With a Ph.D. attached to his name, Walter Swan, 40, has spent much of his life in the halls of academia both as a student and a teacher of the very thing that touches his soul, music.
An associate professor of music at Elizabeth City State University, Swan has come a long way since his humble beginnings in the community of It, Mississippi, a town just south of Hazleton, home of delta blues legend Robert Johnson. Swan’s own mother was a radio singer and the mother of seven children, though he was actually one of 25 children raised in the household.
“She was a local singer,” he said. “She used to sing at a lot of churches. She wanted to be a recording artist.”
Because of circumstances surrounding her life, Swan’s mother was unable to pursue her career, but Swan said she would play records every day.
“That was a commodity, because we were extremely poor,” he said. “We were so poor, we didn’t have indoor plumbing. I didn’t have indoor plumbing until I went to college.”
Hearing music every day of his life, mostly gospel quartets, Swan began tinkering on the piano at around six years old after hearing the song, “Marching off to Zion.”
“After I finished playing and the record went off, my mother asked me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m playing that song.’ Of course she knew what I was doing,” he said. “She wanted to know if I knew what I was doing.”
A couple of weeks went by and Swan started piano lessons with a local piano teacher.
“Music taught me a lot, much more than just music,” he said. “It taught me a lot about who I am spiritually.”
Swan would soon delve into classical compositions, playing in competitions and receiving awards for his piano playing. Other than gospel choir at his church, singing still had not entered into the picture.
Swan sites many early gospel singing groups as his main musical influence; groups like the Truthettes, the Dixon Singers and the Gospel Southernaires. Later he would be influenced by opera.
“Being introduced to that was a major catapult into my embracing operatic literature,” he said.
Swan went on to college intent on studying computer analysis. But music was with him and would eventually lead him.
Swan began attending Alcorn State University and then Mississippi College. While at Mississippi College, Swan’s life took a melodramatic turn when his mother became ill and he assumed responsibility, at the age of 21, for his 11-year-old nephew. Eight months later, his mother passed away.
“I was building my mother a new house that she never got a chance to live in,” he said. “I had just started a new job teaching about 60 students a week on top of going to school.”
Swan said that being the only black student at a private Baptist university and exceeding academically while having so much on his plate was raising the ire of some of the other students.
“My first semester was somewhat rough. There were expectations that I was not used to,” he said.
About that time, Swan’s primary vocal instructor, Professor Gerald Claxton, decided to take Swan under his wing, forging a lifelong friendship between the two.
“He was, and is, one of the best things that ever happened to me,” Swan said. “Through his work with me and my own hard work, I was chosen to sing for Leontyne Price, the famous opera singer.”
Swan sang “The Infinite Shining Heavens” as a tribute to his mother. From there came opportunities for Swan to go into a doctoral program.
“LSU, Southern Miss. and several other schools started to seek me out,” he said.
Swan ended up attending the University of Southern Mississippi, studying under Dr. Vivian Wood, after excelling in his master’s program and graduating ahead of many of his peers.
“I became a recipient of the Southern Regional Educational Board stipend, and that stipend paid my entire tuition and paid me annually,” he said.
The stipend came to about $12,000 a year, Swan said. He completed the seven-year program in three years.
When Vivian Wood
suddenly became ill and was forced into retirement, Claxton came out of retirement to work with Swan on his recitals for the doctoral program.
“Through that, I learned so much, not only about music, but about humanity,” he said, “about cultural diversity, spirituality, and more so about paying it forward and giving back to my community, giving back to my students, and that’s what I do here at ECSU.”
Before coming to ECSU, Swan worked as an adjunct professor at Hinds Community College in Mississippi and taught at Old Dominion University and Hampton University. Swan said that he had no idea Elizabeth City existed until a friend told him about ECSU.
“I didn’t even know they were looking for a professor. It was fate drawing me here,” Swan said.
Swan said he has drawn strength from God and he has been able to build a program he would not have been able to build at a larger university.
Swan said that one of the greatest accomplishments as a professor is to watch his students grow.
“I have been able to give them opportunities they would not have had,” he said. “Some of them have gone on to perform across the world, in Rome, and in competitions. Musical theater is one of the big things that is coming to our university.”
Swan said he has been able to reach out to surrounding high schools and bring in higher quality students, which will help grow the local art community, such as Encore Theater and Arts of the Albemarle.
“I think I’ve been able to touch the hearts of not only people at ECSU, but within the community,” he said. “In return, I have that reciprocation of being touched by the community.”
Swan is currently involved as the musical director for Encore Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music” and was one of the judges for the American Idol Contest at Southgate Mall in Elizabeth City.
Swan has recorded a CD and is also working on getting his songs published and recording some of his original ballads and love songs at the studio at ECSU.
Swan’s future plans include bringing recruits from Nassau, Bahamas to attend ECSU and doing an international tour to Italy with the ECSU choir in the spring of 2013.
Toby Tate is a correspondent for The Daily Advance