This is Part II of the Toby Walker interview, you can find an introduction and Part I of the interview here.


Do you have a specific reason using fingerpicks?

I started out as a street performer, when I was doing a lot of acoustic music and at that time there wasn’t good amplification for that. You had these little boxes called “Pignose” and that was one of the only battery powered amps. You couldn’t put the volume of these things all the way up because it would distort, so you had to put it about half way. It was some volume but not much, so I put fingerpicks and a thumpick on and that really gave me the extra volume, without distortion, that I needed so I could be heard in the streets when I was busking. I always used them ever since. So I use in a lot of cases a plastic thumb pick and metal finger picks.

When you’re playing I see you stand a lot and you’re playing out of a “classical” position, do you have a history in classical guitar or what’s the reason for this?

I took about six months of classical guitar lessons because I really enjoyed to study lots of different types of music. While doing that I found out that, even when I sit, I have the guitar on my left leg because it brings in the neck closer to me. Besides that I have short fingers so it gives me a good, long, stretch. It just feels really comfortable for me. So when I stand up it’s also easy because it’s just the same angle with a strap.

I started out sitting a lot when I was performing. After some time I started to stand more, and for me that’s the way because I like the dynamic of standing be able to move around. I’m able to present a better show while standing, it’s an entertaining thing. It’s as if when I’m sitting back, the audience has to come to me while when I’m standing I can bring myself to the audience.

Like we talked about a little earlier at one moment you decided to visit the south and find the older bluesmen and women. You found artists and studied with Etta Baker, Son Thomas, RL Burnside and others. Can you tell us more about these trips?

James ‘Son’ Thomas and Toby Walker

Well I had a friend of mine who had gone to these parts of the country to visit Wade Walton who was a barber and a guitar and harmonica player. And my friend told me he was planning another visit and he asked me if I wanted to join him and of course I was interested. So we went down there and I convinced him to take me further south into Leland to find James “Son” Thomas, which we did.

I remember how extremely excited I was when I asked James “Son” Thomas “Do you think I can record you?” and he said “Go ahead!”. I don’t think my feeth touched the ground when I went back up to my car, got my casette recorder and pushed the play button. I remember interviewing him and him playing songs. At that point I said to myself “I’m gonna come back down here and do this a lot more often”.

I had a good friend of mine down there, James O’Neill who started Livin’ Blues Magazine. Jim O’Neill became my contact, so he would tell me “Hey Toby, Eugene Powell lives in Greenville… I don’t have his address or phone number but he lives somewhere in Greenville”. So I would go to Greenville and just started asking around and that’s how I found a lot of these artists. For example I heard that R.L. Burnside was alive and living in the Holly Springs area, so I went into this area and just started asking people and they would just say “He lives over there, you have to go that way” and that’s how I found him.

The first time was the hardest time to find my way, after that it became easier. I knew how to go back and I had my contacts in the area. Sometimes I would bring my video camera and I always took my casette recorder with me and of course my guitar to learn as much as I could from these old masters. But I had the video, so everything I may have forgotten I could play the stuff at home on my video player. I still have all these recordings and someone just converted it to DVD format for me somehow. Anytime I want it I still can pop it into my computer and I’m studying from James “Son” Thomas again.

Wow, that has value!

Yes it’s pretty cool stuff. Sometimes my wife says “You gotta make movie of that”, I say “No, this is all for my own personal use”. I never wanted to make any money out of these recordings, that was my deal – this is just for my use and if I ever do put something out, like a snippet of a video, or maybe a song, it will always be for free. I really don’t want to make money out of that.

What were these older blues artists thinking of you traveling down south and being so interested in their playing?

I think when I was down there, between 1990 and 1994, they were already quite used to white guys coming down looking for them and studying with them. Jack Owens used to tell me that it used to make him a little mad that there were these busses with Japenese tourists would come around. They would take a lot of pictures and they were listening when he was playing and then they thanked him and they left. I think Jack Owens really wanted to be reimbursed in some way.

Jack Owens and Toby Walker at Jac’s front porch

Every time I went down there I always made an agreement that I would pay them for their time and that was really appreciated. They were used to white people coming down and listening to their music and giving nothing in return. I really made some good friendships because they knew I wasn’t gonna take advantage of ‘m. Appreciation in some or any form.

The first time I visited Jack Owens I brought him a whole bunch of groceries from the town. Him and his harmonica player, Bud Spires, they were looking at all these groceries and they said “I guess we have to eat all of this”, I said “No, just put it into your refrigirator”. Jack said he couldn’t because he couldn’t plug his refrigirator in it cost too much electricity so we literally had to eat all of it (*laughs). Just to give you an idea how poor these people were.

Son Thomas, Eugene Powell, R.L. Burnside, Jack Owens and even Sam Carr… they lived in poverty. They were pretty poor. Etta Baker had a bit of a better financial situation, she owned a nice home.

