When talking to Willie Thrasher, it’s hard not to think of Mississippi John Hurt.
Hurt was a poor tenant farmer who recorded a handful of 78 RPM blues songs in 1928. He'd disappeared off the American musical map for decades, his songs unheard by anyone but a few neighbours and friends, until those early recordings were unearthed and re-released in the early 1950s by obsessive record collector Harry Smith, on his Anthology of American Folk Music. These were in turn heard by a blues freak named Tom Hoskins, who figured Hurt might still be alive.
With little to go on but a reference in a song to Hurt's hometown of Avalon, Mississippi, Hoskins tracked down the old bluesman, who had no idea there was renewed interest in his music, in 1963.
As the story goes—related by John Milward in the liner notes of Mississippi John Hurt: The Complete Studio Recordings—Hurt was hesitant “when an unknown white man parked his car in front of his three-room house, and later told an interviewer that he thought it was the ‘police or the FBI or something like that.’” Hurt agreed to come with Hoskins to Washington D.C., but only because he thought it would be better for him if he agreed to go “voluntarily.”
The next three years—which proved to be the last three years of his life, since he would die of a heart attack in 1966—saw Hurt transformed from a poor sharecropper who didn’t even own a guitar anymore, let alone the property he lived on, to a star on the folk/blues scene. He made appearances at the Newport Folk Festival and on the Johnny Carson show, played legendary New York cafes like the Gaslight, and recorded three new albums for Vanguard Records, eventually making enough money to return to Mississippi and buy a house for himself and his wife. The revived interest in his music wouldn’t have happened without the archival efforts of Harry Smith, who recognized the value of Hurt’s old 78s, and the committed legwork of Tom Hoskins.
Similarly, the rediscovery of Inuit musician Willie Thrasher owes a lot to crate-digging BC deejay Kevin James “Sipreano” Howes, the Hoskins in this story.
His Native North America anthology—and the subsequent reissues of solo albums by Thrasher, Thrasher’s former collaborator Morley Loon, and John Angaiak—is maybe a little less epochal in its importance than the Anthology of American Folk Music, but it’s certainly the most exciting project of its sort in this writer’s lifetime. And Thrasher, like Hurt, is a soft-spoken, charming man—though also quite passionate, when he gets going, I discover. Indeed, there’s a point where comparisons between the two break down completely, especially if you compare Hurt’s deft ragtime fingerpicking with Thrasher’s forceful, rhythmic strumming.
A new shortform documentary about Thrasher, "The Recording of Willie Thrasher", will be screening Friday (November 17) at SFU Woodwards, with a performance by Thrasher and his partner Linda Saddleback. To mark the occasion, the singer gave a cordial interview with the Georgia Straight from his home base in Nanaimo. The interview began with Thrasher going to his drum, beating it a few times, and then saying, “Now I did some music, now I’m ready.”
I recounted the story of Mississippi John Hurt to him, and then asked…
Can you tell me about when Kevin first approached you? How did you react?
We were living here in Nanaimo, and then we got a call, an email that Kevin was looking for musicians, and looking for me, also. And then when he first attempted to get a hold of me, I thought it was a lot of bullshit, you know? I thought it was another person tryin’ to—like, I been used so many times before. I was upset that the CBC didn’t push [the original release of Thrasher’s album Spirit Child] that far. Then when Kevin called, I thought it was another scam happening! The only way I could find out that this is really happening is when Linda looked at the email and found the album cover. That’s when the doors started opening. We got a three day interview. Like, he came to Vancouver Island and we had a three day interview with a camera, telling him my life story, a documentary about my life, so they used that to push Native North American Volume One. On behalf of Willie Thrasher.
It’s wonderful that Kevin has been able to get so much interest in your music. But it’s strange to me that there wasn’t a lot of interest before. A lot of people didn’t know what you were doing. I certainly had never heard your name before Native North America Volume One. Obviously people are interested in what you have to say, but why did it take Kevin to bring it back?
Well, you see, when CBC released the album back in the early '70s, '80s there, they did their own publicity, and they only sold it where they could sell it. Nobody else didn’t know much about what was happening, unless CBC got involved with the newspapers across Canada. But they didn’t get too much publicity out, it only lasted a year, and they didn’t spend money on sending musicians to travel, as soon as the albums came out. They didn’t send Willie Dunn, Morley Loon, around the world or across Canada. All they did was, “That’s it,” they didn’t go beyond that, and within a year and a half, two years, it just died away, until Kevin Howes re-released it, with North American Volume One. And that’s when it spread all over the world, and the difference we have between then and now... We have a massive promotion, and people in the States, we ended up going to Austin, Texas, and people who had never heard of us before started calling us, and all the newspapers around the world were calling us from England, calling us from different European countries and giving us a massive promotion. The CBC didn’t do that. They only did what they had to do, they had a limited budget, and it didn’t go far. It lasted for a year and a half to two years, and it faded away. And now it came back, and it’s all over the world.
