The Unlawful Assembly
Paul Storey/Courtesy photo
The Unlawful Assembly

Simple to the bone, straight to the heart

Walter Parks of The Unlawful Assembly brings old spirituals into the present day and makes music that reaches across the color lines

PUTNEY — Walter Parks, the 65-year-old guitarist, composer, founder and band leader of The Unlawful Assembly, lives in St. Louis and says it's a great music town. He founded the band earlier this year and plays guitar and sings, along with Ada Dyer on vocals and Steven Williams, drummer and producer.

The Unlawful Assembly reimagines and tributes historic spirituals and hymns that universally inspire, empower, and unite. The Commons had an extensive phone interview (where Parks sang and broke out his guitar several times) recently. Here's an excerpt of the conversation:

Victoria Chertok: How did The Unlawful Assembly begin, and how did you decide to play and sing these types of songs?

Walter Parks: I had to sing a few spirituals and hymns at my father's memorial when he passed away five years ago. Church was compulsory for me when I was a kid. I didn't like it. I started singing this music, and this sense of power overcame me with the lyrics.

When I finally sang "Amazing Grace" at my father's service, I asked, "What is this song about?" I researched it and found out that it was a redemptive exercise written by a slave ship captain. Then I realized the song has universal appeal.

I realized something about songwriting: The best is simple to the bone, straight to the heart. That led me into old English hymns, the roots of all the music we love.

This is not a religious project. This is a historic project that takes old spirituals like "Down by the Riverside" and brings it into the present day. It's almost like [electronic dance music]; it has that kind of vibe.

V.C.: You toured with and played next to Richie Havens from 2001 to 2011. What lessons did you learn playing with Richie?

W.P.: When I first got the gig with Richie, I was playing three nights a week for 10 years. It was a great experience. I feel like one of the luckiest musicians in the world. I learned so much from him.

He valued the average person. He was 100% in the moment with whoever he was talking to instead of looking around the room for people who could help his career.

He was a true man of the people. He liked to mentor new talent in young people. He would appreciate and nurture the reasons why we as older artists got into art in the first place.

V.C.: You say that you play guitar like a piano. How so?

W.P.: As a guitar player, I love working on my guitar and studying musical harmony. I play the guitar kind of like a piano. I translate the music to guitar from old hymns which were written for organ. I use the piano or organ music and translate it for guitar.

Then the light went off. I hear hymns and spirituals in everything now!

V.C.: How did an experience in Vermont change your creative career?

W.P.: I was a guitar player for years before one of my mentors, Daniel Lanois, of Ontario, Canada, a great lover of American roots music, taught me a different relationship with my instrument: a finger pick method, kind of like caressing of the guitar and playing it like a banjo in a sort of banjo style. There is not a day that goes by that I don't think of Daniel.

V.C.: How did you find the Georgia "swamp music" and bring those songs to life?

W.P.: I started thinking about this old swamp in Georgia, the Okefenokee Swamp, which [was a setting for] all those railroad work songs that those guys would all sing. They had to hit a piece of rail in the same time, and there was music involved in the timing of that.

None of the Black folks were preserved in recording, just the white folks. The swamp had been harvested, the railroad tracks were ripped out, and the Black folks were gone.

The history of it is fascinating! Sen. Rafael Warnock (D-Ga.) was instrumental in honoring this area.

V.C.: Where did you grow up?

W.P.: I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. I'm a Southerner. I did a lot of research from the 1930s and '40s Swamp music. I went searching for that music [on] a hunch.

I found a man named Francis Harper and the really rustic music he recorded: really beautiful old hymns, Appalachian reels and hollers [an old European holler that sounds like a yodel]. This is the music we play in The Unlawful Assembly.

V.C.: When you were a kid, you were interested in early '70s soul from Al Green to the Staple Sisters. What appealed to you?

W.P.: My father would play country music on the AM radio to wake me up in the morning to go to school. Dolly Parton, Porter Wagoner, Merle Travis.

And I hated it. I really hated white gospel music because I was forced to listen to that on Sunday morning. I rebelled. I needed to hear something different. I started listening to pop music: the Stylistics, Al Green, and Stevie Wonder.

For many white Southerners of my generation now, a lot of times the only exposure to people of color would be through somebody who maybe worked for them. They were the ones who consoled me when I was injured.

That humanity I saw at that point in my life, it opened my mind and my sensibilities about music that was made by Black folks.

I love the groove of Black music - there is nothing like it. I'm proud that in my own way I began reaching across the color lines. It was frowned upon when I was a kid. There were important symbols that inspired me as to the possibilities of collaboration with artists across the color lines.

The Allman Brothers Band formed in Jacksonville, and they hired a Black drummer. I thought, "Wow! We can coexist, we can be friends, we can travel with each other, and play music with each other." The Black musicians could bring a different feel and a different approach.

V.C.: Let's switch gears here. What kind of guitar do you play?

W.P.: I only play vintage guitars. Most of the time when I tour, I play a Guild guitar. A longtime friend turned me on to Guild guitars. They are very even and balanced. They were all made in Hoboken, New Jersey, in the 1960s, and I have 20 of them.

I will play Richie Havens' old acoustic guitar, a Guild 1967, often, and I also play Guild electrics. Occasionally, I will play a Gibson or a Fender.

V.C.: Musician Judy Collins said of you: "Walter Parks is an extraordinary singer whose songs can break your heart as well as get you dancing. [...] Walter is a musical treasure, an artist of the highest caliber. To hear him is to be lifted into a mystical sphere. I adore him." How did you meet her?

W.P.: I met her when I was touring with Richie. We met backstage.

I love being around Judy. She is a real pro. She takes such good care of her vocal instrument. She cherishes that gift that she's been given. I was inspired by that. I loved talking with her. We used to chat for hours.

I did some tours with Judy across Canada as her opening act. At some point, she asked me to play with her at Lincoln Center. It was just one song - "Turn, Turn, Turn" by Pete Seeger, and that was just me on guitar with Judy Collins. I did the foundational work. I just loved that responsibility.

V.C.: Any closing thoughts?

W.P.: I think music and art in general are very important. Live music reminds us of the beauty and wonder of our commonality. When we get together and listen to music, everyone is focused on the band that is playing.

You might have people in the audience who voted for different people - no one is thinking about politics. We get our minds off those dividing aspects of media and current events. We're reminded that we are all in this together.

I help people unlock the power of their imagination. They just close their eyes and drift during our performances. You come back and go, "Wow, I imagined," just for a second. You're reminded of your possibilities.

Live music and the arts are important to society. We are all creative beings, and are all writing the stories of our lives.

Victoria Chertok covers arts and entertainment in Vermont for The Commons. She is a classically trained harpist and received a B.A. in music at Bucknell University.

This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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