Walter Parks Swamp by Chandelier Spirituals Reimagined

Presented by The Arts Council of Martin County and The Lyric Theatre

Walter Parks is an American original and a study in contrasts. Appearing in his one-man show, Swamp by Chandelier – Spirituals Reimagined the Jacksonville, Florida native is dedicated to giving voice to the music of north Florida and the Georgia swamps but he has operatic training. He was the lead guitar player for Richie Havens and spent time in a French monastery. He was trained in the classical viola and plays the electric guitar. He’s a Southerner who now lives in New Jersey. In an interview several years ago, he spoke of why the music of the people who lived around the Okefenokee Swamp touched him, “The most interesting were swamp hollers. They’re melodic messages hunters would sing. They’re beautiful and there is almost a jazz and operatic quality.”

In Spirituals Reimagined, Parks will present his own compositions of spirituals, hymns and worksongs that were the soundtrack to modern America as well as the songs that they have inspired. “Great Gig in the sky,” a gospel song inspired by a Pink Floyd tune; “Georgia Rice/Up From Under,” a song about the trek of slaves south into Florida; the hymn “How Great Thou Art;” “Freedom,” an upbeat song Richie Havens improvised; “Amazing Grace;” and “Way Down in the Hole,” an upbeat version of the Tom Waits song that was the theme for the television series, “The Wire.” It is an eclectic mix, to be sure.

The title “Swamp by Chandelier” comes from the anomaly that a chandelier would be in a swamp. “As out of place as might be an elegant chandelier suspended in the rustic realm of the swamp, one could say the same of human presence in it throughout the years,” Parks shared. He traces the inspiration of the show to his days as a Boy Scout in Jacksonville camping on Billy’s Island in the Okefenokee Swamp. He saw signs of life: old railroad tracks, rusted machinery and an old graveyard and thought that people had lived there once and probably made music. He researched the area in the Library of Congress American Folklife Collection and found the tapes recorded in the Franklin Roosevelt era. For this show, he decided not to replicate the sounds, but to reinterpret the songs with, as he says, “my voice, my guitar and electronic ambient treatments.”

Parks found the music beautiful and haunting. It was the soundtrack of his young life. Later, he would travel Europe with Richie Havens, who was considered worldly and exotic by Europeans. Watching and working with Havens added a layer to his work. Today, his shows feature American roots music, songs he sang with Havens, entertaining stories and his gritty, earthy sound.

In an interview, he explained that he takes the metaphor of the chandelier in the swamp even further.
“I pride myself on presenting myself of the archetype of the Southern gentleman,” he said. “Even though it’s earthy and gritty, I try to be more sophisticated. That’s the chandelier. It’s rootsy, earthy music, but maybe I’ll be in a tuxedo or wearing an old-fashioned hat. I won’t have a chandelier, but maybe a lightbulb, to symbolize the minimal conditions in which people lived in the swamp.” Presented by The Arts Council of Martin County and The Lyric Theatre.