Veteran blues and jazz guitarist Walter Parks hails from northern Florida, where the Okefenokee Swamp is thick with palmettos, alligators and snakes, and his musical sound can be just as gnarly, just as raw and rootsy. Perhaps best known as Woodstock legend Richie Havens’ lead guitarist, for whom he honed a banjo fingerpicking style, Walter’s music is a swampy stew of growl, rasp, heat, and falsetto. He embraces his Southerness in storytelling and style, and writes songs rich in humanity, satire, a little danger, and often with a sense of humor.
With his neo-Southern rock band Swamp Cabbage, Walter is refining his current project, “Spirituals Reimagined,” a reinvention of spirituals, hymns and worksongs gleaned in part from his Presbyterian youth, from the black Sunday storefront churches, and Alan Lomax’s Library of Congress sound recording archives. In talking to Walter, it seems apparent that much of his life has crossed a spiritual path — he spent one summer with Buddhist Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh at his monastery in the south of France, and today Walter and his wife, Margo, live in the Jersey City, NJ former home of a plaster factory where Italian artisans molded and painted Catholic religious statuary. Walter felt so strongly about the building’s artistic past that he vowed to preserve it, and the couple turned the ground floor into The Jersey Statuary, an arts and music venue.
Walter and I spoke at length about his 10 years on stage with Richie Havens, his observations on black and white cultures today, and the genesis of his soulful “Spirituals Reimagined” project, which I was fortunate to hear in June at Rockwood Music Hall. The crowd kept Walter and his stellar band on stage playing as long as they could that night, and I heartily echoed the sentiment. Play on, Walter Parks!
RG: Walter, thank you for talking with me today. I'm incredibly grateful to you, and I was particularly thrilled that I got to hear you perform live the other night at Rockwood. That was really wonderful.
WP: Yeah, thank you.
RG: I wanted to start with a bit of history. You're from northern Florida, from Jacksonville, and I'm wondering whether music was big in your house when you were growing up and what kind of music you were raised on.
WP: Music was not really a part of my upbringing. Music was functional in my family household, it was mostly background music, which to this day I deplore. I find it very annoying to go into a restaurant and be distracted by background music. The only music I really heard when I was growing up that probably influenced me was gospel music on Sundays. My father would play that on television, and I think my father had an interesting and very twisted sense of humor so I think he enjoyed the spectacle and the carniness of gospel, of the realm that is gospel. There's a kind of a revolving door in that subculture of artists and musicians who step up to the microphone, sing their song, and then leave, and you know, it's one gospel act after the other.
I think my father played gospel music on Sunday mornings almost more to irritate the family and to just kind of stir us up. In a sense I think he was kind of satirizing it. Now when I say gospel music that he satirized, it was always white gospel. There were bands like the Florida Boys and these a cappella groups that sang all these spirituals and gospel songs. I listened to that and it didn't move me deeply, it just seemed almost like, well, put it this way, when I started hearing black gospel groups then I started to realize, ‘Oh, this is a really interesting, compelling interpretation of this same music I've been hearing every Sunday morning.’ It really moved me in a different way. But I didn't hear black gospel singers until I was a young adult.
RG: Were you able to share that with your father?
WP: No, not really, He was, to be sort of diplomatic, he was extremely old school white southern and he was not too interested in black culture, to be honest. I grew up with, honestly, a template that was critical of black culture but yet when I started listening to rock music in the early '70s, the music that interested me most was the early '70s music, like Al Green, and artists like James Brown. The Cornelius Brothers. A lot of the stuff that was on Soul Train. The O'Jays, and so on. They came a little later, but Stevie Wonder, for instance. I just loved it. I loved the groove of it, I loved the harmonies, I loved the beat. The other thing is when I was younger, my father used country music to wake me up. He would play Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton, all these artists, Porter Waggoner, when I had to get up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to go to school. He would blast that music. So I just hated country music when I was a kid. It was twangy, it seemed basic, it represented the music of simpletons to me and it wasn't until I was older that I appreciated it and how great some of that early country music was, and how rootsy. I appreciated the storytelling of it. But at the time I was just irritated by country music and I hated everything about it. My love of music was something that happened on my own. That was my own place of personal rescue in a sense. I love some of those early '70s R&B groups, and I started liking some of the English rock and roll bands.
RG: Who were you listening to?
WP: I was listening to even progressive stuff like Yes. My first concert was the band Yes.
RG: Oh wow, I loved them!
WP: 1972. I'm so fortunate to have lived in the town that I lived in. From the outside people would say, 'Oh, what a horrible place to live,' but it was a great place to live because it was right in the middle between Atlanta and Miami on the concert touring circuit and every band came through there. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, David Bowie, they all came through my town and played. Led Zeppelin. It was a great way to grow up, great music. But until I was an adult and moved to New York City, I did not want to have any aspect of Southernness in my music. It was mostly because I just abhorred country music when I was growing up. It's funny, I go to folk conferences and I lived in Nashville for awhile and even if you didn't play country music there's just a foundational respect for country. Nashville is the epicenter of it. Everything spokes out from country music and for me it was just not significant.
RG: When did you start playing an instrument and did you know pretty quickly that this was something you wanted to do?
WP: Probably around 1971, I'm guessing. I knew that I wanted to play guitar. It was pretty simple, I loved it and I still love it. I still feel a little guilty about it.
