By Craig Harris
“Little” Toby Walker has collected a lot of memories in the decade and a half that he’s traveled through the United States and England, thrilling audiences with imaginative fingerpicking, warm, but gutsy, vocals, and songs about “thieving, lying, cheating, stealing, murder, and mayhem.”
With his 8th album, Lost & Found, Walker, who rarely uses the “Little” nickname anymore, digs into his archives and shares some of the memories that he’s collected, bringing together tracks from radio broadcasts and appearances at coffeehouses and house parties.
Bootleg recordings of the songs “were just sitting around in a pile,” said Walker. “People are always giving them to me. When we were thinking about my next CD, a friend said, ‘why don’t you do something with this pile that’s been gathering dust?’”
After a year and a half of discussing the project, Walker began to go through the recordings. “I don’t like to listen to anything after recording it,” he said, “But I did it and it brought back a lot of memories.”
While many of the tunes are performed solo, Walker is joined by harmonica/washboard player Ken Klorb on eight songs that were originally broadcast on Stony Brook University’s WUSB and by harmonica player George Christ and snare drummer Mike DeGeronimo on a pair of tunes (“Spoonful” and “I Want My Hands On It”) that were recorded during a performance in Riverhead, NY in September 2003.
“Each musician has brought something different,” said Walker. “In the very beginning, I was completely solo and had my own thing. But, playing with Ken brought out more traditional music. George, Mike and I usually played in bars so the music was louder. There was more energy going on.”
The most recent track, “I Know You Rider,” recorded at the Steel City Coffeehouse, in the Philadelphia area, in 2008, showcases how far Walker has grown as an instrumentalist. “That song is very representative of the way I play in an improvisational mode,” he explained. “It’s a fundamental part of my approach to guitar playing. I tend to go into those stratospheres when I’m playing.”
Displaying a reverence for blues tradition, with tunes by Charlie Patton, the Memphis Jug Band, Willie Dixon, and Big Bill Broonzy, Walker makes his own voice felt through a half dozen originals. “I’m not one for the slick type of love song,” he said. “When I’m into my songwriting mode, the first thing that comes to me is humor. The second thing is anything that has a bit of an edge.”
“I don’t work at songwriting as a craft,” he continued. “If an idea comes to me, a little quirky saying, I’ll sit down for a few days and puzzle it out until I get something that I really like. I’m more of a guitarist. I will sit and work at that religiously every day.”
Despite his natural affinity for the blues, Walker defies the bluesman stereotype. Rather than coming from the Mississippi Delta, Piedmont region of the Carolinas, or Chicago, the Jamaica, Queens, New York-born guitarist grew up on Long Island in Brentwood, a small hamlet in the Suffolk County town of Islip that had begun, in 1851, as an anarchist, utopian colony and had become, by the time that Walker was born in 1956, a lower middle class/blue collar-type neighborhood.
“Long Island has had a music scene for a long time,” said Walker. “But, when I was starting out, there were only two blues bands—I played with the Last Chance Blues Band and there was the Almost Brothers Band—and Little Buster. There were lots of cover bands.”
From earliest memory, Walker was drawn to the blues and hard-edged roots music. “I was really moved by the energy of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, early rock and roll,” he remembered, “energy that they got from the blues. That energy continues in my own playing.”
Though he received his first guitar, a Sears model nylon string acoustic, at the age of 9, it soon went into the closet, not surfacing until six years later. “A friend had gotten an electric guitar, an amplifier, and a drum set for Christmas,” he recalls of his rediscovery of the instrument. “He got on the guitar and, because I had a sense of rhythm, I got on the drums. We did that for a couple of months. Then, when he decided that he didn’t want to play the guitar anymore and wanted to go on the drums, I picked up the guitar.”
Walker advanced quickly, joining his first band by his fifteenth birthday. “We played little parties in the neighborhood,” he recalled, “in backyards and basements.”
At first, Walker was unaware of the blues’ connection with the music that was capturing his attention. “When I was listening to ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together,” he said, “I had no idea about the roots of anything. I had no idea where any of it came from. It wasn’t until later on, when I picked up the guitar, that I started looking at the music deeper and learning about Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf), McKinley Morganfeld (Muddy Waters), and Willie Dixon.”
An older neighbor, Robbie Bravo provided Walker with a thorough introduction to the history of the blues. “Robbie used to work on his car on his front lawn,” Walker remembered. “I was walking by one time and he saw me with a guitar case and yelled over, ‘What do you play?’ I remember yelling back, ‘I play the guitar.’ He said,’ Well, what kind of music do you play?’ I wanted to come off kind of cocky so I said, ‘I play the blues.’ He asked, ‘Who do you listen to?’ When I said ‘The Stones,’ he laughed.”
