Nowadays, such is the demand for ever rarer rarities and none-more-niche genres, almost every secondhand record shop has been ‘picked’ – shaken down for treasure to put on eBay. Nearly every bit of marginalia with cultural worth has been compiled into a box set, it seems. Every so often, though, a compilation comes along that unearths a goldmine and upends your preconceptions. Rattling garage rock, played by an Inuit band from northernmost Quebec? That’s Sugluk, authors of three tracks on this two-CD compilation of native North American folk, rock and country. The gnarly Fall Away sounds like a missing gem from the feted Nuggets psych-rock box set, arriving on a drum fill and cresting on a wave of yearning romantic regret. There’s a photo of Sugluk in the CD booklet, long-haired, spread-legged in double denim, looking cool against an icy mountain backdrop.
It would have been worth compiling a volume of folk and rock by indigenous musicans solely to demonstrate once again how music thumbs its nose at borders. Just as west Africans heard the blues coming from the US and incorporated it into their own ancestral forms, native North American musicians fell for rock, country and guitar folk, imitating then expanding upon the Beatles, the Stones and others.
But the shivers here are threefold. Recently in North America there has been outcry at the culturally insensitive use of feathered bonnets at music festivals and photoshoots. Wayne Coyne and Pharrell have both issued apologies. This mindset shift has been acknowledged at Glastonbury, where the sale of these headdresses has been restricted. This compilation comes at a timely juncture.
Secondly, there are the stories. The protest folk of the 60s came none too soon for the indigenous peoples of North America, for so long subjected to the harsh prejudice of missionaries and the Canadian state. A number of the artists here were forced from their families and into residential schooling, and beaten for practising native customs; you can see how something like garage rock would have made for a useful outlet. Ironically, though, it was the CBC, Canada’s state-run broadcaster, that committed many of these early songs to tape; recordings that compiler Kevin “Sipreano” Howes has tirelessly pursued, even sending out messages in Inuktitut on community radio.
A great many of the songs on this collection deal with the particular saudade of the native experience – with the rape of the land, or with mythical themes. On Call of the Moose, recorded live, Willy Mitchell takes in dying wildlife, mercury poisoning, and his own shooting by a police officer. On Willie Thrasher’s Old Man Carver, there is an unmistakable fusion going on between blues rock, psychedelic solos and Thrasher’s own heritage.
It’s a shame another Willie, Willie Dunn, needs an introduction. A protest singer, politician and award-winning film-maker who lobbied tirelessly for native rights, Dunn was known in Canada when he died last year. But his voice and talent deserve to be hymned anew. His excellent song I Pity the Country rightly opens the whole collection, listing indignities with his pointed phrasing and weary warmth.
Aggressively marketed as “Canada’s All-Indian Band” by their original manager, the Chieftones are represented here by I Shouldn’t Have Did What I Done, is a tune that beginning with a kitsch “Indian” intro, before unfurling into rueful 60s loveliness. Not every song here packs that level of gooseflesh, but virtually all of these 34 tracks have musical merit beyond the merely archival. So many of these are just good songs, full stop.