WP: I'll give you an example. This is an awful scenario but I had 15 minutes to spare today in New York City and I'm going into a hardware store to get some tools to work on my speaker cabinet that I can't wait to put together and finish. I was so excited that when I get home I'm going to be able to put this speaker cabinet together and I know it's going to sound great. I walked out of that hardware store and there was a homeless lady with jogging pants and she had just relieved herself in her pants and it was like, 'Wow, that's a juxtaposition.' Here I am, my main concern is my guitars and how wonderful that is in my life and so my point in saying this is, and that may be odd to print in this interview but you can do it if you want, but my point is my world has been dedicated to music since I was a young man. I lived it and at times I've asked myself, 'Is this really what I should have done with my life?' In other words could there have been other needs that I put myself to, and other ways that I could have helped people. You know, I have to say, when I compare my life to the life of bankers and lawyers and people that kind of have as their primary motivation just making money, when I look at it that way, I'm damn proud of the life choices I've made. And fans, and people who hear me play are always saying the music is inspiring. These comments are redemptive in a certain way, they're redeeming. So yes,
RG: You started on the guitar, but I read that you also play the viola, you play the bass.
WP: You're right, I forgot about that. I really did start on the viola, that was my first instrument, I think in 6th grade or something.
RG: Did you choose that or was that handed to you?
WP: I think I had a choice between that and the trumpet or the cornet, or the French horn or something like that, and I chose the viola. It was a choice but it was a choice among a few options. It wasn't as shrill as the violin and it wasn't as big as a cello. I mean, I was a kid, so the cello would be a big thing. I love the viola and I hate it when people make fun of violas and violists.
RG: It's a gorgeous sound. I actually love it, it's incredibly beautiful.
WP: Yep, me too.
RG: With all of this music background, how then did you find your way to your voice and your sound and to jazz and the blues? Was it the carry back to hearing the black gospel groups or was it something else along the way?
WP: I've been on this journey I think all of my life and not really knowing it. I've always been extremely interested in and extremely aware of black and white cultural dynamics in the United States and I think that's primarily from growing up in the south. So the answer to that is sort of twofold. First of all, I think that this spirituals endeavor is the culmination of that awareness and that perked interest of black and white cultures in this country. But I didn't set out to play spiritual music or gospel music per se, it’s just I allow things to open up in my life. I pay attention to them when they kind of land in my lap so to speak.
RG: Were you always that way or did something happen that lead you to start paying attention?
WP: I've operated that way most of my life. I think being a very tall person, when I was in junior high school I realized that I can't obsess, I can't analyze everything, and the main thing that really was healthy for me was to not think about my height. My height was an extreme impediment to me when I was very young, when I was 10 years old or something like that. I got picked on a lot, I got beat up for it. It's the opposite of the way it is today. Kids that are tall are considered heroes because they look like basketball players or at least they're destined for that. At the time, in the late '60s early '70s, it was just a reason to pick on a kid. So I decided that there were certain things that I wasn't going to obsess about, I wasn't going to operate from necessarily goal orientation.
What's never ever worked for me is saying to myself, 'I want to make $50,000 this year.' Or, 'I want to tour in California, I want to tour the whole West Coast.' Because every time I make kind of a resolve like that, I'll get a call from Europe and they'll say, 'We want you to play in Spain.' And what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to say 'No, I’ve made a plan to go to California?' I really believe that my life has been better because I've been willing to flex. Now there is a point that you do have to stick by your plan to an extent. I mean, I'm not just a latent opportunist who will cancel things left and right. But I do keep my heart and my senses open for opportunities because I realize that sometimes that's really God or the universe talking to you. You know? If there is a God, that's how God communicates with us. Just saying, 'Hey, this is gonna happen right now, this opportunity is ready, are you ready for it? Or are you stubbornly going to pursue this path that you think you should be on?’ So many great things have happened to me because I was open. I was not just open but I was flexible.
RG: I understand that. I've often felt the universe sometimes gives us much better things, at least in my life, than I could have figured out on my own.
WP: Yeah, I believe that there's tremendous wisdom in our bodies, our own bodies, and many times in my life I've made my best decisions just sitting and being quiet and saying, 'Do I want to knock down this wall in my house, remodel it?' Or, ‘Do I have the energy to do this tour that I'm thinking about doing?' And your body will tell you, 'No, we're not ready for that right now.' Now, I mean, sometimes I'm booked for a tour and I don't feel like doing it but I just suck it up and make it happen. But most of the time when I don't, when my body's not ready, my whole mind and my psyche is not ready either. I feel like I’ve diverted a little bit. The other, those are I think crucial components of how I operate.
RG: Let's follow through with that thought. Sometimes when you have a gig or a tour that you're not really excited about or you're just too tired to do, are there gifts that come as a result of doing it anyway? Perhaps there are audience members you're really touching in a way that you maybe couldn't have envisioned, or you meet somebody you might not have otherwise met. Or something wonderful has come from it.
WP: The answer to that is almost always. The other night in Vermont, for instance, I did something that I rarely do, I was booked to play in a bar. I said to my wife before I went on, 'I've got to play a four-hour gig tonight in a bar. I don't like this, I don't like playing, I don't like drunks,’ not that there was a guarantee that there were going to be drunks, ‘but I just don't want to be here right now.’ And my wife, who was traveling with me, and she rarely does, said, 'You know, you're here, and you have to make the best of it.' And that would have been the conclusion that I would have come to anyway. It turned out to be a wonderful night and by the time the dust settled I play three hours straight with no break. I was having such a good time and quite frankly I prefer to play a long time. It's not unusual for me to do three-hour concerts, especially if I’m in a situation like a bar or something. It's wonderful and generally some great stuff happens. I firmly believe that if I'm going to take the stage, I have to honor my audience and give 100 percent. It doesn't matter if I'm playing at Lincoln Center or if I'm playing a bar in upstate Vermont. Now where I have trouble is where I feel like people don't appreciate what I'm doing, and then I lose faith a little bit. But for the most part people do appreciate it. That gets me to an issue that I do want to talk about at some point, it's just the difference between playing in the United States and playing in Europe. But we don't have to talk about that.