Was there a sense of ‘bitterniss’ for this poverty or maybe the ‘missed’ chance to record and ‘make it’ as an artist?

I didn’t get that impression. I got the impression that they were pretty happy about being appreciated for their music.

I think it was Jack Owens who was wearing a Chicago Blues Festival baseball cap and he was totally proud that they brought him up to Chicago to play over there, he was very proud of that.

Do you know what the early influences were for the artists you met over there like Son Thomas and Eugene Powell?

Yes, I asked James “Son” Thomas. He was born around the 20’s and his influences were people of the 40’s and 50’s such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Elmore James.

Eugene Powell, or Sonny Boy Nelson,  listened to a lot of music that was being played in his area in Greenville. Remember this, Eugene played with the Chatmon’s (Sam Chatmon and Armenter Chatmon also know as Bo Carter – members of the Mississippi Sheiks) so he knew a lot of these old songs. Eugene also played with a travelling medicine show when he was a teenager and heard a lot of different music while travelling around.

Eugene’s daddy was white and his mom was black, so because he was more ‘white coloured’ he was able to play the white folks parties. So he also knew a lot of the old jazz songs, he would play them at these parties and play the blues for the black folks parties.

Jack Owens’ influence was all the stuff he would hear when you listen to old Skip James records. Jack’s influence was just around the Bentonia area, he lived near Skip James. He played all those songs. When I asked him if he directly learned from Skip, he got really mad and he would say “Oh no, I taught Skippy everything he ever learned!”.  

And about R.L. Burnside, can you tell us what kind of a guy he was?

He was a farmer, he fished a lot and he had a lot of kids. Everyone was walking around over there. He was very generous with showing me his guitar techniques, how he would hit the guitar in this unique Hill Country style.

I have recordings of him saying these poems, they were called “toasts”. These tiny sing-songs with no melody to it but just ‘talking’. It’s a bit like rap music nowadays, in a poetic way. He said they sometimes they would get together with all the neighbours, the men, and they would try to “out-toast” each other. Some of them were really funny.

R.L. was a very nice, warm and generous guy.

You are teaching at workshops but also through your own DVD’s published by Homspun. How did you got involved with Homespun/Happy Traum as a teacher?

At age 18 or 19 I started teaching guitar, I already had learned a lot by than. From that age I was always teaching all my life. At one point I remember that I had in my head that I should contact Happy and tell him who I was. I had looked in his catalogue and I thought: what can he use? I knew who his audience was and I knew what he did and I was looking for the ‘holes’ in his teaching material, if I can find these probably I can ‘fill’ them.

It took a couple of years of sending emails and reaching out to really find contact with Happy Traum. He said “Well, we’re not looking for anybody right now”. Then I gave up, just like ‘nevermind’. A few weeks after I decided to give up on this, Happy Traum sends me an email and he says “Hey, I didn’t heard from you in a while” (*laughs). Instead of sending him an email with another idea – I lied. I said “I’m gonna be right in your area (which I wasn’t), I’m gonna be driving right by – why not grab a coffee and you can hear some of my ideas”, he said “Sure!”.

Toby Walker and Happy Traum

So in the end I had to drive up to his office and I just pitched him three or four of the ideas I had. I think it was a couple of weeks later that he called me and said “Let’s give this a try!”. So we went in and recorded “Blues Fingerpicking Freedom” with which I filled the gap of all these people that teach you how to play a song but I wanted to teach them what else they could add to a song, more freedom, developing your own style and go your own ways within a song. That DVD lesson really sold and then Happy Traum said “Let’s do another!”. That was “Blues Fingerpicking Freedom volume 2”, that one also sold very well and then it all took off. I think right now I have six or seven DVD lessons out there.

That first meeting with Happy I brought that orginal Happy Traum fingerpicking book with Mississppi John Hurt on the cover of 1970, that’s where it all started for me. He signed it for me – that was a full circle experience for me.

Are there any new Toby Walker lessons coming on Homespun?

We were not actively working on a lesson lately but who knows. He will come up with something or I will and then we have a new project. That’s how it goes.

Do you see yourself as an ambassador of this style of music?

I never really thought about that. I always loved playing, performing and teaching these musical styles. I always liked the idea that I could make a living out of this – just doing what I love. It still surprises me!

I don’t really think of myself as someone who’s ‘passing it on’. I think of it as me enjoying playing and enjoying teaching and as a ‘side-thing’ I’m passing it on but that’s not what really drives me. But that’s of course a good thing.

But you’re teaching and playing the blues in schools and even hospitals. That sounds to me as ‘spreading this music’?

Now you ask this, I think in some sense that is true.

There are people that I thaught years ago, that now became teachers themselves. That’s cool and that’s spreading this music.

