Native North America: Forgotten Trailblazers to Play Winnipeg Folk Festival

This is the second post in a three-part series leading up to Native North America: A Selection of Musical Trailblazers on Stage at Winnipeg Folk Fest. Stay tuned for Part 3, which will feature a Q & A with Winnipeg Folk Fest’s Chris Frayer.

Better late than never. That’s the sentiment surrounding a once-in-a-lifetime showcase slated for Winnipeg Folk Festival this weekend.NNA_CD

On the afternoon of July 9, Native North America: A Selection of Musical Trailblazers on Stage will welcome a handful of artists whose music – and in some cases, careers – were revived by the 2014 release of Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985. Compiled and curated by Vancouver-based DJ Kevin Howes, the Grammy-nominated box set features 34 remastered tracks by a lost generation of indigenous musicians who were overlooked in the prime of their careers.

Looking to build on the success of NNA V1 and raise awareness among a new generation of listeners, Howes contacted Winnipeg Folk Fest with the idea for a workshop highlighting some of the album’s artists. In addition to music and storytelling from Willie Thrasher, Willy Mitchell, Eric Landry and Duke Redbird, the 75-minute set will feature a special appearance by Shingoose and tunes from Winnipeg singer/songwriter William Prince.

Here’s a bit more about the artists who will take the stage in Winnipeg.

Willie Thrasher

He may be in his late 60s, but Willie Thrasher’s career has never been better. Whether he’s busking on street corners or rocking the stage at music festivals, Thrasher is grateful for any opportunity to perform. And since the release of the NNA V1 compilation – and the subsequent re-release of his 1981 debut album, Spirit Child – there have been opportunities aplenty.

Willie Thrasher's 1981 debut album, Spirit Child, was re-released in 2014

Willie Thrasher’s 1981 debut album, Spirit Child, was re-released by Light in the Attic Records in 2015

“The album was a like a rebirth,” says Thrasher, who has three songs featured on NNA V1. “It brought a lot of memories back, and gave me a new chance to travel and share my music. It’s truly a great story about where we were, where we come from, and where we are now.”

Born in the Inuvik region of the Northwest Territories in 1948, Thrasher was taken from his family at the age of five and grew up in the residential school system.

Forced to abandon his language, culture and way of life, the only saving grace for Thrasher was an old set of drums in the school’s gymnasium. Following in the footsteps of his favourite Beatle, Ringo Starr, Thrasher began his foray into music as a drummer with The Cordells, one of the first Inuit rock bands. Before long, he took up the guitar and began writing his own songs. Through his music, he says, he was finally able to reconnect with his roots and reestablish his identity.

By the early 80s, he was touring off the moderate success of his debut album and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“I remember traveling and doing all the shows, being young and wild under the great Northern Lights, and we were just so happy to be making music and writing songs about our traditional ways,” he recalls. “We didn’t really know anything different.”

Willie Thrasher, then and now

Willie Thrasher, then and now

After about a year and a half, however, Spirit Child‘s momentum fizzled out and the gigs dried up.

“We were right there with John Fogerty, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, Neil Young, Neil Diamond. We heard our songs with them on the air,” Thrasher says. “If CBC and the record company would have pushed it more at the time, we probably would have been more successful.”

Based on the critical reviews and commercial success of NNA V1, he’s probably right. But reflecting on what could have been, there’s no contempt in Thrasher’s voice. Instead of bemoaning the missed opportunities, he prefers to focus on the new ones.

“We’re looking forward to meeting new people, making new friends and sharing our ancestry and music with the people of Winnipeg,” he says. “Doing all these shows (since the release of NNA V1), we’ve seen mostly a younger audience. It doesn’t matter to them that the music came out 30 years ago.

“It’s a great chance to share our music with people of all ages and from all walks of life.”

Willy Mitchell

Born Percy Williams in 1953, Willy Mitchell was raised on the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Quebec. By the time he was a teenager, Mitchell had taken an interest in music and began playing gigs with his first band, the Northern Lights Group.

