Portrait of John Trudell from his websitejohntrudell.com
John Trudell is of Santee Lakota heritage, and is a visionary poet, musician, actor, and activist. He was the spokesperson for the occupation of Alcatraz Island by Indigenous people from 1969 to 1971. Trudell was Chairman of the American Indian Movement from post 1973 Wounded Knee until 1979. A mysterious fire in 1979 killed his wife, 3 children, and mother-in-law. The quote above from his website is implicitly a reference to this event. In coping with such a massive personal tragedy, Trudell coped by writing poetry and composing music and lyrics. This article, covering the post fire years, summarizes his recorded work, much of which was done with the amazing guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. Trudell said he began composing and writing to "stay connected to this reality," in his words.
Trudell's first album, dating from 1983, was released on his own label. Entitled Tribal Voice, the album explored themes related to the experience of being Indigenous. The album is spoken word, and is recorded over traditional Lakota songs. The album rejects so-called "progressive" Indigenous views, advocating Traditional beliefs. John explores the relationships that he has or had in this album, such as his daughter, his sister, his female friend/lover, his tribe. He struggles with the picture of himself as stoic warrior. He instructs young tribal members to be in the USA, but not to accept it's values. He describes the predominant view of Traditional Indigenous peoples, that the Dominant Culture is insane. He walks into his grief and loss, directly facing it, expressing his feelings of grief regarding his deceased wife and children. As is says in the song "I Went So Willingly...."Laughter or crying, the tears taste the same." The album's closing song, Look At Us, is a meditation and a letter to the Dominant Culture. The tune evolves into a dialogue between Trudell and the Creator. He contrasts the differences between the Consumer Culture and Indigenous Culture. Here is this song... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6h6-zEmKI7k&list=PL66F205ADFFC95284
1983-Tribal Voice Album
In 1986, Trudell collaborated with the brilliant Indigenous guitarist Jesse Ed Davis on an album that attacked the position of privileged society with respect to war, wealth distribution, and materialism, Original aka Graffiti Man. The lead off track, Rich Man's War sets a strong tone of protest, with a beat that is Indigenous, yet also has very contemporary slide guitar by Davis as well. This is a thick slice of blues, and Davis's guitar positively sizzles behind Trudell's narrative. Named by Bob Dylan as the best album of 1986, the whole album presents a powerful indictment of live in the "get yours while can" decade of the 80s. Lavender's Blues has a shuffle beat and a great melody. The song attacks materialism, the youth culture America worships, and offers a sarcastic and yet compassionate view of the lives Indigenous people have to live with an inner duality between the Dominant Culture and Indigenous traditions. New Old Man, the third track, is a rocking blues number that has Trudell bemoaning the loss of his female friend to a new "old man." In this case, the song's rocking tempo perfectly matches the lyrics. God Help You and Breed You All, the fourth track, has Jesse Ed Davis playing a George Harrison style guitar, and Trudell's words are mocking of the Caucasian Society trashing its heroes and moving on to the next 15 minutes of the next lionized temporary hero.
John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis-Original aka Graffiti Man-1986
Star Dreamer Woman is a beautiful love song to a person that Trudell doesn't identify by name, but is obviously smitten with. The song is 4 minutes of lyrical, gorgeous guitar, and a softer John Trudell than usual. Simply, this is a great track. Graffiti Man is a tune about the seamy side of life. It laments the use of different chemicals that mess with the quality of Indigenous life. The analogy is extended to materialism, the disease of American Life....addiction to power, money, and things. The implication is that America has no soul, and if people are to survive, things have to change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIM4COJaJ3k He Said, She Said is a beautiful song about two people newly in love. The music is gorgeous, the lyrics chronicle the evolution of a relationship from beginning to it's ruptured end. Profound, simple, and absolutely on the mark. The next tune, Baby Boom Che celebrates the liberation of America from it's inhibited pop music by people like Elvis Presley. The song celebrates the newfound sensuality of rock and roll. Love Me Tender plays in the background, along with a beautiful Sleepwalk type guitar from Jesse Ed Davis. Trudell celebrates the triumph of Elvvis and Chuck Berry over vanilla pap like Pat Boone. Elvis....America's baby Boom Che..... Silent Lightning is a track that begins with a chant, then moves into spoken word by Trudell with Jesse ed Davis playing behind him. Probably the weakest track on the album, it is the only artistic misfire here. The album concludes with Shaman (Make a Chant). It is an examination of the role of healing in Indigenous Culture, and the guitar is searing, with Trudell's vocal drenched in reverb.