I also have lessons on my own website where people can download these lessons. From people who use my site I get constantly feedback. Like this letter here from a kid in England who’s autistic. He said that listening to my music helps him and to me that’s really great. Wonderful.

In that sense, if I can bring hapiness to people through this music by performing or teaching, that’s great!

What do you like more: teaching or playing?

(*laughs) No way I’m gonna choose, I can’t. It’s like choosing which hand you want chopped of: left or right?

It really is a balance for me, it’s one package.

What kind of music do you listen to yourself?

I tend to listen to the stuff I listened to when I was in my teens. Which was from the old Blind Lemon Jefferson to the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, the Chicago guys like Muddy and Wolf. I almost never listen to stuff that’s coming out now. I listen to stuff that I have and that’s mostly old (*laughs).

I even listen to quite some jazz stuff. I’m a big Miles Davis fan, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson etc. But Django Reinhardt as well!

What’s the position of acoustic blues in the musical landscape of these days according to you?

I think everything always goes in ‘loops’. Old things are coming back and go again. Acoustic blues and ‘old timey music’ was never mainstream. I think even the revival that happend in the mid-60’s and that bit of a revival that happend this last decade or two, it’s still underneath everything mainstream.

But I do see a lot of younger acts incorporating a lot of old time blues and bluegrass into their music now. You can hear a lot of these influences from let’s say the Carter Family or from country blues records. We need more people like that!

I don’t know what’s the best. I don’t know if it would be a good thing if this musical style would become mainstream. Look at Folk music, when it became mainstream it started to sound commercial and polished. Think for example of the Weavers. It didn’t sound how it sounded before, it sounded too arranged. As if they needed twenty times to record the perfect version of that song. You miss that raw quality.

When Johnny Winters recorded Muddy Waters in 1979 he had just a few microphones set in the room and they just played. Listen to that record, it has this raw quality. This bit of extra. The message is: play more and produce less. That’s probably the reason that I don’t listen to radio nowadays.

It’s a good idea to check out the American Epic documentary and the cd’s to understand this.

Which acoustic blues man is in your opinion underestimated or deserves more recognition?

I think of women (*laughs). They bring a whole different side to the music, they’re singing about the men and that’s a different perspective you know. For example Memphis Minnie – Me and my Chauffeur.. Lyrically there’s a whole different angle to it. Listen to the voice; there’s a whole different sound when a woman’s voice sings the blues. It’s incredibly sexy.

I mean it was the women who got this blues ball rolling in the first place. Think of Mamie Smith. It was only because some nutcase at a record company who said “Why we’re not recording a guy playing and singing the blues?” – they all thought that he was crazy. But from there it was only guys mostly.

There’s a lot of good female pickers as well like Erin Harpe. And Valerie Turner, she’s wonderful. If you could go back to 1935 and find a female Piedmont player, it would have been her. She has that style down, she sings so well. Her and her husband are just wonderful people.

How much did he practice in the beginning, how much does he play now when not performing?

I’m a morning person. Getting up early, everything’s quiet, the phone is not ringing. Which means I practice almost everyday from 8.00 to 11.30 am. It depends where I’m working on, if I’m working on a project (like a instructional DVD) then I’m working on that. A lot of times I’m going through things of my repertoire to keep everything fresh.

When I was younger I remember reading an interview with Eric Clapton and Eric said that he practiced 7-8 hours a day. I thought: so that’s how you do it. So when I was in high school, when I got home at let’s say 3 o’clock, I would play till 9 or 10 at night. I had friends and we would all play together, 7-8 hours a day.

Even in my late teens and early twenties I was always practicing a lot, like really a lot.

I was glad to be able to develop the habit of practice because if you wanne become really proficient at anything, you have to do it a lot – mindfully.

Can we expect new material of you soon?

Toby Walker – From the Ground Up

Yeah. Soon I’m gonna release a series on my website called “Doing more with less”, it’s on playing acoustic guitar. It’s about how to play very tasteful and expressively, not about speed or anything. There will be three sections: one will be about how to play blues acousticly, the other one will be about country music acousticly and the last one will be about all the modes. I wish I had this when I was learning.

A lot of people were asking to put out more slide guitar lessons, so I will be working on those in the near future.

Apart from all that I’m working on a recording which is gonna be titles “From the Ground Up”, it’s about my roots in country blues. Playing all the songs that really all got me into this. The songs that I listened to when I was 16 years old like Blind Lemon Jefferson, John Hurt, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. All that sitting in front of ONE microphone, one take, playing straight throught 20 songs.

What is your one-sentence advice to starting blues pickers?

Play from your heart.

People ask me when they buy a package of song lessons from me “With which song should I start?”, my answer is always the same “The one that you love the most and hits your heart, that’s where you’re gonna start”. I you’re gonna play a style, make sure it’s here (points at his heart). If it’s not in your hear, it won’t get into your fingers.

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