RG: Let's just take a slightly different path for right now and then I think it will weave back in, because I see your music as being very attached to the human spirit, and it was very clear to me the other night just how deeply felt the audience feels about your music. I go to a lot of live concerts and I don't often feel that but I definitely did in yours. So that people have a really good sense of you, let's talk about the swamp. Your current band is Swamp Cabbage, you have Swamp by Chandelier, you talk about the Okefenokee Swamp, which has a lot of special meaning in your music, and I think you kind of consider yourself a swamp jazz guitarist and composer. What is swamp jazz, and tell me about swamp hollers.
WP: Well first of all swamp is in fact a musical field. It's almost, if I had to translate it, it would be southern white funk. Not black funk, per se, the Ohio Players and James Brown. It's like if a country musician played funk music, and then it becomes kind of swampy. The reason I've adopted this notion of the swamp as influencing my music is because the swamp is where I played, and I'm talking about when I roamed around the woods as a young boy, playing with all the other kids. It was in palmettos, it was in where the alligators were, where the snakes were, and this just kind of worked its way into my music. I don't know how else to put it other than I play the landscape I grew up in. I play the soundtrack of the people and the places I grew up with. Swamp jazz is, well first all, I'll back up. I can't tell you why my music should be defined as swamp other than that it has a little bit of an edge to it and there's that omnipresent danger to a swamp, there's a rustic nature to it, but it's also very beautiful. Even if I play a pretty guitar chord, I'll kind of have a little gnarly sound on it, I'll have a little air on the sound, a little mild distortion. That is good balance to me. That reminds me of the swamp, beauty and danger all in one. I want to make a quick little diversion. I don't know whether you saw the version of 'Georgia on My Mind' that I did, it was just solo guitar. There's a YouTube of it.
RG: No, I haven't seen it yet.
WP: I'm so proud of it. It's just instrumental. I worked on that before I recorded it for about a month, just trying to get an arrangement together. Most of the comments on YouTube are favorable. But some of the comments kind of go a little dark, like 'This guy has awful tone, you know, he can play but he's got a terrible tone.' It's not that I have a terrible tone, it's just that they don't get it! I could go out and buy a $20,000 jazz guitar and play it through a real clean transistor amplifier like most of the jazz guys do, and wear a tuxedo and play it like that and they would say, 'Wow, this is great!' But I intentionally deliver it with a little bit of gnarly edge, and mostly because I feel comfortable with that style.
I love that style. This is getting back on track with your question, the swamp style is, I feel like I hit the bulls eye with that. When I came to New York as a young man, in my early 30s, I didn't have a style at that point. But I came up here hoping to find one or hoping to develop one, and what I discovered is that I already had one. It just took people from other parts of the world, and other parts of the country, to notice that I had it. Once I noticed that I had it I just had to accept it, and then I had to learn how to exploit it, and I mean that in a good way. I learned how to utilize it. That's when I decided to put Swamp Cabbage together because, and I will make one more slight backup which is pertinent, when I lived in Nashville before I moved back to New York, before I got the gig with Richie Havens, I was beginning to experiment with the four-string banjo. I was beginning to get serious with it. In Nashville I was recording some with what they call contra dance bands. I've actually never told a journalist this before, now that I think about it. But it's one of the ways I made money when I moved to Nashville. I would record bands on my hookup, I would go out to these barns where they were having contra dances and I would record them. I was fascinated by the banjos. They didn't play that sort of ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ style of banjo, they played what they called a clawhammer style of banjo.
Fast forward to getting the gig with Richie Havens. The only direction he ever gave me is that he wanted our two guitars to sound like one guitar. At first I had no clue what to do. But then I pulled back into that banjo picking style I had worked on in Nashville and I realized it would work really well on the guitar with Richie Haven's strumming style. Because I wasn't duplicating what he was doing. Most guitar players when they play chords they strum, but I was playing it with a banjo style. It worked beautifully with his galloping strumming style, and I realized I had some job security in that, when I found that little secret to playing with Richie.
RG: Do you know why that was important to him?
WP: No, I don't. I really don't.
RG: I should say here that for 10 years you played lead guitar for Richie Havens, the Woodstock legend, he famously was the opening act. The story I heard you tell and that I had also heard before is that he was asked to keep playing for upwards of three hours because the traffic was so backed up that the other musicians hadn't arrived at Woodstock yet. I also heard you say that you now play a version of ‘Freedom’ at all of your gigs which, correct me if I'm wrong, is really kind of an improv of 'Motherless Child,' which is a spiritual.
WP: Yes, yes, yes. Yep. The lyrics, ‘Freedom Freedom,’ was Richie's thing, and after he sang ‘Freedom’ then he went into the two verses of ‘Motherless Child’ and then he finished off by singing ‘Freedom’ again, and clap your hands, and it just became known as his song basically.
RG: Were there any particular highlights of working with him, or lessons learned, or special moments for you?
WP: I think the most special moment was playing in Madison Square Garden with him. We played for Pete Seeger's 90th birthday, and we only got to play one song, but at that moment I realized this was possibly a once in a lifetime experience, although it was the second time I had played at Madison Square Garden at that point. But to have that degree of focus on what I was a part of was unique, in that sense. It was just Richie and me. I was on a stool, and Richie was on a stool in Madison Square Garden. That's a lot of room to fill up with people. But what I will say about that gig, on my very first festival gig with Richie which was at the Edmonton Folk Festival, I think, in Canada, I looked up and I saw 15,000, 20,000 people, and I was very very nervous to have the gig and at the same time I was very proud of myself.
