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Homegrown Plus: Walter Parks

In this photo of Walter Parks, Walter sings into a microphone with one hand raised and the other holding the neck of his guitar.. Photo is accompanied by the Homegrown 2020 logo, which includes the words "Library of Congress American Folklife Center Homegrown 2020 Concert Series, "Homegrown at Home."

Walter Parks. Photo by Suzanna Mars. Courtesy of Walter Parks.

Since our 2017 Homegrown concert series, we’ve been presenting Homegrown Plus blogs for our concerts with accompanying oral history interviews, placing both together in an easy-to-find blog post. (Find the whole series here!) Since the 2020 season, when the Covid-19 pandemic prevented us from gathering audiences in performance spaces, we have been presenting video concerts, in which artists record themselves or have others record them, and submit the videos to us for the series, which we’ve been calling “Homegrown at Home.”

We’re filling in the Homegrown Plus series with one that got away, our great 2020 concert with Walter Parks, one of the first “Homegrown at Home” concerts. We were delayed in presenting this blog for a while due to some technical difficulties with the interview, but we’re particularly happy to present this concert, which showcased our collections in a unique and compelling way.

I first encountered Walter Parks some years ago at Folk Alliance International, an annual gathering of the folk music community. Along with AFC’s Jennifer Cutting, Walter and I chatted about his many musical interests. Although then living in New Jersey, Walter comes from northern Florida, and he was particularly fascinated by a collection of archival recordings made by Francis Harper of traditional music and storytelling in the Okefenokee Swamp.

Harper made the recordings in August, 1944, on Chesser’s Island, a small enclave in the Georgia swamp which included the Chesser family homestead. Harper used equipment and discs supplied by the by the Archive of Folk Song, which is now our own American Folklife Center archive. The original recordings are therefore here, but copies were retained by Harper and are now archived at Georgia Southern University.

Walter has listened to copies of this collection in both places. He has arranged material from the collection for his own performances, including his Homegrown Concert, which is almost entirely made up of material from the archive. If that weren’t enough, Walter made the journey from his current home in St. Louis all the way down to the Chesser homestead, so he could record part of his concert video in the same place where the archival recordings were made. It gives his concert an extraordinary sense of place, and we’re particularly delighted to present it to you here. See it in the player below!

In our conversation, Walter and I spoke about his long and distinguished musical career. Walter was raised in Jacksonville, Florida. A consummate guitarist, he formed the duo The Nudes with Stephanie Winters in 1991, and spent much of the 1990s touring with her around the U.S. The Nudes toured as a supporting act for Woodstock legend Richie Havens, and after the duo’s breakup Parks was enlisted as Havens’s guitarist and right-hand man. With Havens, Walter performed for over 10 years, and played Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall and The Cannes Film Festival, among many other venues. Walter and his wife Margo have also been arts presenters and advocates in urban New Jersey.

The Richie Havens Trio in 2008 (l-r): Walter Parks, Richie Havens, Stephanie Winters. Parks and Winters were the popular duo The Nudes in the 1990s, and worked with Richie Havens in the 2000s. Photo by Kenji Ross. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

We talked about all that history, as well as Walter’s gradual acceptance of traditional folk music, which led to his research into the Harper recordings, and ultimately his vision in recording his Homegrown Concert video. Watch the interview in the player below!

Walter’s musical journey and his research have continued since his concert. He has recently performed at various venues with R&B drum legend Bernard Purdie and at Lincoln Center with Judy Collins. Walter tours with his own trio, Swamp Cabbage, with his solo show Swamp By Chandelier, and with an Americana spirituals project called The Unlawful Assembly, which was co-founded by drummer Steven Williams.

On the research side, Walter has continued his deep study of the background to the Francis Harper recordings. Recently he heard a podcast that seemed to feature the youthful voice of Bill Chesser, one of the Chesser children present at the 1944 recording session. He had already met Bill in the course of his research, but had not heard a 1944 recording of him. Walter contacted AFC, where my colleague Allina Migoni found him the original recording of young Bill Chesser hollering in 1944.

Two men sit on a golf cart.

Walter Parks and Bill Chesser, 2022. Courtesy of Walter Parks.

Bill Chesser is still alive today, and he has memories of the swamp that few others can match. Walter has done several interviews, one quite recently. As Walter recently wrote me:

Please feel free to reveal that I sat with Bill Chesser, who at 90 years old is the last living hollerer preserved on The Francis Harper recordings in 1944. Sadly he didn’t remember performing the specific holler that’s archived in the AFC, but among the many riches he shared which I’ll compile soon, he did clarify some “myths” and misconceptions about hollering in the Okefenokee Swamp. He also had plenty to say about the modern romantic notion that the old-times were always better. Having grown up on a wood plank floor with “gaps between them as thick as a finger,” to this day, he has no fondness for hardwood floors unless they’re covered in carpet!

We’ll look forward to hearing more about Walter’s interviews with Bill Chesser. In the meantime, you can find both of Walter’s videos with more bibliographic information on the Library of Congress website, with the concert here at this link and the oral history at this link.

Thanks for watching, listening, and reading! The American Folklife Center’s Homegrown Concert Series brings music, dance, and spoken arts from across the country, and some from further afield, to the Library of Congress. For information on current concerts, visit the Folklife Concerts page at Concerts from the Library of Congress. For past concerts, including links to webcasts and other information, visit the Homegrown Concerts Online Archive.

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