Johnny Walker, singer-guitarist of Toledo’s Soledad Brothers, was born with his umbilical cord wrapped seven times around his neck. Talk about bona fide. After all, even Bo Diddley didn’t really have a “rattlesnake for a necktie.”
And wouldn’t you know, Walker grew up to be a bluesman. But having a built-in mythology — a birth that sounds as much like a classic Delta tall tale as meeting the devil at the crossroads — is not enough to avoid sticky questions of blues authenticity. That goes double when you’re a member of a white punk-blues outfit that employs iconic black-power imagery in its band name. Walker, however, seems well-qualified for the job. For one thing, the blues are in his blood — fed to him at a young age by his biker father. And he’s got the required hard-luck background, struggling to stay out of trouble on the streets of Toledo, which he describes as “Detroit without stuff to do.” As for the dip into racial politics, the Brothers actually have the endorsement of White Panther Party founder and MC5 manager John Sinclair, who wrote the book on white support for militant black causes in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
And then there’s the thing that Walker shares with every other three-time loser that’s poured his heart out over a steel guitar in some dusty old juke joint … a medical degree.
That’s right: Walker’s an MD, a rare distinction for a blues player or an indie-rocker, two genres that he and drummer Ben Swank straddle more comfortably than any other act (including the subtlety-challenged Jon Spencer Blues Explosion).
Lately, as an internist, Walker has been focusing on child psychiatry and playing his blues for patients. “You see these little kids who have conduct disorder, mean little kids who drown cats and stuff,” he says. “Before you know it, they get happy, and then you see them asking really therapeutic questions of their peers. They actually start caring about other people. Weird.”
But the blues and medicine are hardly strangers, and Walker just can’t seem to separate the two. Blues songs have always dealt with affliction and its perceived causes and solutions: black-cat bones, mojo hands, snake doctors, jinxes. However, few bluesmen have made the connection to modern medicine, with the exception of Depression-era piano player Roosevelt Sykes. “I works on the soul and the doctor works on the body,” chants John Sinclair in his song, “Dr. Blues,” which he took from an old Sykes interview. “Both are important/They all mixed to one/Two makes one.”
When the Soledad Brothers opened for Sinclair’s own blues act at a club in Cleveland recently, it was their avidity for blues and politics, not Walker’s medical inclinations, that blew Sinclair’s mind. Walker and Swank ended up sitting in for his set. “He was just kinda taken aback by the whole thing,” Walker remembers. “You know, ‘These little white kids, they know all these old blues songs. What’s goin’ on?'”
After the gig, Sinclair became a friend and ended up explaining the origins of the band’s name in the notes for the Brothers’ debut. The name is a reference to three insurgent convicts at Soledad Prison, one of whom, George Jackson, authored a book called Soledad Brother, before being gunned down by guards at San Quentin in ’71. The event became iconic for the Black Panthers and, by extension, the White Panthers, which Detroit boho impresario Sinclair formed in ’68 as — depending on whom you ask — either the Black Panthers’ paler brothers-in-arms, or merely as a publicity stunt (self-appointed punk biographer Legs McNeil calls it “the MC5 fan club”). In any case, their legacy vitally effected Walker, whose first taste of blues included the MC5. Writes Sinclair in the album’s notes, “Somehow, against all odds, these two young men of the Caucasian persuasion have reached out to embrace our long-obscured revolutionary legacy of thirty years ago and the almost equally obscured root music of the African-American experience.”
Yet the real-life stories behind Walker’s songs have little to do with anyone else’s roots or revolutions. Take “Johnny’s Death Letter,” a 1998 single based on Walker’s experiences as a nurse, caring for Nashville guitarist Curly Quinlan in his last days, or “Shining Path,” an exhausted-sounding spiritual, though not one actually inspired by rambles down dirt roads. “It’s about going from a really bad neighborhood to getting into med school,” says Walker, “all the trouble I had to go through, staying out of trouble the whole time.”
Speaking in between tours from his home in Toledo, Walker seems remarkably forthright and soft-spoken for someone who’s named himself after the liquor and never wants to reveal his age. The recording session for the Soledad Brothers’ latest album, Steal Your Soul and Dare Your Spirit to Move, suggests that such humility is earned. Walker knocked out the guitar and vocal tracks for the record while working eight-to-ten-hour days in an emergency room in the Cincinnati area. It was also the time of the country’s most cataclysmic antipolice riots since 1992, after some cops were acquitted for shooting a young black man, reportedly over parking tickets. “I only saw two cops in there the whole time,” he says. “But there was like a never-ending flow of kids who had gotten the shit kicked out of ’em. It was pretty horrible. I would work in the emergency room patching these kids up, and during the nighttime I would go and record. There was a definite twinge of angst when we recorded all that stuff.”
Some of the album’s thirteen tracks reflect that turmoil. In the Dylan-ish “Nation’s Bell,” the understated anger of the lyrics punctures Swank’s loping rhythm and Walker’s stylistic drawl: “Two cops pull a man over/say where you been/the man reached for his wallet and shots did ring.” But as with the debut — whose cover featured a bound and blindfolded Uncle Sam about to eat what was coming out of Walker and Swank’s shotguns — the album has a warmth that can’t be cloaked by politics or swagger. That intimacy is apparent in the swelling ballad “Ray of Love,” and a Delta-fied cover of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” “This Guitar Says I’m Sorry” is a gently arching instrumental that sounds like it came straight off an archival Folkways release. But the overall soulfulness comes from the inspired sloppiness of Walker’s winding, creaky guitar work and Swank’s smacking and pattering percussion. Like their one-time Estrus labelmates (and current tour-mates) the Makers, Walker and Swank play the music of the past, not note-for-note like so many revivalists, but from the heart. They make extremely human music, in the tradition of Walker’s heroes: Mississippi Fred McDowell, John Lee Hooker, and Keith Richards — it’s no wonder it makes good medicine.
For some white boys doing the blues thing, legacies are hard, maybe impossible to fully embrace, much less carry. You can be born in an umbilical noose and walk “47 miles of barbed wire,” but never know if you’ve succeeded. Anyway, such grandiose concerns don’t seem to be where Walker’s head is at. “I’m watching people die of cancer every day,” he says. “I’ve probably seen more than most people have as far as pain and suffering goes. What I do is I go home and write songs.”