It wasn’t until he was shot in the head by a police officer in 1969, however, that Mitchell took his hobby to the next level. After a misunderstanding over stolen Christmas lights led to the nearly-fatal shot, Mitchell started writing music in the hospital and spent his meager settlement on a white Fender Telecaster Thinline.

WILLY MITCHELL

WILLY MITCHELL

Shortly thereafter, he formed the Desert River Band and began touring extensively. In 1980, Mitchell co-organized a festival featuring his contemporaries in the First Nations and Inuit music industry. Called the Sweet Grass Festival, performers included Willie Thrasher, Willie Dunn, Roger House and Morley Loon. The CBC released an LP of the recordings called Sweet Grass Music in 1982.

Although Mitchell continued releasing albums into the 1990s, music fell to the wayside and became more of a pastime than a career. A truck driver by day, he was both surprised and grateful when the opportunity for a few gigs sprouted from the success of NNA V1.

“I’d pretty well forgot about the Sweet Grass Music album, just concentrating on work and playing a bit of music in the summer,” says Mitchell, who has three tunes on the NNA V1 compilation (two with the Desert River Band). “I hadn’t really thought about gigs or anything like that, but now Kevin (Howes) sort of woke everybody up, myself included.

“The chances that I have now, to play in places like Winnipeg, is something I wouldn’t have even thought of. It’s opened a lot of doors.”

As for the Native North America showcase at Winnipeg Folk Fest, Mitchell sees it as an opportunity to make a statement. Not so much for himself, but to help pave the way for other Indigenous musicians.

“You don’t see too many Aboriginal musicians playing big festivals or getting that attention,” he says. “You just don’t see too many Aboriginal people walking the red carpet.

“Kevin (Howes) sort of opened the door for us, at least got our foot in the door, but I still think people see us a certain way. Hopefully people can just appreciate the music, because it’s for everybody. Non-Aboriginals, newcomers, everybody.”

Eric Landry

By the time Kevin Howes first contacted Eric Landry, whose 1985 song Out of the Blue appears on the NNA V1 compilation, Landry had forgotten how the tune went.

Eric Landry

Eric Landry

“I didn’t even have a recording of it,” Landry recently told Winnipeg’s Stylus Magazine. “I asked him to send it to me just so I could relearn it.”

As it turns out, the song in question was the only one Landry would ever release. While he’s been working away on his debut album ever since, he’s dedicated much of his adulthood to exploring his culture and spirituality.

Of his upcoming performance at Winnipeg Folk Fest, Landry told Stylus: “I really want to be there and I’m excited to showcase the compilation. And to meet up with some of these musicians. I haven’t seen Willie Thrasher in 30 years. These musicians who are on the compilation, I’ve been thinking about them for the last 10 years, wondering what did they do, and where are they now.”

Duke Redbird

Poet. Journalist. TV writer. Businessman. Administrator. Actor. Activist.

Duke Redbird has truly done it all. Now 77 years old, he is based in Toronto and performs spoken word and hip hop under the name M.T. Pockets.

Of Silver River, which he recorded with Shingoose in 1975 and appears on NNA V1, he told Stylus: “It never got much airplay or distribution at the time we were doing it … we gathered up a little bit of money, we produced it ourselves.

Shingoose, left, and Duke Redbird

Shingoose, left, and Duke Redbird

“In order to have your work heard, you had to depend on broadcast radio stations. In that day, 1975, radio stations didn’t play First Nations music, or First Nations performers. You couldn’t get on the air. For example, my good friend Buffy Sainte-Marie was banned from any broadcast in the United States. The only time anyone would hear this music was when we were playing live in some venue, and there weren’t a lot of venues to play in either. It wasn’t that they weren’t good songs or good music, there was just no way to have an opportunity to broadcast or perform the music to large audiences.”

Thanks to Winnipeg Folk Fest, Redbird and the rest of the Native North America trailblazers will have their audience this weekend. And we’re all better for it.

Read Part 1 of our Native North America series here, and Part 3 here

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