What do Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Presley and Robbie Robertson have in common? This is National Indigenous History Month. Given that the European invasion of North America destroyed the complex, life-affirming culture that existed here already, it is important not to forget the dark side of our history in order to make amends and learn from that lost culture if we are to survive. Non-indigenous people arrived on these shores and rejected the idea of interacting constructively with nature for mutual benefit. The indigenous cultures have known things for centuries that non-Indigenous people need to embrace now, and embrace quickly, if we are to survive the enormous challenges of climate change. Our invading ancestors saw themselves as superior but we are only now beginning to understand and accept a mind set that indigenous cultures have nurtured and practiced for centuries.
There is a bit of a difficulty. Indigenous peoples in North America consisted of many tribal organizations so there are First Nations people, plural. Indigenous North Americans are not really Canadian or American as the territories of some bands covered land in both countries. So, I am including First Nations music and popular music performed by First Nations musicians regardless of whether they are strictly Canadian or not. This post offers information and links to music by the following indigenous people:
- Jimi Hendrix
- Buffy Sainte-Marie
- Elvis Presley
- Shania Twain
- Robbie Robertson / The Band
- Susan Aglukark
- Link Wray
- Rita Coolidge
- Jesse Ed Davis
1. BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE / TANYA TAGAQ – YOU GOT TO RUN
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a Canadian singer, composer, self-taught musician (guitar, piano), visual artist, educator and social activist who has been coming up with good music for decades. Her song Up Where We Belong also won an Academy Award. She was born on the Piapot 75 Cree Reserve in Saskatchewan in 1941 though she was abandoned as an infant. She landed on her feet, however, and later earned degrees in Teaching and in Oriental Philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst graduating in the top ten of her class. Many of her songs are political, including Universal Soldier, Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. She was a member of the Red Power Movement and in the 1970’s because of that she (and other indigenous artists) was blacklisted by many radio stations in the US. President Lyndon Johnson actually sent letters of support to the stations doing the blacklisting.
Tanya Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer from Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. She has worked with Bjork, the Kronos Quartet and the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as well as Sainte-Marie. Tagaq is also an accomplished artist.
2. SUSAN AGLUKARK – O SIEM
Born in Churchill, Manitoba, Aglukark grew up in Nunavut. As she did she was a victim of sexual abuse which she has been very vocal about as an adult. She has worked as a linguist and then as an executive assistant with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada. This uplifting song, whose title means We Are All Family, reached No. 1 on the Canadian Country and Adult Contemporary charts. For her activism she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, and in 2008 she was appointed Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the University of Alberta.
3. KASHTIN – ASHTAM NASHU
Kashtin consists if two Innu musicians from the Maliotenum reserve in Quebec. The duo was formed in 1984 and it consists of Florent Vollant and Claude McKenzie. The name Kashtin means Tornado in the Innu-aiman language. Though their songs are sung in a language spoken by only 12 000 people they have had major top ten hits in Quebec, English Canada and even in France where they were very popular after appearing there on their European tour in 1990. The title of this track means ‘Come Follow Me.
4. LINK WRAY – RUMBLE
Lincoln ‘Link’ Wray’s mother was Shawnee and because his family was not white it was terrorized on more than one occasion by the Ku Klux Klan when Wray was growing up. He was born in 1929 and this ancient clip dates from 1958. This is an instrumental but Wray also recorded songs on which he sang. This is despite the fact that he lost one lung due to an injury sustained when he served in the Korean War. Three of the songs he recorded were named after native tribes: Shawnee, Apache and Comanche. This song, the first of several hits, was his first, and he is credited with popularizing power chords which later became a mainstay in heavy rock and punk. This song was banned in New York and Boston for fear it would incite teenage gang violence, as one can see in this ancient video. A rumble is 1950’s slang for street fight.
5. TAJ MAHAL – STATESBORO BLUES (JESSE ED DAVIS ON SLIDE GUITAR)
Davis had a father whose ancestry included Comanche, Seminole and Muscogee, and his mother was Kiowa. Davis was one of those musicians who did solo work but who also backed many other musicians (including George Harrison and John Lennon of The Beatles, and Eric Clapton of Cream) who delivered amazing solos on demand. He also contributed to CDs by Harry Nilsson, Keith Moon, Rod Stewart, Willie Nelson, and Neil Diamond among others. He was a member of Taj Mahal’s backing band playing both guitar and piano. The band was good enough to be invited to England by The Rolling Stones to appear as guests on The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus and Davis also played at George Harrison’s ground-breaking Concert for Bangla Desh. Davis suffered from drug and alcohol addiction for years and finally died of a drug overdose. He was forty-three years old.