I’m really glad it’s happening. I wonder if we could go back a bit. You were playing in Vancouver in the 1980s, and there was a lot of punk rock happening in Vancouver at that time. So I wonder if you enjoy punk rock?
I enjoy everything. I tried to do punk with the elders in Inuvik and they kicked me out of the igloo! I listen to all kinds of music, I don’t care what it is. I’ve even seen opera with hip hop, together, you know? I’m open to every music all over the world. The only thing is, if I hear opera, I like to hear it only once, and that’s it. That’s the way I am. But I’m open to everything.
I’m really curious about that time, though. You were playing with Morley Loon, right?
The Red Cedar Band. There was Robert Hall, Mia Hunt, Morley Loon and myself, and there was another lady from Alaska that joined us. But they were too much into protest, you know, cutting down everybody, cutting down this and that. But I’m an Inuit person that believes in working things out. You know, if there’s a sick environment, sing out—[but] I wouldn’t want to see confrontation, like guns, fights and everything. I’m the kind of a person that likes to sit down and get to the bottom, to the bottom, to the bottom of it all, and work out what’s best for both sides. What’s best for the environment, and what’s best for the people. I’m very open to mother earth, I’m very protective of mother earth, but if it’s things cannot be stopped... You know, confrontation will make things worse for another twenty or ten years. If people work out together, to the best of their ability, things can be worked out. And the Red Cedar Band, it was a pretty heavy band. [Sings:] “We’re gonna shoot you tomorrow at eight o’clock,” and I’m not that way!
What places were you playing back then?
We played in universities, we played in little community halls, and we got recognized as a Vancouver Native band, and a lot of people came to see them. We got hot. In the first two, three months we started getting bookings all over. But as soon as our songs started getting heavy, y’know, like protesting this, protesting that, “there’s something happening over there and we gotta go stop it, we gotta do this, we gotta do that”, it wasn’t my thing. Like, I’m not going to go to a school to say, “This is wrong, this is wrong” in front of the children. I would like the children to learn in the best possible way, the solutions for everybody. There’s always a solution. If the whole world works together, now, we can find anything has a solution.
I was one of the flower children from the ‘60s. I was the first Inuit hippie. I was the first one in Inuvik to have long hair. Nobody had long hair in Inuvik like I did in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. I consider myself the first Inuit hippie. People’d look at my face in a strange way: “I never heard of an Inuit hippie before.” I was just a peace sign, and that’s the way I’ve been ever since. And that started with Louie Goose and the Cordells band. He was the one that started the Cordells band, and I was the drummer at the time. I learned to play drums and we got together in the residential school and without Louie and I getting into music at the time, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere to this day.
The residential school system gets a lot of anger from people, but you don’t seem to have a lot of anger in your music. Are you angry about what you experienced?
I was raised up in a way... I never seen my Dad or my Mom angry at anybody. They usually kept to themselves and everything. But they were doing it to protect us, their children. They had no choice but to send us to residential school. They had no choice but to send us for ten months out of the year or the family allowance of food and everything would be cut right out from my family. My family would have no food, and then they would condemn my Mom and Dad and tell everybody that they had turned against the Catholic Church. They would go after my parents, harder than the children, you know? My Mom and Dad had no choice whatsoever. Since I was five years old, I was sent up to the residential schools and that’s where my life begins.
Was there anything good that came of it, or was it all negative?
What I would like you to explain to the people... the life of the people, the life of the wilderness, the life of the land, our language, our tradition, our drumming, our dancing, our ways of living, and our spirituality were taken away forever. And that was taken away from me when I was five, and I never had a chance to grow up that way. But like I mentioned, I cannot blame nobody. I cannot blame God. I cannot blame anybody in this world. It came, it was there, they had the power to do it, and we had no power to stop it. And what my Mom and Dad did, they lived through it—and sooner or later, you know, like what I’m doing now, writing music, writing songs, and getting internationally known, it’s like I got back what I lost. So I got more of writing songs, dancing songs, what our people had a long time ago. I write like, “Spirit Child,” “Inuit Chant,” “Eskimo Named Johnny”. When I first left, I got homesick and wrote a song about Inuvik. But I was never a person who would write a protest song to anybody.
