Both a concert and a historical experience, “Swamp by Chandelier” includes storytelling, guitar music and singing about the former residents of the Okefenokee Swamp and the impact they made on Georgia music.
Singer/guitarist Walter Parks is bringing his powerful show to the Tybee Post Theater on May 20.
“It’s mostly a concert, of course, but it’s also stories about the human settlement of the Okefenokee Swamp from the late 1700s through the 1950s,” he says.
Parks was the longtime sideman for Woodstock legend Richie Havens. A few of Havens’ classics will be included in the concert, as well as Parks’ original compositions.
Some of his compositions are reinterpretations of music that he found in the U.S. Library of Congress Folklife Collection. During the Great Depression, Alan Lomax recorded and preserved blues in a well-known project in the Mississippi Delta.
Meanwhile, in Southeast Georgia, naturalist Francis Harper recorded the music and stories of the swampers of the Okeefenokee Swamp before they were evicted when it was declared a national wildlife refuge. While it was equally important, Harper’s project is not as well known today as Lomax’s.
“I still have a dream of returning to Savannah and living there full-time and promoting the music of that area,” Parks says. “The sound is a unique sound.
“I feel we could market that region a lot more than just as part of our resources of beauty. Swamp music advanced from the Okefenokee.
“When I used to camp out there as a Boy Scout, I would see vestiges of the people who once lived out there,” he says. “When I got older, it occurred to me the swampland and marshes have inspired my music so much, that I wondered if the people who lived in the swamps made music — and of course, they did.”
Keeping hollers alive
The swampers made a lot of music, including traditional songs, shape-note singing and hollers.
“I did research and found a small treasure trove from the U.S. Library of Congress,” Parks says. “The music is wonderful. I love being in the Okefenokee area.
“I try to go at least once a year and rent a little bass boat and go out as far as I can,” he says. “I feel it recharges my creative energy.”
Parks is fascinated by the hollers.
“They didn’t consider hollers music at all,” he says. “It was a practical way of communicating with their relatives.
“I wrote and got in touch with one group of people on one of the tapes,” Parks says. “One was a young boy at the time he was recorded. I wrote to him, and he was so nice to write me back.”
The man wrote that the hollers were never meant to be entertaining.
“We were just calling in the hogs,” he wrote.
But to Parks, the hollers are very musical, and he wanted to do interpretations of them.
“I started experimenting and one thing led to another,” he says. “I started playing melodies on electric guitar and realized they had inherent operative qualities.
“If they were played on a fiddle, they would sound very countryish. If they were played on an electric guitar and I sang with my own style, they kind of had an operatic quality.
“There’s not that much in the Library of Congress that represents these hollers,” Parks says. “Most of the music in the library is shape-note singing, which is spiritual in nature.”
But shape-note singing is in no danger of disappearing.
“It’s beautiful, but it’s been well-represented throughout the years by folk musicians and historians and traditional music organizations,” Parks says. “They continue that tradition.
“I was fascinated by the hollers because they were practical, but I wanted to turn them into music. And I’m just beginning.
“I’ve done two of these hollers based on original ones,” he says. “There was a man named Chesser who sang them.”
There is an island in the Okefenokee that is named for the Chesser family.
“I took these melodies and I reworked them and added my own feel to them,” Parks says. “I feel I’m honoring their tradition but also doing something that gives the hollers an extended life.
“I feel it’s a very important Georgia cultural project. I just started performing them in October and am traveling around with this.
“The message of it has something to do with the concept of coming home and not knowing if your home is going to be the same as when you left it,” he says. “A lot of times they would be in the woods for days at a time and wouldn’t know what they were returning to.”
The hollers have universal appeal, Parks says.
“It is a sense of leaving your roots and when you return after your time away, is it going to be the same, or will you have changed so much you can’t stay in the place you came from?” he says. “And it’s beautiful sounding.
“Imagine combining a Georgia country feeling with Italian opera. I’m really having fun experimenting with this.
“I’ve done about as much as I can with the original tapes,” Parks says. “Now I’m starting to write in the style that inspired me.”
First local show
The Tybee appearance will be the first time Parks has performed his program in Georgia.
“I also do my own music, including some music from my album ‘Swamp Cabbage,’” he says.
Parks has found some props that enhance the show.
“I’m carrying around some old chandeliers from an old 1920s theater,” he says. “I commissioned a fabric sculpture company, the Experience Collective in Savannah, to make a backdrop for this tour that depicts Spanish moss.
“‘Swamp Chandelier’ is something classic and elegant, but presented with an edge,” Parks says, “There’s a little bit of roughness and I’m magnetized to it.”
While the starting time of the program is listed as 8 p.m., it might be pushed back a bit to accommodate the Beach Bum Parade, which will happen earlier in the day.
Music as life
He may be a full-time musician now, but Parks didn’t start out that way.
“I studied business management at the University of Georgia,” Parks says. “I was kind of being groomed to go on the corporate path and I just couldn’t bear it.
“When I left Athens, I went back to Jacksonville and started a band. That’s what I really wanted to do.
“A lot of people say to me, ‘Walter, you’re living the dream,’” he says. “I go, ‘Well, OK, it’s been a merry adventure, but there’s a tremendous amount of insecurity that comes with it.”
Not that Parks has any regrets.
“I feel the artistic lifestyle is important, especially in the United States,” he says. “The arts is where we ignite our imagination.
“The arts is not about the obvious. It’s about you imagining something not right in front of your face.
“What perplexes me is the general public’s hesitation to accept the arts as important in America,” Parks says. “If you stare at a painting long enough or listen to a piece of music long enough, you’ll notice things you didn’t notice before.”
That can lead to inspiration to do the things you always wanted, but put aside.
“I’m proud to be making this my lifestyle,” Parks says. “When our passion is ignited, we can change our lives and our country in good ways.
“When we talk about what’s great about America, we talk about American art and music. Blues and jazz came from the South.
“That’s why I’m so proud to be kind of an ambassador of music in the South,” he says. “I live in New York for the most part these days and I play Europe and all over the country, but it was Southeast Georgia and Northwest Florida that inspired my work.”
The arts provide more than enjoyment.
“My point is that it’s important to bolster the arts, especially the great American arts, because it drives commerce,” Parks says. “No town knows better how arts drive commerce than New Orleans.
“I’ve been doing a lot of workshops at schools about stewardship of arts and commerce. A lot of young students are being told you can’t make any money in the arts, that it’s not a worthwhile profession.
“But how much money does the Arch in St. Louis generate?” he says, “How much money does the Eiffel Tower generate in Paris, or jazz in New Orleans?”
IF YOU GO
What: Walter Parks’ “Swamp by Chandelier”
When: 8 p.m. May 20
Where: Tybee Post Theater, 10 Van Horne Ave., Tybee Island
Cost: $25 or $22.50 for members