6. TWAIN, SHANIA – MAN! I FEEL LIKE A WOMAN
Shania Twain is a Canadian singer / songwriter who has sold over a million units (she is the best-selling female artist in country music history). Twain is on the official band membership list of the Temagami First Nation. Her father Jerry was part Cree and her step-father was a full-blooded Ojibwe. This is a wonderful send up video. Robert Palmer had a hit with the song Addicted to Love in which he sings in front of five female musicians. Those musicians are all young superficially good-looking women with three of them playing guitar, one playing keyboards and a drummer. However it is obvious that the five are not able to play their instruments, they are wearing provocative clothing and they look disinterested like Stepford Wives. The video was widely criticized for being misogynist. In Twain’s video there are five superficially good-looking men with three of them playing guitar, one playing keyboards and a drummer. It is obvious that the five are not able to play their instruments, they are wearing provocative clothing and they look disinterested like zombies. Even the red backdrops are the same in both videos, and so are the body movements of the backing musicians, including close-ups of the keyboardists and one of the musicians provocatively licking his / her lips.
The Shania Twain video:
The Robert Palmer video:
7. RITA COOLIDGE – SUPERSTAR
Rita Coolidge is of Cherokee ancestry and she has released songs on the pop, country, adult contemporary and jazz charts. She has also won two Grammys. She has also been a backup singer for Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills and several others. This track is a recording from the frenetic drug-saturated 1970 tour headlined by Joe Cocker and organized by Leon Russell who does an amazing turn on the piano on this track. Cocker was the lead singer on most of the songs but Coolidge was good enough to be given a chance to take the lead on this song. The accompanying photo montage contains superstars old and new for you to try and identify. On this tour Coolidge’s boyfriend was the band’s drummer Jim Gordon and at one point Gordon assaulted her and she had a black eye for the rest of the tour.
8. ELVIS PRESLEY – JAILHOUSE ROCK
Also known as The King, Presley was a highly influential rock and roller. In the conservative, highly-conformist 1950’s his stage presence was mesmerising to teenagers, in the UK as well as North America, and viewed as dangerous to most adults. He had an amazing voice and looks, and his swivelling hips were considered so erotic that when he was on the iconic and important Ed Sullivan Show the camera operators had been ordered to only show him from the waist up. Plagued by mismanagement, drug addiction and gastrointestinal malfunctions, Presley was also conservative himself, and a friend of President Richard Nixon. He was the first of the rock and rollers to break through and is usually considered to be the best of the rock and rollers. However, Roy Orbison had a better voice and greater vocal range, the Everly Brothers were better singers, Jerry Lee Lewis was wilder, and both Little Richard and Chuck Berry had greater stage presence than Elvis but they were African-American and it was the 1950’s. Presley’s life and music was highly merchandised, and his home, Graceland, is still considered to be a sacred place to many older Americans.
Many adults mocked and scoffed at rock and roll and paid no attention to the lyrics so things highly scandalous at the time were often overlooked. In this 1957 clip you can hear the following lyrics which would have been highly controversial back then:
Number forty-seven said to Number Three
You’re the cutest jailbird I ever did see
I sure would be delighted with your company
Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me
9. JIMI HENDRIX – THE STAR SPANGLED BANNER
Yes, this track has been referenced and analysed and worshipped for decades. It simplistically exemplified the generational polarization of the time. It infuriated the Old Guard. It was recorded at Woodstock in 1969. I was a Baby Boomer in my twenties at the time and, like many of my political friends back then, saw Woodstock as the joke and a self-indulgent sham that it was. Nonetheless Hendrix (of Cherokee ancestry) was a hell of a guitar player. He was highly influential, and he had the respect of the greatest guitar players of his day. He played in Little Richard’s band at one point (Little Richard can be seen in the opening seconds here) but was unable to gain success on his own until he moved to England where Chas. Chandler, bass guitarist with the British blues rock band The Animals, became his manager. Hendrix died at the age of twenty-seven.
