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By Katrina Margolis
Hometown Weekly Reporter
Toby Walker is an incredibly dynamic performer. Telling his stories to the students at Needham High School, he exudes an energy rarely seen anywhere besides rock concerts. Relaying his tales of meeting sharecropper Jack Owens in Mississippi and the racial dynamics as recently as the 1990s, the audience was transfixed, hanging on his every word.
“I’ve been earning money at playing the guitar since I was 17, and I’m 98!” Walker said. Not only is he dynamic and high energy, he has an incredible sense of humor.
Walker lives in North New Jersey, where, about fifteen years ago, a teacher asked him if he could perform for some of their students, and also work it into their education.
“I said 'Sure, there’s the Great Migration and the history of blues music has a lot to do with all of that,'” Walker said. “Especially the places I’ve traveled and the people I’ve talked to. Those stories really illustrate some of the Jim Crow laws, the laws that were down there, that still exist. I have tons of pictures, recordings - all of these thing I did back in the ‘90s. I thought, 'I’ll put together these pictures and put together a program and try it out in the schools.'”
One of the most powerful stories Walker tells is of a man named Jack Owens, a black sharecropper in Mississippi with whom he took lessons. “You don’t look a white man in the face when he’s yelling at you, it’s disrespectful,” Owens told Walker.
Out of context, especially living in this area, one might assume this line was from the 1950s or ‘60s. However, it was just a little over a decade ago that Walker heard these words from Owens. Walker opens his audience’s eyes to the reality of somewhere not so far from where they live.
“I don’t like to think of this as educational even though that’s what’s going on. I like to think of this as entertainment and a break from what they’re doing in class,” Walker explained. “Because they’re learning, but they don’t realize it, and that’s the whole point.”
Walker works with seven schools in the Long Island area, and came up here after Paige Rowse moved. Now a NHS Librarian, Rowse knew Walker from New York and told him he had to come up to do a presentation in Needham. “He was also here this morning and did a different kind of workshop with the guitar class,” Rowse added. “I told them some stories too, but I also gave them a guitar lesson, something that I was taught, so I was teaching them exactly what I was taught in the south. We had a good time,” Walker said.
Well-spoken and well-traveled, Walker is a proponent of following one's own passion. “The one thing I can say is I did not listen to my guidance counselors. I said, 'You know, I really want to go around and play music for a living,' and they were like, 'You have to go to college,' and I said, 'No, I think I want to play guitar.'"
"And that’s what I do!" he said.