WP: Self aware but yet, to be honest, I was distracted. But very proud to be there, and then it occurred to me where my focus needed to be. Again, this goes back to what we were talking abut earlier, sometimes I don't have grand life focus in terms of how much money I want to make in a year but I do keep my eye on the prize in this instance. What my focus needs to be when I'm on stage at the Edmonton Folk Festival or at Madison Square Garden or at Carnegie Hall, I had to ask myself, 'What is my role?' My role in that moment was to support Richie Havens. My role was not to aggrandize my own ego and be absorbed in how proud of myself I was. Which is probably the place that a lot of musicians would go to in their awareness in that moment. I decided to forgo that and I just thought, 'The only way I can get through this and play well and not be paralyzed with nerves and so on is to keep my eye on Richie and keep my mind on us trying to sound like one guitar, which was his original directive. So when I got realigned, when I checked in with what my overarching role was, I had no more nervousness. It just immediately went away. And I remember one point, you can see this on my website, there's a video clip of us playing at Madison Square Garden. At one point I think I'm standing up getting people to clap their hands throughout the whole Garden, and it's like, ‘This is incredible!’
It was a huge responsibility because in that four to five minutes I was a big part of that. I was completely subordinate to Richie but it was still an important role. But no matter how important it was, my role was to support him. That's something I learned throughout my life since then and I think it's something that young musicians would well remember is that you have to realize what your role is, and you have to accept that role, and if you can't accept that role then get off the train! Get off the train at the next stop! Because you're just going to do everybody an injustice, yourself, your employer, and the audience.
RG: That's a huge thing to have learned from playing with Richie in those moments.
WP: It was such a gift. I spent hours and hours and hours with Richie Havens, driving around Canada, driving around the United States, and it got to the point where our relationship evolved in an interesting way. At one point early on there was so much to explore of course, and then we evolved to the point five years in where we'd said everything. We could drive two hours down the road and not exchange a word, just like an old married couple. Then things changed even more toward the end and we probably became a little bit more willing to exchange political ideologies and so on and I think we realized, I realized, that I wasn't as I guess you could say in harmony with Richie's world perspective as he would have liked me to be.
RG: Ah, interesting!
WP: He was such an optimist, and he had such ceaseless faith in the average person. He had faith in people, and I don't know that I share that faith. I mean, I'm not completely negative but I mean Richie just always believed that people would do the right thing and help each other out. So without going down that road too much, that was kind of the evolution of our relationship in that sense. That's not where the question, that's not what you wanted to know!
RG: I'm always happy to hear about Richie. It does kind of segue into this concept of faith and spirituals and your show ‘Spirituals Reimagined’ and its origins. I have to tell you, Walter, I absolutely loved what you guys did the other night. It was incredible. I think I told your wife afterward that I have a new favorite song in 'Early in the Morning.'
WP: Oh, wow!
RG: It was just extraordinary, and I would love to hear how you developed it. Spirituals are often considered the religious form of blues, right? So to some degree it's in keeping with your music overall, but how did you end up down this road?
WP: Well quite simply I wanted to pursue spiritual music because I realized the power of it when I had to sing at my father's memorial. He passed away this past December. I wouldn't call myself a religious man, per se, in that I don't go to church every Sunday, let's just leave it at that. I'll go deeper if you want. But I realized that the lyrics notwithstanding, if you don't even consider the lyrics, the spiritual music has power, deep power. I asked myself, ‘Why is that?’ I was so confounded by why I, as not a regular churchgoer, why I was so moved by this music. 'Amazing Grace.' 'Precious Lord.' 'How Great Thou Art.' Why did this music, as simple as it is, move me so deeply?
I looked up this history of those songs and I realized they came from great sorrow. I realized, or at least I guessed, that this sorrow was actually written into that melody. That melody would never have come to the songwriter had the sorrow not been there, and that if that was never a presence of a divine force, a force beyond the human creator, then I don't know what is. I mean, the writer by candlelight on some slave ship, he's in a redemptive moment and this melody comes to him and the melody is 'Amazing Grace,' which was originally called 'New Britain.' I mean, we can tell ourselves that that melody came from him, straight from him, but I don't know if I would explain it that way. I think that melody was a gift to him, and that he was open to that gift and it was the right time for him to receive that gift. So if he's receiving a gift, where's he receiving it from? I realized this music was very very powerful and I needed to dig deeper because I was pretty certain in December when I was working these arrangements out that this music was more powerful beyond its words and beyond its melody and I wanted to explore that more.
Then I got to thinking, 'Well, OK, black and white issues are very very important to me, why don't I dig into some of the early slave music?' And I did, and I felt the same power singing 'Wade in the Water,' singing 'Follow the Drinking Gourd,' which Richie Havens also used to sing. I realized that no matter what – and once again, I have to back up but it's all pertinent – I'm starting to realize that because of my father's passing, maybe this kept me on my journey of exploring the dynamic of black and white cultures in the south. I saw it as a hopeful moment, a hopeful uniting moment. I was brought up with a very very divisive political analytical perspective toward races and cultures other than my own, and I guess you could say that that's racism, however you want to label it. If your culture is the standard by which everybody else should be judged, and then you judge others negatively, then I think that's a racist perspective, and that's how I was brought up.
RG: I hear you.
