Walter Parks releases his first LP with The Unlawful Assembly
“We can play in a country church in Mississippi, or we can draw a crowd to a hipster club in Brooklyn. We connect with a large audience ”, explains the veteran musician Walter Parks, talking about the music of his next album, Illegal assembly (released September 10 via Atomic Sound). “The joy, gratitude, pain and longing in these songs are universally felt.”
After studying guitar with jazz guitarist Robert Conti, Parks was the accompanist to the legendary Richie Havens for 10 years. He was part of a folk duo called The Nudes, with cellist Stephanie Winters, and has been in a rehearsal and rehearsal group for several years now called Swamp Cabbage.
Parks is known for his swampy style and gritty voice, as well as his astute music historian. In 2020, he was invited by the Library of Congress to archive his research and perform his musical arrangements made by homesteaders in the Okefenokee Swamp. Now living in St. Louis, MO, Parks originally grew up in Northeast Florida (or what he calls “the Georgian part of Florida”). “It was during the Woodstock days, and despite the peace and love aspects of that movement, I was bullied because I was tall, skinny, short hair and also played. “very uncool” viola, “Parks explains.
At the start of the pandemic, Parks created a Sunday morning radio series called “Hymns & Hollers” to explore a powerful and eerie paradox about the origins of spiritual music that he believes could unify and heal. The show does not have a religious agenda per se, but is more historical and philosophical in nature.
“To endure hell on Earth and aspire to a better life from the cruel bonds of slavery, African Americans created and sang spirituals, campaign cries, coded songs and chants of work that have often borrowed from biblical accounts and the hymns of their oppressors. These same spirituals, songs and hollers would soon inspire the great American roots music that followed – the blues and jazz that would later inspire gospel, rhythm and blues, soul, folk and rock and roll. Ironically, as if the circle had come full circle, more than a century after emancipation, millions of young Americans and I only learned the blues through rock and roll performances emanating from England – the country that was once the command center for the slave trade and the source of many classical Christian hymns, which influenced the spirituals.
Parks sees spirituals as a common thread – an undeniable sonic glue born out of the bonds of slavery, now binding us all together for the common good as reimagined by The Unlawful Assembly, with collaborator / drummer / producer Steven Williams, Ada Dyer on vocals, Paul Frazier on bass, Michael Bellar on organ and Andrae Murchison on trombone.
“Steal Away”, a spiritual underground railroad of biblical origin, pays homage to the Mighty Clouds of Joy of the early 1960s. Inspired by Richie Havens’ version of “Follow The Drinking Gourd”, a “coded song” recalled runaway slaves how to find and use The North Star. The required hymn “Amazing Grace” is the redemptive plea of a slave ship captain after acknowledging the horrors his chosen line of work had permitted. ‘Early In The Mornin’ ” pays homage to Alan Lomax’s original recording on the pitch of a Parchman Farm chain chant in order to strike a track piece in unison.
“Georgia Rice” is based on a folk tale from the Okefenokee Swamp: during Florida’s years as Spanish, if a slave could escape the rice plantations along Georgia’s southeast coast, outrun the bounty hunters while heading southwest, escaping the natural hazards of the Okefenokee Swamp, then finding a passage through the St. Mary’s River, they could then strike a deal for freedom in exchange for conversion to the Catholicism and service in the Spanish army. Many runaways found their way to Fort Mose, near St. Augustine, to live among other former slaves who had endured their own odyssey of escape.
European families – mostly of Scottish descent – began to inhabit the Okefenokee Islands in the mid-1800s. They import festive violin coils and develop their own relationship with the banjo, an instrument of African origin. They brought spiritual music in the form of harp songs and sacred harp songs. And they brought screams – beautiful rolling melodies, resembling yodels sung by hunters – through the pine woods, to signal the approach of the house, after spending several days in the desert.
“Georgia Rice” begins with a howl, but the lyrics are sung from the point of view of a runaway slave who, pursued by bounty hunters, hears a white man screaming in the distance in the pine forest. A great risk, the slave walks over to the white man thinking that no slave stalkers would scream. “Georgia Rice” spans two periods of history to convey the hopeful premise that when no one is watching, we are doing the right thing. In this case, the white underwater, also in great danger, helps the runaway find The St Mary’s.
“Shoulder It,” co-written by Parks with Stan Lynch, the original drummer for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, addresses a major obstacle to societal progress – the practical perspective that the challenges of any culture, people or race are uniquely his. surpass.
The American imagination represents the realm of spirituals, blues and jazz in Mississippi or Louisiana, but Parks’ inspiration for The Unlawful Assembly comes from the Okefenokee swamp in southeast Georgia. One hundred years after the first slaves fled to the marshes of the coastal rice plantations, their descendants returned to lay railroads for The Hebbard Lumber Company. Walter speculates that at this time, the lyrics of work songs sung in unison by black men while ardently hammering steel, began to make their way into “old-fashioned songs.” and the howls sung by the white castaways.
Jacksonville, in northeast Florida, is considered by many to be the epicenter of southern rock because The Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd were formed there. Walter thinks there is a subtle ‘funky’ feel of black influence (as it was called in the 1970s) in southern rock that differentiates it from country music and he thinks that the music of the neighboring Okefenokee was probably an important factor in this distinction. aspect.
Parks’ gifts aren’t limited to music: “It really isn’t possible to focus on just one art form in the modern age. When sometimes the balance tips too far from the music, I take refuge in woodworking, studying French, theater and painting in a modern art style. My wife and I also present concerts.
He is a storyteller and yet, himself, a motionless character. He is the real deal. It’s Walter Parks.