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Walter Parks Found A New Life In St. Louis, And A Passion Researching Okefenokee Swamp Music

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Walter Parks
Since moving to Webster Groves last spring, Walter Parks has spent much of his time writing and recording.

After Walter Parks began researching his musical and cultural roots in southeast Georgia, he found a treasure trove of material in the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The library had preserved early field recordings of homesteaders in the Okefenokee Swamp region, where Parks remembers camping and exploring as a kid.

“In 1945, somebody went up there [to the Okefenokee] with equipment borrowed from the Library of Congress, and they recorded them making the music that they make,” the writer, guitarist and vocalist told St. Louis on the Air.

For Parks, the archive drove home “the importance of looking at where you grew up, where you came from, or where your ancestors came from, and trying to see how that influenced the way you are.”

Walter Parks on historic Selma bridge
Walter Parks
The inspiration for one of Walter Parks' latest musical collaborations came while walking the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

He added: “It’s humbling in a certain sense. I never liked country music, but yet I was able to play it with a certain ease. And it just came naturally to me, and I started asking, ‘Well, why is that?’”

Parks isn’t just finding answers as he learns more about his roots; he’s also been busy transforming the new knowledge into fresh musical expressions. In August 2020, the Library of Congress featured several of Parks’ research-based rearrangements and innovations in a virtual presentation freely available on its website.

That’s been just one highlight of a productive year for the musician, who moved from the New York City area to the St. Louis suburbs last spring.

Parks credits his move to “peaceful” Webster Groves with fueling his creativity — and said he is excited to be part of St. Louis’ vibrant music scene.

It’s also been a bittersweet adjustment in certain ways. Parks had long planned to eventually move to St. Louis and form a band with his lifelong friend Tom Townsend, the founder of Pianos for People. Like Parks, Townsend grew up in Jacksonville, Florida. (Adding to the local ties, Parks’ wife, Margo, grew up in Webster Groves.)

But in October 2019, Townsend died of a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed with it not long after battling his way back from being shot in an attempted carjacking the year before.

Despite the tragic loss of his friend, Parks decided to make good on his plan anyway. Last spring, the Parkses made their move, fueled by a desire to help care for family during the COVID-19 crisis.

On Tuesday’s talk show, Parks joined host Sarah Fenske as he looked toward his Thursday appearance at the Blue Strawberry in the Central West End. He discussed his recent project with the Library of Congress as well as his forthcoming album, which will be titled “Walter Parks and the Unlawful Assembly.”

Related Event
What: Walter Parks at the Blue Strawberry
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Blue Strawberry and virtually (see ticket options)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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