WP: But I thought that maybe, maybe this is my path. I'm not sure if I'm right. But again, I took this as a sign that I should be going down this road for awhile. And you know what? I did, and I put this show together called 'Spirituals Reimagined,' and some musicians that I've been working with in New York, some black musicians and white musicians had been wanting to work with me for awhile, and I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to come together because I feel it would give a certain credence to this music, if presented by mixed cultures, mixed races. It would give credence to the project, and it would probably be good for everybody. I think my instincts have been right about it. The phone's not ringing off the hook right now but we're starting to get some inquiries, we got a booking in Canada for November, so some things are starting to happen.
I think it's the right path for me to go down. Am I going to save the world with this? I don't know, I doubt it. But if a project I'm working on can have meaning attached to it and not just that it feels good to me, if it can have a social significance or sort of a positive side effect if you will, then I feel particularly good about it. Getting back to once again what I started with, it's like, playing the guitar and playing music that has anything to do with jazz makes me feel so good, I feel guilty sometimes. Because, you know, a lot of people don't have the good life that I have. Like the lady I saw on the street today, who probably had to use the bathroom in her pants because nobody would let her use their own bathroom, you know?
RG: It's always, at least for me, it's always very sobering.
WP: Sobering, yep. It's amazing in this day and age that people are not taken care of, people are in really bad shape.
RG: Yes, and in fact we're almost going out of our way to make it worse.
WP: Yeah, and that comes from the American ethic of, ‘You reap what you sow.’ If somebody's not doing so good they made some bad choices and they need to live with them. That's the American ideology. I mean, there's some truth to that, but gosh, when you’re dealing with somebody who's not mentally right then you can't evaluate and analyze their life like that. But we do, and it's sad.
RG: The music you're performing in 'Spirituals Reimagined,' is there a meaning in this music that is different for you than in other music that you're playing? Is there a different resonance for you than in some of the other music that you play?
WP: There is. But I probably am going to give you an answer that you're not expecting in that it comes so naturally and it's so easy for me to do this music that it's very relaxing and I just enjoy it more than I even do playing my own music, like Swamp Cabbage music. It's just extremely enjoying because it's not that technically hard. I mean, I do some things that are technically challenging like my solos and so on, but the onus, the responsibility, is for me to get in the right feel. It's to come at this music with the right frame of heart – not frame of mind but frame of heart. When my heart is not in the right place, when I'm not remembering where this music came from, when I'm not remembering where it can take us, then the music starts to fall flat, it just becomes going through the motions. And so that's why it's so enjoyable. I think I play with plenty of soul, you know?
WP: I'm either blessed with it or, I don't honestly think it's a blessing at all. I think it's something I work at and it was a willingness. It completely came from the respect for black culture and respect for black music, and it's not me imitating black music and black culture, it's just respect. And it's a willingness to mix, a willingness to try to understand black culture. When I say black culture I'm talking about why the music exists at all, why the need for that music. I'm not talking about appreciating the culture, I'm talking about respecting and understanding it. I’m just very proud that I'm able to play with a feel that people are comfortable with, that black and white musicians are comfortable with it, and that the audience seems to enjoy. I'm very very proud of that.
RG: I was looking through the titles and listening to a lot of your music on various albums and it seemed to me you've been using spiritual imagery and iconography in song titles and lyrics long before you did ‘Spirituals Reimagined.’
RG: Were you raised in a particular religion that you were using that? What does the idea of faith mean for you? I heard you say you went to the Library of Congress and did a lot of research for this particular project. How did you determine which songs you were going to work on and flesh out? In some respects you're writing these songs in conjunction with the history of what was already written.
WP: Yeah, like for instance in 'Early in the Morning,' I worked with a melody that was available on Alan Lomax's tape. It was just a melody but I had to put chords to it and I had to make a chorus out of it, and so in that sense I’m writing, and where the drummer plays and when he comes in and when he doesn't come in. I went through probably 100 of these songs and I just listened to them and again I was open and I asked myself what lends itself to my playing style, you know? That's the thing, again, leaning back on so much of what I learned from Richie and the great musicians that he used to hang out with. They don't work so hard. It's really interesting, I think a lot of great musicians know when it's time to work hard and when it's time to work easy. If I felt a song like 'Early in the Morning' could kind of easily play with my style, play within my style, then that was one that I used. I would just fiddle around with it a little bit and go, 'No, I'm not getting any ideas on this particular one so let's move on, let's look for some others.' So it was mostly instinct and feel, but I went through probably 100 of them.
WP: Spirituals, and I'm still going through them. People give me song ideas all the time and say, 'You got to check this one out,' and I do. But it's getting to the point where people know my style and they can pretty well predict when something's going to work for me. It's kind of cool that way. I'm starting to be able to really trust my audience in that sense. I think my audiences also know that it's just an endless venture and I don't always hit the bulls eye but I'm always looking. So was I always spiritual, always religious? I was brought up Presbyterian, we always went to church, for the younger part of my life, we went to church every Sunday. But if I can be very honest, and I've never really said this before, either, in an interview, but I really resented having to be forced to do things at the same time with everybody else if they involved a relationship to God. I resented the pastor or the preacher saying, 'Let us pray.' We now have to pray at this moment. I don't want to pray right now! I don't feel like talking to God! To hell with you, I'll talk to God later when I'm good and ready, you know? And, ‘Let us now stand up and sing this hymn in unison.’ I don't want to, I don’t want to sing this hymn. It's a beautiful hymn but I don't want to stand up because I'm having to listen to this guy next to me who can't sing. I don't want us to all do it together! So I began to feel very very uncomfortable with a packaged religion and going to churches and so I didn't continue that as an adult. But I was brought up Presbyterian, my father was, I can't say that he was a religious man but religion was very important to him. He was a Sunday school teacher and he made it our regimen every Sunday when I was really young, probably up until maybe junior high school. It was compulsory.