10. ROBBIE ROBERTSON – THE WEIGHT
Robbie Robertson’s mother was Rosemarie Dolly Chrysler, a Cayuga and Mohawk woman from the Six Nations Reserve near Toronto. Robbie often visited the Six Nations Reserve as a child with his mother to visit with his mother’s family. Robertson is a musician, songwriter, film composer, producer, actor and author. He wrote or co-wrote most of the compositions recorded by The Band and was the group’s lead guitarist, and The Band IMHO is the greatest band to come out of Canada. With The Band he wrote and recorded many memorable songs but perhaps his most memorable is The Weight. Here is The Band’s rendition of the song, performing with The Staple Singers on the occasion of The Band’s final concert (The Last Waltz). The song is introduced by Richard Manuel, the group’s best singer, keyboards player and drummer who later committed suicide at the age of forty-two:
In this recording of the same song musicians from around the world, including Robbie himself, contribute to a rendition of the song all of them playing while in their own countries (the US, Italy, Japan, DR Congo, Spain, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Argentina, Nepal and Jamaica). The drummer on the track is Ringo Starr (formerly of The Beatles). There is a good set of short solos starting at the 2 minute 51 second mark by Ahmed Al Harmi (playing from the Kingdom of Bahrain), then Rajeev Shrestha (playing from Kathmandu, Nepal) then Robbie Robertson himself. Of particular interest is also the fact that about 99% of all songs end on the tonic note of the scale of the key the song is in, but that’s not the case here. This song begins on the mediant and ends on the subdominant and I can think of only one other song (of the thousands I’ve examined and enjoyed) that also doesn’t end on the tonic, i.e. Laura by The Scissor Sisters. Also of note, in The Weight we have a chorus that consists of seven bars – the first four bars are in 4 / 4 time, and so are the last two bars, but the fifth bar is in 3 / 4 time. Most unusual. Finally, this recording was made on the fiftieth anniversary of the song’s original release, on the CD Music From Big Pink by The Band.
As a solo artist he composed and recorded the following track, Showdown at Big Sky, with references to his First Nations ancestry:
Finally, two examples of completely indigenous music directly from indigenous sources. First, miscellaneous examples:
Second, a dramatic drum circle:
OTHER PROMINENT INDIGENOUS PEOPLE
- ARMSTRONG, CHIEF GEORGE – He was Algonquin, and the Captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs the last four times they won the Stanley Cup. He died earlier this year at age ninety.
- BLONDIN-ANDREW, ETHEL – Of Dene ancestry, she was the first indigenous woman to be elected to the Parliament of Canada
- CARDINAL, TANTOO – She is a Canadian film and television actor of Métis and Cree Descent.
- DUPREE, CHAMPION JACK – A New Orleans boogie-woogie piano player.
- GEORGE, CHIEF DAN – Chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, he was nominated for an Academy Award, and was an author.
- GREENE, GRAHAM – A Canadian Academy Award-nominated actor from the Oneida tribe.
- JACKSON, TOM – Of Métis descent, he is a successful singer and actor.
- JOHNSON, E. PAULINE – ALSO KNOWN AS TEKAHIONWAKE – Of Shawnee ancestry, she was a Canadian poet, author and performer in the nineteenth century.
- JOLIE, ANGELINA – Actor and film-maker, winner of an Academy Award and three Golden Globes, part Iroquois. Her step-father John Trudell is also indigenous.
- KIEDIS, ANTHONY – Of Mohican ancestry, he has a giant Haida thunderbird tattooed across his back, lead singer with the Red Hot Chili Peppers
- LONGBOAT, TOM – An Onondaga distance runner who won the Boston Marathon in record time.
- MERCREDI, OVIDE – Of Cree ancestry, Mercredi was the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, he was a key strategist during the Meech Lake Accord and he had a hand in resolving the Oka Crisis.
- MORRISSEAU, NORVAL AKA COPPER THUNDERBIRD – noted artist from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, known as the ‘Picasso of the North’
- NAHANEE, HARRIET – A civil rights activist, environmentalist and Residential School survivor who was still being arrested in her seventies for fighting for Indigenous rights.
- NAKAPENKEM, DATSA – noted artist of the Kwakwaka’wakw people in British Columbia.
- PEGAHMAGABOW, FRANCIS – The First Nation soldier most highly decorated for bravery in Canadian military history
- PIHTOKAHANAPIWIYIN AKA POUNDMAKER – Member of the Plains Cree, peacemaker and defender of his people
- REID, BILL JR. – Of Haida ancestry, Reid created renewed interest in the art of totem pole carving.
- RIEL, LOUIS – Of Métis ancestry, he led two resistance movements for Métis rights, and was executed for his efforts but is now honoured in Manitoba.
- SILVERHEELS, JAY – A Canadian indigenous actor and author, he was best known for playing Tonto on the 1950’s television series The Lone Ranger but he was also a top rank lacrosse player inducted into the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
Here is a link to my book review of ‘Treaty Words’ by Aimee Craft, about the relationships between First Nations people and nature, and First Nations people and the Crown – about reciprocity, renewal and respect, and the lack thereof: