.’ He said ‘oh yeah come on in.’ (laughs) I’ve got like tons of these stories. I put a lot of that stuff into my act, you know, I tell the stories of the people that I met, and being on the road a lot. I’ll preface songs with some of these little stories that people really enjoy.”
Toby is a talented educator. Bringing the Blues into schools and engaging Middle Schoolers in the Blues traditions he learned first hand, Toby has made a way for himself in education.
“I was performing at this one place and a teacher came up to me his name was Jeff Moss, and he had asked me if I played for schools. And I said no not really. He said ‘I’m a teacher at a Middle School, I teach English and I think your music and your stories would go over really great there.’ So I contacted a woman that I know Patricia Shih, a local musician that she made her living solely by playing schools. And I started talkin’ to her about it and together with Jeff we put together this program. That it went over so well that the people at Carnegie Hall, their school education department heard about me. They hired me to play for a whole year, they hired me to play around the New York City, 5 boroughs. So I wound up doing that. That was like 15-16 years ago. Pretty much every year I’ve been doing the program of Blues in the Schools. It’s always for the Middle School kids and I’m in a classroom when I’m doing that.”
Your humble interviewer was a Middle School teacher for 2 years before being driven from the classroom in a panic from the intense challenge of the often fickle and always demanding savage middle schooler. Toby Walker, by contrast, has the gift for relating to these mysterious and volatile beings.
“You see here’s the thing, well they are already primed you know a week before or a day before. They know they have that period off okay. So they’re a little wild to begin with. But, when they walk into the classroom and they see me with an electric guitar and I’m already playing something as they’re walk in. And they see a steel guitar, my National Tricone on the floor, they realize that this isn’t going to be just some guy talking about instruments. So for the most part it’s good. I like working in a classroom because it’s intimate, I can walk around, walk through the class, walk around them. I always thought it was harder to hit a moving target, you know, when I’m walking, that helps. But, I’m able to keep the kids really under control. You know there’s 20 or 30 of them at a time instead of a big auditorium of 400 of them. So that worked out, and that still works out.”
It takes a certain temperament to teach a class of young people, it takes another kind of temperament to teach guitar lessons. Toby has made a portion of his living since he was a teenager doing this. Now in the modern era, Toby is online and offering a wealth of guitar knowledge to the novice to expert.
“I’d say a good third of my living is from, I produce my own guitar lessons. Matter of fact I just finished a new set of lessons today in the studio. I videotape myself and I notate it, tab it out. Then I upload it onto my website. People see the trailer of the movie and they see what it’s about. They can just order it with any credit card or Pay Pal and then I just send them the links to the lesson, they can download the videos or stream them, whatever they want to do. I’ve been doing that for like years now.”
The COVID crisis has radically changed how Toby Walker connects with his audience. Prior to the pandemic, Toby was an international touring act with a healthy teaching career. Now Toby is waiting for the light that seems to be emerging from the end of the tunnel and keeping himself engaged and busy in the meantime.
“At the time (pre-COVID) probably I was doing maybe about 70-100 gigs a year. Some of them were over in the United Kingdom also over in Europe. I used to go out to the Mediterranean. I used to play in Cypress believe it or not. So that’s kind of fun. I’m hoping that after the pandemic is over, get back out there and do that stuff again. But in the meantime I’ve been just like producing a lot of these guitar lessons. I stream a concert once a week from my studio so that’s like every Thursday, I stream a guitar lesson at 3 o’clock, Eastern Standard Time, and then a concert at 7 o’clock.”
Toby Walker is a storyteller. He brings charm and laughter to any situation. Toby recounted a few excellent road stories for us all to enjoy.
“I can remember doing the Syracuse Blues Festival, the New York State Blues Festival. And I had a really choice little spot on the bill. I was playing between Robert Lockwood Jr. and Jimmie Vaughan. Yeah. I told the sound man, I said ‘look just because you see one guy standing up there with an acoustic guitar, don’t think that you’re going to just play it, set the sound for an acoustic guitar.’ I said ‘I want the bass to like shake the buildings in Syracuse and I want the lead guitar to cut through every window in Syracuse.’ I said ‘I want the volume really loud.’ At the time I was using this little stool to sit on. I was on the side of the stage and Robert Lockwood said ‘you mind if I borrow that?’ I said yeah sure. So he went up and borrowed it for a while and he came back down and gave it to me. When I did my set I just started something on the 6th string, like a shuffle. There had to be about 20-30 thousand people out there. And I yelled out all the way to back I said ‘can you hear me back there.’ And everybody just screams you can see the hands going up and I said ‘good I got the volume right.’