RG: With ‘Spirituals Reimagined,’ do you think that you have always been on this path, so to speak? I looked at some of the titles of your other songs, and there's a sacredness in some of them, and there's some funny stuff, you have a song called Poontang, which is a good song!
WP: That’s a good song. It's irreverent as hell but I'm proud of that.
RG: I'm starting to form this opinion that you might have been on this path without even knowing it until finally you've landed on ‘Spirituals Reimagined.’
WP: Well I think you're right. I never quite thought of it that way but I think my father's passing was the catalyst for it. My mother used to tell me that when I was a little boy, you know kids, they have these imaginary games they play, and my imaginary game was I'd get my father's necktie and I'd wrap it around me like it was the preacher's robe and I would slam my hand down on a cardboard box as if it was the pulpit and I would keep saying, 'I don't know what to do, I don't know what to do.' She would catch me in my room just repeating that over and over again. So maybe you're right, maybe this is just full circle and I can accept that, if that's what it is, because I don't know that everybody gets to find where they need to be. I think it's very possible that this is where I need to be. I don't know how else to elaborate on that other than I still have to wait and see, it's kind of early. We haven't even recorded this music.
RG: I was going to ask if there are plans to do that.
WP: Yes, I do plan to do it this summer. I've performed it enough and worked out a lot of the kinks of it and I think I'm ready to go down that road, so yes.
RG: Do you think with this kind of music that it makes a difference if it's heard live? The idea of a live concert, going to church, so to speak? Being in communion, to continue the imagery, with others in the audience? I have to tell you before you answer, it felt very powerful being in a room full of people hearing you play.
WP: Thank you. You may be right, maybe that's the way we do it. Aretha Franklin did a live spirituals album. That does seem to be the conclusion that a lot of performers have come to. I'm going to try to do it in the studio because I may be fooling myself but I still love the studio as a place where you can manifest a signed work of art. I want this stuff to bear repeated listening as a work of art, not just as a moment where everybody's moved to yell. I guess I’m saying I want the sounds to be magnificent that you hear on the record. If my goal is to have a transformative experience and to archive that and capture it then that's a waste of my time and everybody's time. All they gotta do is drive down to South Carolina and listen to AM radio on a Sunday. If you want a transformative experience why listen to Walter Parks? You know? I mean, there's a lot of musicians who do that a lot better than me.
RG: That may be true, but people don't necessarily hear it that way from those other people. They may hear it from you.
WP: Well, I can't argue that and I agree with you. Possibly the only solution I can offer, and that I may resort to, and that your hunch may prove completely correct on this, is that possibly we'll have people in the studio when we record so that the recording can have that element of stewardship with an audience, so to speak.
RG: Your music is filled with fun and an incredibly good time. I'm thinking here of the song you called, 'Butta,' as in it's the South, there's always gonna be ‘butta’ on grits. But it also felt to me that there's a healing component involved. Something deeper and richer, even on those fun songs. Do you notice that when you're playing in front of audiences?
WP: Well they tell me that. Sometimes I wonder if I should play 'Butta' because it's so silly, you know? But on the other hand we do need comic relief in life a little bit.
RG: True, absolutely!
WP: It's an absurd song but, that said, I am very very proud of the writing on that song. I mean, it's well-written and I'm saying that myself. It was painstakingly written.
RG: I think it's more a question about connecting with your heart and the audience's heart at the same time, and the intention and point of connection.
WP: Yeah. That's a tricky one. I do think that serious spirituality needs to be mixed with good comic relief every now and then.
RG: I love that.
WP: We need to laugh at life. That's the best I can say on that.
RG: One thing you said in concert that I was fascinated by is that 'Amazing Grace,' every time it's sung, is redemptive. Can you talk about that? Is that something you found or did you come up with that?
WP: You mean the feeling of the redemptive?
RG: I thought it was gorgeous the way that you phrased it.
WP: Well I have felt that it was sort of realigning and redemptive. In the modern parlance, to play that song and to complete a version of it, it seems to reset the soul. Like, ‘I'm back to normal now, I kind of optimized my hard drive so to speak,’ you know? The redemptive aspect, it's another way of saying that, it's a reset. Again, I think it has to do with the quest and the yearning for redemption that the songwriter was experiencing when he wrote it, and that carries through. All to say, I think that I've begun in a deeper way to understand in the spirituals what the role of songwriting is. We're really laying bare the journey of our lives, you know? Songs are just chapters in our lives – even if they're fiction, they're still us.
Thinking about 'Poontang,' 'Poontang' is a story. It's a story of real things that happened. It's fiction but it might as well be real because it came from my life and so it is a chapter in my life, it is a chapter on the path to me trying to attain redemption, which is, to get the question answered, has this been a life worth lived, a life well-lived, and have I made this place better or have I made it worse? And this place I'm referring to of course is just the planet, the earth, you know? That's the redemption I seek. I'm not so interested in salvation of my soul. I'm not going to go there. I'll leave that to the churches. The redemption I need is has this been a life well-lived, and that's what I'm in quest of, the answer to that.
RG: Has working on this project changed your interconnection with creativity, or accepting your swamp roots, so to speak?
WP: Swamp Cabbage clarified accepting my swamp roots. This project has kind of given me the OK. I've never really thought about it before, but I think it’s that I'm spiritually realigning. As you probably know, in 1998 I went to a monastery and I was going down that road. I mean, I was in that reality, that’s where I was, and I haven't been in that reality. As a matter of fact, Buddhism kind of got lost on me for awhile.