Bravo’s laughter soon turned to friendship as he invited the teenaged guitarist into his basement to hear his blues record collection. “He turned me on to the electric Chicago blues players,” recalled Walker. “I was floored. The first songs that I heard were on an album by Buddy Guy, ‘Bad Bad Whiskey’ and ‘The T-bone Shuffle.’ I had heard the Stones play but it was nothing like this. To me, it seemed the real stuff.”
Blues, though, was only one aspect of Walker’s musical development. “I was turned on to acoustic music,” he said, “people like David Bromberg and Doc Watson, and other influences like bluegrass. I got turned on to players like Django Reinhardt. I started picking up records by country blues musicians like Son House and Robert Johnson.”
Stony Brook University’s station, WUSB provided Walker with an exposure to the blues and roots music. Later, after Walker had begun working as a musician, his relationship with the station grew. “It was one of the only stations, if not the only station, on Long Island,” he said, “where a musician could actually call up and talk about their music. I had done a gig opening for Taj Mahal in Ohio and decided to call the station and ask if I could come onto the air and talk about my experience. From the onset, they were very open to me.”
The literary world had its’ effect on Walker, as well. “I had read Jack Keruoac’s On the Road,” he said, “and Pete Seeger’s The Incompleat Folksinger, in which he talks about the need to get out during the summer and see the country. I had read John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie and Woody Guthrie’s Bound for Glory. Those four books had a huge influence on me.”
Inspired by what he read, Walker stuck his thumb out, three days after graduating from high school, and took off for the highway. Over the next two years or so, he hitchhiked across the United States three times and spent six months touring with two different bands.
“I remember coming back (to Long Island),” he said, “and taking a couple of classes at Suffolk Community College. The second those were over, I was back out on the road again. I had a lot of traveling to do.”
Walker’s travels didn’t slow down after launching a music career and earning enough money to give up hitchhiking and buy a car. Since 1990, he’s made several pilgrimages to Mississippi, Virginia, and the Carolinas in search of old time blues players. During his first trip, he spent time with Wade Walton at the blues harmonica player/guitarist/barber’s shop in Clarksdale, Mississippi before continuing on to Leland, MS and meeting bluesman James “Son” Thomas. Subsequent trips included visits with Eugene Powell, Jack Owens, Turner Foddrell, R.L. Burnside, and Etta Baker.
“Another thing that was pivotal in my yearning to travel,” Walker said, “were the field recordings that were done by Alan and John Lomax. I made sure that I brought my tape recorder with me and interviewed as many people as I could.”
According to Walker, the greatest lesson that he learned from the blues masters was the importance of individuality. “They all had their own sound,” he said, “and they remained true to their own sound. You could give each the same song and each would put their stamp on it. I knew that, in order to really do anything, you had to put your own stamp on it. There are a ton of imitators. But, I’m Toby Walker with my own set of influences. I’m sort of a big gumbo of things.”
In recent years, Walker has shared his insights as a teacher. He taught the history and tradition of blues music at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio and has worked as a teaching artist in middle schools in New Jersey and New York middle schools. He’s also continued to teach guitar privately. “Now that I’ve established who I am and what I do,” he said, “I can teach what I like to play. People who come to me for lessons are looking to learn specific styles, be it fingerpicking blues, ragtime, folk, electric blues, or bottleneck slide.”
With the musical artifacts of his past given an outlet with Lost & Found, Walker has already taken his next steps forward. Speechless… For Once, featuring all guitar instrumentals, was released in spring 2010. “It’s pretty diverse,” Walker said of the album, “with everything from an arrangement of the Beatles’ ‘Norwegian Wood’ to the Allman Brothers’ ‘Whipping Post,’ Freddy King’s ‘Hideaway,’ Guy Van Duser’s arrangement of John Phillip Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes Forever,’ and a couple of blues instrumentals that I wrote.”
A double-DVD set of a concert that Walker performed in Bay Shore, Long Island, was also released this summer.
Lost & Found
Long Island’s contribution to the blues, Toby Walker continues to drop the epithet “Little” from his billing, producing a blues-rooted sound that’s much bigger than his diminutive frame. With his latest release, Walker reaches into his archives, bringing together clips from live performances and radio appearances. Reworked blues classics by Charlie Patton, Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Dixon, and the Memphis Jug Band and a highly improvised interpretation of “I Know You Rider” reveal a reverence for the traditions, while a half dozen originals show that Walker is not stuck in the past.
—Craig Harris (Chicopee, MA)
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