But the funniest thing was Jimmie Vaughan, he’s out on stage with a rhythm guitar player, drummer and organist. And I was hanging out on the side of the stage with his guitar tech when he broke a string. So he came over and you know the guitar tech gave him a spare. Jimmie went over with the spare and right at that moment the rhythm guitar player broke a string. So the rhythm guitar comes over, guy hands him Jimmie’s guitar because he didn’t have another spare. And then he’s working on the rhythm guitarist and then Jimmie breaks another string. This is all in one song. So Jimmie comes back he grabs the rhythm guitar walks half way out back to the stage and then turns around and comes walking back and the tech guy goes ‘oh, no.’ At this point Jimmie turns around and says ‘my capo, my capo.’ The tech handed him the capo. And then Jimmie looks over at me and says ‘I can’t do shit without the capo.’ It was hilarious.”
“(on time) I was opening up for David Bromberg, you know after the sound check I went back in the commissary area backstage and they had this big lay out of food you know. So I’m making a sandwich and one of the band members says ‘oh, don’t touch the pastrami that’s David’s.’ So I said ‘yeah okay no problem.’ So I went out and I did my set and I came back backstage again and Bromberg was standing there. And David turns around he says ‘that was a really nice set.’ And I said thanks. Then he says ‘have you tried the pastrami.’ (laughs) I said ‘I heard that was yours.” He said ‘no, no you can have the pastrami it’s really good’ (laughs) I kind of took that as a badge of honor.”
And then there is his relationship with Bob Margolin. Margolin is one of the champions of the Blues and one of the torchbearers keeping our music alive. It is no wonder that these two kindred spirits connected.
“I had called him (Bob) up because a friend of mine suggested or just said ‘hey why don’t you see if you can get Bob on the next album?’ I said ‘yeah sure.’ I didn’t know him at the time. I called him up and he remembered me because I had won this international Blues challenge back in Memphis a few years prior to that and that’s where he had remembered seeing me. So I said ‘you want to do an album? And he said ‘yeah sure.’ And went down to High Point where he lives and we went into his house. He called his engineer and his engineer brought a bunch of equipment. We pushed aside the couch in the living room and made some room. And we just cut like a few songs right there in his house. I think maybe a few months later he was up on Long Island somewhere. I said to him ‘yeah I’m gonna catch the show.’ And he says ‘aw come on, you gotta play with us.’ I think I told the promoter, ‘Bob asked me to play with him.’ The promoter says ‘why don’t you open up and then you can play with him.’ So I wound up opening up for Bob. He was playing with Pinetop, Big Eyes Smith, people like that. So after I got done with my acoustic set I went off stage and the last song I played was in dropped D tuning. Pinetop wanted to try my guitar so I handed it to him and there’s all this noise going on. And Pinetop is playing but he knows the 6th string is really low. So he starts trying to tune it up but he couldn’t hear that well cause of all the noise on the stage. He kept on turning it and turning it. And Bob leaned down to Pinetop and says ‘what’s the matter, you can’t get it up?’ And Pinetop just shot him this dirty look. (laughs)”
Toby Walker wants to engage with people. He is presenting his unadorned straight soul for us. Like Reverend Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker or Jessie Mae Hemphill, Toby gets up and gives us what he is feeling in the moment whether that’s in-person or on tape.
“I know my audiences, so I know the audience that I play for, I know what they like, they like what I do. What I do is I try to gear each CD towards; it’s a balance, what the audience loves and what I love, and usually it’s the same thing. By the time I get into the studio I’m pretty well rehearsed. The songs are usually either one take or two takes.”
When asked which albums are the entry into Toby Walker land, he says:
“There would be two of them. One is just called Little Toby Walker and then the other one is called What You See is What You Get. That one I’m also playing a little bit of electric slide and a whole bunch of vintage instruments. That first one Little Toby Walker. I had taken this hiatus for a while. When I came back a friend of mine he was like ‘oh, your back playing.’ I said yeah. ‘Well we got to get yah in the studio.’ I just sat down in the studio and rolled each one of those things off. I think every one of them was just one take. We finished the whole thing in maybe an hour and a half tops recording this stuff. And the engineer was just shakin’ his head ‘I can’t believe we did a whole album in that time.’”
Toby Walker lives and breaths his music. As a teenager, like some kind of monastic calling, he dedicated himself to the guitar and the exploration of the world around him through it. Toby is always playing, we are just able to catch the glimpses of his never ending performance.
Catch a glimpse or two at: