Van Dyke Parks On Mountain Stage

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Updated May 6, 2021 at 9:52 AM ET

Few American artists have concocted such a deliciously wild artistic and musical gumbo as 78-year-old Louisiana-raised, New York and California-tested Van Dyke Parks.

The arranger, songwriter, musician, actor and producer has performed and worked with everyone from Mothers of Invention and Skrillex to U2, The Byrds, Silverchair, and multiple collaborations with sonic genius Brian Wilson.

Composer Van Dyke Parks performing in 2017.
Composer Van Dyke Parks performing in 2017.

In this treasured set from 2012, Parks, in his first visit to Mountain Stage, pulls back the curtain on his refreshingly scattershot career and shares his creative genius as one of America’s truly diverse raconteurs.

Comfortably performing in his adopted hometown of Athens, Ga., Parks starts the set with vigor, banging on the piano as if starring in a one-man baroque-Americana Broadway musical. “Beam Me Up,” Parks carnival barked as his fingers slid down into a fun house instrumental that abruptly ended with the word, “jump.”

Parks — whose first paid gig after dropping out of college and relocating to L.A. was arranging “The Bare Necessities,” for the 1967 film The Jungle Book — let his Southern raising in Lake Charles, La., come shining through on “Come Along,” a playful trio of songs. “Attempting to be a hero in my own home, I wrote these three songs for my children’s delight, about the survival tales of Brer Rabbit,” Parks told the audience.

Parks laid bare his songwriting artistry as he shared “I’m History,” one of the songs off his first new project in 15 years, a series of 7″ vinyl singles that featured artwork by Ed Ruscha, Art Spiegelman and West Virginia native Billy Edd Wheeler, among others. Those releases became the album, Songs Cycled.

“Ah, yeah, so I believe in the song as a political potency, a thing that moves mountains and changes hearts … ‘We Shall Overcome’ … the list goes on,” he said “I always think of the people I have known who have labored in this field of songwriting with great affection. I dedicate this new song to Vic Chestnutt.” With that, Parks sang “I’m History,” a song he wrote on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK.

“I am very grateful to you for indulging in that raw thought that I thunk,” Parks said at the song’s end. “As my wife, who is from Memphis, told me she said there’s two things that a Southern gentleman learns to say: One is, ‘Yes ma’am,’ and the other is, ‘Whatever was I thinking.’ That is exactly what happens to me when I face a song I have written. But urgency and political potency trump vanity in a search for sanity.”

Though Parks’ work has been featured on hundreds of records, and various film and TV soundtracks, he is relatively obscure. He is best known for his collaboration with The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson on the storied Smile album. Parks, in his 70th year, and accompanied by bassist Jim Cooper, paid homage to he and Wilson’s collective creative force by sharing two cinematic songs: “Orange Crate Art” and “Sail Away” from he and Wilson’s 1995 collaborative record, Orange Crate Art.

Rightfully given a reverential send-off by Mountain Stage host Larry Groce, who too has notched up quite a diverse creative career, Mountain Stage pianist Bob Thompson sat at the keys to pay tribute to Whitney Houston, who had just died, with a beautiful rendition of “Saving All My Love for You.”

This Mountain Stage performance was originally published on May 8, 2012.

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