RG: Let's back up for a second. This was in 1998, right? So you're in Nashville and, what, you wake up one morning and decide to go to a Buddhist monastery in France?
WP: Yeah, yeah.
RG: How does that happen?!
WP: Well, I was at the conclusion of my time of touring with my group The Nudes, and we had done a double bill with an Indian musician named Tom Prasada-Rao. A wonderful man, he's kind of a guru sort of a guy. He's about my age but just one of the nicest human beings you'd ever want to be around. He's an all-round great person. I was becoming burned out and disillusioned, and he said, 'You need to check this guy, Thich Nhat Hanh, out, Walt.' And Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book called, 'Living Buddha, Living Christ,' and the crux of it was you don't have to disavow the spiritual path that you grew up on to explore another one. It's OK if you were brought up a Christian. If you want to learn something about Buddhism just learn something about Buddhism and, I'm simplifying it almost disgracefully, but it spoke to me and I thought, 'Gee, I need to get to France and study with this guy. Who is this guy?!' So I did! I went there for a summer and I didn't tell anybody that I played guitar. I just wanted to find out what I had left, you know?
RG: For the whole summer you were not playing your guitar?
WP: Yeah, I didn't bring the guitar and I didn't play one. At the very very end there was a show-and-tell, kind of like a talent show, and I thought well that's fair game, I'm going to break it out. Somebody was there and they wanted to do a duet of Lenny Kravitz's 'Let Love Rule,' so that's what I did. That was my reveal, so to speak, that song.
RG: Were they shocked?
WP: Well, I wasn't as good in 1998 as a solo artist as I am now. I really understand the role and I understand the dynamics and I hadn't played with Richie Havens at that point so I learned a lot since. I don't know, I think I did a good job. Yeah, I was always a good singer. I probably did well.
RG: It's all learning along the way. So you came back but you didn't continue to practice Buddhism or anything along those lines?
WP: No, I didn’t carry it on. I felt like I learned from it and I had some philosophical issues with it that I still haven't worked out. I remember asking Thich Nhat Hanh, 'How can we, if we're supposed to be in the moment all the time, how can we plan for our future? How does that work?' And he goes, 'Well that's how you plan for the future, you be in the moment and the future takes care of itself.' And frankly I just don't buy it. I have a hard time with that, it's like, ‘Oh really?’ You know, this guy flies around the world, who books his plane flights? I mean, it's a great notion and everything but I don't buy it. I think, just like Thich Nhat Hanh said, there needs to be a combination of these sorts of values. If I have my world view it's this, and I don't even know that I'm going to be able to articulate this well because I haven't thought about presenting it in this manner, but I think what the world needs to do, and especially this country, is accept that different cultures of this world, since we're all in this pool together now in a way that we have never been before, historically, we need to accept that different cultures bring strengths and weaknesses to the table. Put it this way, I'm happy to get a German person to design, to engineer my automobile. You know? And if I want my soul music, I don't go to the Germans for soul music. I'll come to the American south and I'll get my soul music from somebody who grew up down there, probably a black person. And on and on. We need to accept that people bring strengths and weaknesses to the table.
Just like in the concept of Buddhism. Being in the moment can't book your plane flight, it just can't, and so you have to leave that Buddhist realm to get that plane flight booked. You just have to. Or somebody has to do it while you're sitting around meditating all day long. Somebody has to leave the Buddhist realm. And I'm, I really feel like I'm trying to do my part to talk about our strengths and our weaknesses. I don't want to get too deep into this, but I feel like we get into trouble when we deny that there are not weaknesses. When we come together in a mixing bowl of cultures and we accept or we expect that we're just going to be harmonious because we're all together, it's nonsense. We have to realize that the rules of the game change when everybody gets together. It's like in a family. It's just a bigger family. When you're with your family at the dinner table there are kind of rules of conduct. Some people cook, some people serve, some people talk, some people listen. The whole world is a family now.
I don't really even have it all worked out other than to say I'm so glad that I can even have a forum to try to successfully and harmoniously bring people together, because I am not a musician that says we should all live as one and leave it at that. That's what always bothered me about the '60s ideology and the sort of original hippie ideology and the neo-hippie ideology, it's like, 'Let's all live as one, peace.' 'Brother, it's all good, everything's good.' Well everything's not good! And how do we make it good? What I want to try to do, I'm trying for answers, I'm trying for solutions. That's what I want to try to bring. To be honest, when I get in the dressing room and I talk about black and white issues with my band, that's my litmus test. They might say, 'Nah, nah, you're wrong there, Walt. That's not the way it is.' Or whatever. If I can't have these discussions with the band that I'm playing with, how can we discuss things on a world level?
RG: What kinds of things do you talk about with the band on this subject?
WP: I'm probably closest with the drummer, Steven, and we had a great conversation the other day down in Orlando. It was my theory that white people, the white people I grew up with, they feel good – they feel great, as a matter of fact – when they can have a good, meaningful, open conversation with people of black culture. Now I'm talking about southerners, here, I'm not talking about people from New York City who are used to mixing. I'm talking about people who aren't used to mixing. A lot of my white southern friends and white southern family, they feel great when they get the opportunity to talk with a person of color and to realize the similarities that we share. But you know what? They don't know how to broach that subject. They don't even know how to make that bridge, they don't know how to make that conversation happen. They're too concerned with insulting people, or they're too sensitive of trying to respect other people's culture, that that conversation never even happens. Or they're too intimidated. And that's a chance I'm willing to take.