Trudell's next album is But This Isn't El Salvador. This album combine traditional tribal drum songs with contemporary lyrics. The album is a series of vignettes or pictures of Native life in a materialistic culture. Trudell makes sure that the listeners understands that the problems of Indigenous People in Central and South America, Australia, and Asia are the same as problems of American Indigenous Nations. There is no valid argument to the concept that somehow US Indigenous nations are unique and different. Butler's Honor opens the album. Trudell explains that he and other Indigenous people grow up quickly, and there is no such thing as childhood innocence. Written in the middle of Reagan's insane Contra affair, Trudell sees the irony of being in America, yet not being able to get decision -makers' attention. Performed to traditional drums and chant, in Born 18 the point Trudell appears to be hitting is the loss of innocence and dependence and the unwitting dependence upon and identification with Dominant Culture, even though such culture instantly devalues Indigenous Peoples. The Newspaper Stand is the next track, and Trudell reflects the problems that inner city Indigenous People face...addiction, homelessness, women having to sell their bodies to live. He points out that community servants treat such people as invisible. The following track is Elk Song (But This Isn't My Life). Trudell reflects on his days as an activist, feeling that it took too heavy a toll on his life and the lives of those he loved. He seems to feel that the price he paid was very high. Old Spring Owl Song (Instant Heat) describes the experience of new love, the discovery of a loving partner again. Thicker Than Blood (Chief's Song) explores the antics and exploits of young male friends, raising hell, defying convention, all done to a wonderful chant. Beauty In a Fade has some cool guitar behind it, along with a woman chanting similar notes. The song examines the role of male ego in destroying a loving relationship. The two people grow apart in the song. The woman had their dreams together as a priority, but the man's dreams were only for himself, not her. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YxcqydoS8pQ The next track, 1 Side of the Face (What Happens), examines the struggle of grief, the fear of letting go of loss, the wondering about what the next life chapter will bring. At Some Point (Umatilla Song) describes the price of vanity, not being real, not embracing life on ts own terms. Woman Treat (Wide Spot Own Song) looks hard at first love. This song examines the "chemistry" of initial attraction, asking the question, will you be mine....Co-Optation (49 Crazy Horse Song) addresses the plight of Indigenous Peoples in Central America, describing the illogical doublethink that Dominant Culture presents to justify meddling in other nations. The gist is that struggles against European (Dominant) Cultural Power are universal for Indigenous People. There is no time for the Dominant Culture to really HEAR the Indigenous Peoples' anger at the rape of the Earth. Song of the Trees (Warm Springs Honoring Song) is the final track of this very complex album, and calls attention to the values honored, cherished by Indigenous Peoples...loving freely, not attaching to possessions, loving the Earth, and listening to the world around you. This album is the product of an artist looking without any defenses raised toward himself or the world around him. The album's objective, unbridled honesty, is more than met.
John Trudell-This Isn't El Salvador-1987
Heart Jump Bouquet, John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis's second collection of songs in 1986-7, a song cycle about relationships, immediately puts chills down the listener's spine by starting with a wolfpack howling. Davis's guitar echoes the howling, perhaps signaling a man's resignation to a woman who is beautiful but distant and unconquerable. Davis and Trudell's Listen Closely is a beautiful appreciation of a man's love from a woman who feels that love from the depths of her soul. It is a declaration of a relationship that is a true partnership. Such a Fine Day has an interesting beat to it, with some cool female backing vocals. It almost has a bit of lightness in it's melody....the backing vocals remind me of the girl group records of the Sixties. In the end, it is a celebration of a woman who is sure of herself, no matter where she is, or how she is dressed. Never Never Blues is graced by thrilling slide guitar from Jesse Ed Davis, and it dominates the tune. There is a blues harp in the background that just wails. Trudell's vocal is a declaration of intention from a man who is feeling that he is drowning in the relationship. This is classic 12 Bar Blues, and is another example of these two mens' mutual chemistry as creative partners. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7nIBiIaFMk Heart Chanting again spotlights some gorgeous slide guitar. The tune rocks in a cool manner, and Davis lets his guitar sing. The song almost hearkens back to some of the early Eighties synthesizer tunes, the heart chanting phrase refers to two peoples' hearts beating as one in lovemaking. Rockin' the Res opens with a woman chanting. Trudell's lyrics complement Davis's tasteful guitar in the background. The whole feel of the tune is a catchy and energetic declaration of love.
John Trudell and Jesse Ed Davis-Heart Jump Bouquet 1987
Bringing Back the Time is a meditation on the good times that a couple had in their relationship. It jumps along, and is perhaps a little lighter in its subject matter than some of this album's other songs. The title track, Heart Jump Bouquet follows. The track is a love song about love at first sight. The slide here by Jesse Ed Davis is again beautiful. This is love poetry set to music. The track is engaging, drawing you in, inviting you to feel the same. Trudell's poetry here complements the simple but beautiful accompaniment. Davis's guitar work is exceptional. Poetic Motion follows, a tune that addresses a worldly woman who has been around the block. It features a cool track, and Trudell's appreciation of a woman who has been through as much as he has. Sweet Things is a funky ass track, accompanied by Trudell, speaking almost as if he is confiding in the listener, who is carried away by the music. The harp and brass line is pure Chicago Blues. It is as if Little Walter dropped by and layed down the smack. Tina Smiled opens with a blistering guitar solo from Davis, followed by Trudell reminscing in a loving way about a woman who is gone. Davis's guitar literally wails, cries with anguish. This album is truly a masterwork by any measure. It is a study in sound, the emotions of love, and poetry.
These four albums are exceptional in their scope, honesty, and musicianship. Jesse Ed Davis is no longer with us, but his guitar playing here is a wonderful sample of his capability and extraordinary guitar work. The next artcile in this series will examine Trudell's work from the Nineties. Thank you for reading this, as Indigenous Music is often ignored. Trudell's albums are available through most major online retailers and ITunes.
Text Copyright 2013 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved