Anyone familiar with the record label Light in the Attic will know of their reputation for putting together obscure and rare releases. This release: Native North America – Vol.1 : Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985 caught my eye but I just wasn’t prepared for what I heard when the voice of Willie Dunn (image below) opens the album with I Pity the Country. Comparisons to Tim Hardin easily spring to mind but it’s the intense emotion and real sorrow that underpin the subject of the song that make it so memorable, namely hatred, racism and a deep misunderstanding of the North American Aboriginal community.
The album is one of the most significant and historically important compilations to be released on Light in the Attic making what was regional music available to a global audience for the first time. Many of the songs on the album have not been heard for many years, in some cases even by some of those who sung them. Many were recorded for regional play and some for CBC broadcasts. The fact that they had not been more widely released is a sad but also makes this release so important.
The collection was put together by DJ and music journalist Kevin Howes borne out of his love with the history and culture of Canadian music. That passion was ignited by Ty Scammel, a record dealer from Vancouver who passed away in 2004 but who was legendary for uncovering rare and obscure records from folk and Country to blues and jazz that inspired many of the artists in the Vancouver area as well as drawing in collectors from around the world. It was through those records that Kevin began to uncover the music history of Canada which led to this project.
The release represents 15 years of hard work scouring the country to find these recordings as well as re-connecting with the artists which wasn’t without its own challenges. Kevin worked out of Vancouver so had to think on his feet as the potential costs in travelling to the remote territories would soon have cut a hole in his pocket. He was able to connect to more remotely based artists by phone as well as relying on municipal contacts to reach out to more remote communities.
The 34 tracks take in folk, country and rock from a turbulent period when there was a renewed interest in music and culture in those communities. These communities were also exposed to the likes of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and they in turn brought their own stories into the mix making some of the most beautiful music represented in this release which charts the reawakening of ‘Aboriginal spirituality and expression’.
I just can’t do enough justice to this release without writing reams of pages on what the album contains. There are so many highlights within this 34 track release which includes a hugely diverse mix of music – covering the likes of ‘Arctic garage rock from the Nunavik region of northern Quebec, melancholy Yup’ik folk from Alaska, and hushed country blues from the Wagmatcook First Nation reserve in Nova Scotia.’
Willie Dunn would be in my top picks of course, there’s a reason I chose him as our Song of the Day but check the garage rock of Sugluk (image above) and the wonderful Willie Thrasher (Spirit Child is a great highlight, see image below) who’s currently a sanctioned busker on Vancouver Island. Willie was also a founding members of The Cordells, a rock group based out of Inuvik who were huge in the Northwest Territories during the late 1960’s (more about his resurgence here). Kevin told CBC that Willie and his partner Linda Saddleback have already had some offers of better paying gigs. Like Willie many of the artists are still active and it looks like this release could benefit many of them.
Besides discovering a raft of new music the other beauty in this release is its relevance to the world today told through very personal stories. They are as poignant now as they were when they were written. We are still dealing with similar issues, from environmental politics right down the line to racism and poverty. The release is accompanied with a 120 page booklet. Do yourself a favour, go and buy it, you won’t be disappointed.
A companion set featuring a crucial selection of folk, rock, and country from the United States’ Lower 48 and Mexico is currently in production.
Native North America – Vol.1 : Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985 is out now.