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Willie Dunn

Vocalist, songwriter, activist, poet, filmmaker, and artist Willie Dunn was a vitally important figure in the North American folk community, both for the excellence of his songs and for boldly using his work as a platform for furthering the cause of Native rights in his Candian homeland. Dunn's songs often dealt with political and social issues in no uncertain terms, but his lyrics were artful rather than didactic, and the rich tone of his voice brought out the humanity of his music. He could also write about the stuff of ordinary lives with equal perception, and while he was a folkie at heart, he could play rock and country sounds with equal conviction and showed off a touch of jazz in his longer numbers. His first two albums -- both titled Willie Dunn, the first released by Summus Records in 1971, the second by Kot'ai Records in 1972 -- feature most of his best known and most powerful songs, and 2021's Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology is a superb overview of his life and music. William Dunn was born on August 14, 1941 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His mother was of Mi’gmaq heritage (a First Nations people of the Northeastern Woodlands, near what is now Canada's Atlantic Provinces), while his father was of Scottish and Irish descent. He had seven siblings and for a brief time the family lived in Restigouche County, formerly the national territory of the Mi’gmaq people. When he was eleven years old, Dunn discovered the music of Hank Williams and became an immediate fan. When his brother-in-law gave him a guitar, he learned to play Williams' songs, and working out his melodies inspired him to begin writing songs of his own. He attended Rosemount High School in Montreal, but dropped out in 10th Grade and joined the Canadian Armed Forces in early 1960. Dunn was assigned to join peacekeeping forces in the Congo, shortly after it threw off the colonial rule of Belgium. During his time there, a teacher asked him questions about the lives of Canada's Indigenous people, and his thoughts on the subject inspired him to learn more about the history and betrayal of his people and set their story to music. After his discharge in 1963, Dunn began performing in folk coffeehouses in Montreal and sometimes ventured into New York State, appearing at Caffè Lena in Saratoga Springs, just a three hour drive from Montreal. For a while he helped run a coffeehouse of his own in Montreal, The Totem Pole, and in 1965, he made his first television appearance on a CBC program, The Songs of Man, hosted by Theodore Bikel. Dunn traveled across Canada, performing and meeting like-minded artists and activists, and in 1967, he was invited to be a regular contributor to Indian Magazine, a weekly cultural affairs program on the CBC, where he wrote and performed songs based on his studies of the First Nations people. During a spell in Vancouver, Dunn began working with members of the Native Alliance for Red Power, an activist group for Indigenous rights, and composed songs for a production of George Ryga's play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. In 1968, as part of a National Film Board of Canada drive to make movies on socially relevant topics, Dunn had the opportunity to make his first film, The Ballad of Crowfoot, which used period photographs to illustrate his song about the dark side of First Nations' history in Canada. The film was widely acclaimed, and earned him a prize from America's Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same organization that presents the Oscars. As Dunn became a figure of note, he was courted by Columbia Records, but he was wary of recording for a large corporation, and instead worked with an independent Canadian label, Summus Records, to record and release his first album, 1971's Willie Dunn, which included one of his greatest songs, the quietly devastating "I Pity the Country." Poor distribution prevented the album from making much of an impact, but Kot'Ai, the Canadian label that launched Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush, gave him another chance, and his second album, also titled Willie Dunn and featuring new recordings of a few songs from his debut set, arrived in 1972. Dunn's profits from the Kot'Ai release were used to help launch Akwesasne Notes, a groundbreaking Indigenous affairs journal. Dunn was now touring regularly in North America, but found time to help found the Native Council of Canada, (later rebranded as the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples) and co-direct a second film, The Other Side of the Ledger: An Indian View of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and played a small role in the movie Cold Journey. Claus Biegert, a writer and producer from Germany, became interested in the Red Power movement while travelling in North America, and got to know Dunn. Biegert arranged for Trikont Records to release the second Willie Dunn album in Germany, and his next two albums, 1980's The Pacific and 1984's The Vanity of Human Wishes, were recorded for Trikont. In the mid-1970s, Dunn was spending the evening with friends and fellow activists involved with anti-Royal Canadian Mounted Police actions at a bar in Montreal called the Boiler Room when he and companions became seriously ill. No one was ever able to prove Dunn's belief that they were deliberately poisoned, and the incident took a serious toll on him, as he began to self-medicate with alcohol. He was featured on a multi-artist album devoted to First Nations artists, Mariposa 1976, which led to him being invited to open a tour for Glen Campbell. Dunn saw it as an opportunity to bring his music and message to mainstream listeners, but he felt disrespected by Campbell and his crew, and dismissing them as "a bunch of phonies," left the tour after an angry incident in which he smashed in guitar on stage. After recording the two albums for Trikont, Dunn started to retreat from performing, focusing on raising his family and expressing himself through painting, though he continued to write songs. Dunn also ran for office as a member of Canada's New Democratic Party, and mentored Indigenous musicians, while a collection of his best-known songs, Metallic, was issued by a small Canadian label in 1999. A collection of rare tracks and live recordings, Son of the Sun, followed from Trikont in 2004. In 2005, the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards presented him with a Lifetime Achievement award, but he rarely performed, and when the American Independent label Light In The Attic approached Dunn about recording a new version of his song "Charlie" (based on the true story of a young boy who died after escaping from a residential school), he declined, saying, "It's just too sad, man." (Three older recordings by Dunn were featured on LITA's 2014 set Native North America, Vol. 1: Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985.) Willie Dunn died on August 5, 2013 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada at the age of 71. Kevin Howes, who compiled the Native North America album, assembled a career-spanning collection of Dunn's music, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, which was released by Light in the Attic in 2021.
© Mark Deming /TiVo
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