So my theory is white people, they don't know how to talk to black people, and they don't know how to start the conversation. And he said black people don't either! There's a lot of black people, they don't know how to have a conversation with a white person. But my feeling is, and this isn't just feeling, this is, I know this: People enjoy it, they enjoy coming together, they enjoy feeling that they've gotten to know the heart of people on the other side. It makes them feel good, it makes them feel hopeful. But they've got to be shown how to do it, and that's what I'm trying to do with this band. I'm just trying to show people how to come together. Nobody needs to be shown that in New York, really. But they might need to be shown that down in Columbus, Georgia or something. I love Georgia. I love it. In many ways there's evidence of racial harmony, deep racial harmony, that I haven't seen ever up north. But there's also sometimes when things go awry, you know?
RG: It's interesting that you can use your band and your music to help bring that about, and then it may spill over into the audiences as well.
WP: I'm hoping that's the effect. A lot of it is going to be accomplished in conversation, not so much in just example on the stage. These are not new dynamics. I mean, there have been multiracial bands since the beginning of bands. The Allman Brothers. Jimi Hendrix, and for some people this is not even an issue we're talking about. But I happen to know that it is an issue we're talking about because our country is in deep deep turmoil right now, and I'm not even trying to go political here. The fact is, we're very very divided.
RG: We are.
WP: When people figure out what side of a political spectrum you're on, many people make the decision and make the choice, ‘OK, I'm done with this person.’ If the other person is not in accordance with their core values, they're like, 'Why bother, I'm done with that.' I think that's very dangerous, actually. That is the most unpatriotic perspective we can possibly have, is to voluntarily divide ourselves ideologically and to decide we're not going to have a conversation amongst us. We have to apply the resources of our brains, minds and hearts a little better than that, otherwise we will be vulnerable to outside forces.
RG: I like that music can often help pave the way toward achieving some of that. It always kind of used to do that, and perhaps it can do it again, maybe on a larger scale.
WP: That is something that I know can happen. That's part of the reason I think the vehicle of spirituality, of spiritual music, is really really crucial right now because people who ascribe to the extreme right in the United States and align themselves or feel very religious, they can enjoy this music, they clearly can find a reason to appreciate 'Precious Lord' and 'Amazing Grace,' and then people who consider themselves more liberal can say, 'Wow, OK, this is a story, this is the soundtrack of the downtrodden, we like the downtrodden,' you know? It's an endeavor that crosses the sociopolitical tracks, so to speak.
RG: It feels to me like it's the right time, and I usually think that there aren't accidents, so you find yourself here at the moment that you need to find yourself here.
WP: Yeah. I'm happy to be doing it and I feel that it is an important quest. I hope I get the chance to continue it. I hope it has legs, I hope it has some legs, you know?
RG: It feels like it will.
WP: Well we've just started with it, we'll see how the record does and, you know, people have to have something to take home with them.
RG: I have to tell you, I think yours was the first concert I've been to in a very very long time where you were not selling something from the stage.
WP: Yeah, and it's interesting, I wasn't selling it because I didn't have it to sell. On the other hand, I don't think that’s the way to do it anymore. If people want the music, they'll find a way to take it home. They'll find it, if it moves them enough.
RG: Speaking of the word home, there was one other place I wanted to go because I think it ties in with everything we’ve talked about. Tell me the story of the building where you live in Jersey City, because I think it's fascinating from what I read.
WP: Well once again, here's religion. First of all, I came to the neighborhood because Richie Havens lived on the next block over. I thought that maybe if I got in close to Richie we could rehearse a lot together. I already had the gig with him but I wanted to be around him. I wanted to absorb as much of Richie as possible and I loved him and respected him and also thought that it would be some degree of job security, in practical terms. So we were made aware that this building was coming up for sale, it was a statue factory and they made, out of plaster, they molded these statues for the Catholic churches and paired statues of saints and Marys and all of these Catholic religious figures. I came to visit the owner, he was an old Italian guy. I told the owner, ‘I love art, I love Europe, I love going there, I love Italy, and I want to buy this building and I want to save it for the arts, I want to do artistic things in this building. I’m not going to tear it down.’ Prices were just starting to rise, and I said, ‘I can't get involved in a bidding war with you, I'm not going to be able to do that, I'm a musician and I've just started a new gig and I just can't do it. But I will promise you that I won't tear this building down and I will always have as its foundation the arts, which is what you're doing.’
The family business had revolved around the arts and sculpture for almost 100 years. He agreed to sell it to me, and from what I understand there were even higher offers. So in this day and age, that kind of a choice, a business choice, is unheard of. People always go for the dollar, you know? They always go for the dollar. Was I planning to buy a building in Jersey City? No! I never even wanted to live in Jersey City. To me, Manhattan was the ultimate, why live anywhere else? I didn't uproot my whole life to leave Jacksonville, Florida to come to Jersey City. But again, I was open, this presented itself, it's a freestanding building, I thought, I can rehearse here, I love lofts, both my wife and I are tall, I felt the building would have a special heart and significance, a special passion that would fuel us. And my hunch about that was right. And the building was a dump. It was a complete dump. I had to gut it down to the bare wall, completely gut it and make it livable. It was not livable. It took me two years. I worked on it for two years before we lived in it. Me and this other guy.
RG: The two of you did all the work?
WP: Yeah. Two years. I mean, outside of electrical and plumbing, which I had to subcontract. All the framing, the dry wall, the tiles and all that stuff we basically did ourselves and it was very satisfying.
RG: Did you already know how to do all of that?
WP: Well my father was an architect. I grew up around building and my grandfather was what they call a civil engineer so I was always around structures. So I understand that world, yes. I thought it was all the more special that it was a