Like the economy is developing in a new way, every year, and we cannot stop it. The progress will never stop. But the only thing that they leave out is what they left on the land, all over the world, you know. That’s what’s causing a lot of hot climate areas, pollution, it’s causing the water to change, the ocean, the ice to melt, and people have got to understand all together that we got to work all together and say, “Look, do you want your children, your grandchildren, your children of the future to have a beautiful land?” Because if we don’t, our children are going to suffer twice as much because of what we didn’t fix today. I’m so strongly about working on saving the earth, saving the ocean, saving the rivers, the mountains, the land, and people throwing pollutants up in the air. Find a way to make it better. An exhaust pipe where there’s no pollution. Find a better way to cure all of these problems caused all around the world. The world right now is closer to understanding that we can work together, and the only thing that’s not putting us together is power. There’s too much power all over. The United States believes in this, Russia believes in that, Canada believes in this, India… all the countries got their own way, but for Mother Earth, they gotta come together and say, “look, this is what’s happening right now, we should put our arguments aside, put our differences aside, and look: our children and the children of the world need a better place to live now.” If we don’t do anything about it now, the future is going to come darker. It will be too late, and when it’s too late… look what’s happening now, there’s floods, there’s fires, up north there’s polar bears having a hard time finding a place to swim, you know, things are melting, the Northwest Passage now is open, the ice is changed, and that’s a really dangerous sign. The whole world is changing, and people don’t understand, it’s time now for the whole world to get together and work on pollution and this thing that’s happening right now. Progress is too much on people’s minds. It’s way beyond their minds, and they don’t think of the damage that’s happening. But it’s not their fault, that’s the way they been raised up. But if there’s someone that can put awareness out there and say, “look what’s happening. We gotta do something…”
A guy saying similar things in Vancouver these days is the artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptin. He’s said similar things, but he seems a little angrier than you—because he’s talking about how British Columbia should be renamed, that it’s a colonial name, that it’s an imperialist name, that it’s rooted in this hurtful past and we should give it a new name. How do you feel about that?
Oh, I’m not from here, I’m from Inuvik, so I wouldn’t know too much about it! But if people in B.C. would like to change it to an aboriginal name, and take on what you said, if people agree with this—I will agree with it also.
Can I ask you about Morley Loon? He died very young, and I don’t know about his death. What happened?
I’ve got no idea. The last year that I performed with him was in Cache Creek, years back, and we did shows in Vancouver and Montreal, but I wasn’t aware of how sick he was, or that something was happening to him. Morley was much more of a quiet person who would keep it to himself and his family. I wasn’t aware that he was going to pass on, I was kind of shocked when that happened. I know he died of some sort of cancer or something, but I never found out until later years.
What is the song “Odiak” about? That’s one that I’ve heard you do live, but it’s not on the albums.
“Odi” in Cree means “boat,” and “kayak” in Inuktitut means boat, and that song was written about the trip from Montreal to New York City to stop the James Bay project, you know? [A massive hydroelectric development in the 1970s that flooded Cree land, analogous to developments in B.C. with the Site C dam]. And then I put it together, and... [portion unclear]... instead of people arguing about stopping James Bay, the whites and the Natives and everybody were dancing together. And this was the way the James Bay project should be stopped: we work together. And “Odiak” was played in Australia or some other countries and it’s getting internationally known, that song, right now.
Is there a new album coming out?
We are working on new songs. I just finished doing a Gord Downie song, a tribute to Gord Downie, November the 18th it’s going to be released, a tribute song to him. It’s one of the songs me and Kevin chose, called “Budget Shoes.” And we recorded it in Vancouver and it’s going to be released on November the 18th. And we recorded a new song called “The Sacred Fire of Peace”, about mother earth. It’s a brand new song that’s supposed to beat “Odiak”. A lot of people think it’s better. I think that’s going to be the name of the new album, but I’m not too sure yet.
The film on November 17th, you and Linda are going to give a concert, right? Will you be playing some of these songs?
At Simon Fraser University, at the release of my new documentary.
Can you tell me more about the film?
It’s about how the Cordells started, how the band was formed, and how that old man came by to our dance one night and told us, “Why don’t you write music about your culture, your ways of life, your ways of living?” Since the missionaries had taken away so much of my life, this old man knew so much about our culture that he opened up my heart, my mind, my spirituality. And that’s where I started. It was a really difficult time for me to write Inuit songs, because I didn’t know nothin’, I had to dig back into our history, trying to find out through our elders, trying to find out through our stories. And this old man knew quite a bit, and this old man started me off on writing songs on what I’d never lived. And from there on, when I first moved to Montreal, Elijah Menarik was the CBC announcer, he used to live in Inuvik, and I told him the story of my life in Inuvik, and how I played in all these festivals in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and the States, and then I started writing songs, and then CBC called me up to release Spirit Child. That’s my first album, which CBC released, and with that, I used it to travel across Canada on my own. In nine to ten years I travelled across Canada three times, 39 states, on my own, just travelling and promoting my music. And then when Spirit Child came out, it went as far as it went, and then Boot Records bought it, and then I kept on going until it faded away, until Kevin Howes came by and re-mastered it, re-did it, and this is where I am today. I’m still performing as I did thirty years ago. I haven’t stopped music ever since.
It’s a great privilege to have been able to talk to you, thank you for doing what to do.
… And this is strange. Did you ever hear the story of Sugar Man, Rodriguez? A lot of people said I had the same story he had. I said, “No, no.” So I watched the movie. And that’s the kind of life I had! The same thing as him, the same lifestyle. It was very, very weird, but I felt a lot of what he went through. And seeing that made me feel a bit better.
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback perform at SFU's Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on Friday (November 17)