'The Willie Dunn Anthology' Restores an Important Missing Chapter of Contemporary Folk Music

BY Mark DunnPublished Mar 17, 2021

With the release of Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, an important missing chapter of contemporary folk music has been restored. Apart from three songs released on 2014's Native North America (Vol. 1) compilation, and Metallic, a later album of mostly re-released earlier songs, Willie Dunn's music has been difficult to find. He is in good company in the absent-but-remembered league of artists with vast catalogues of folk music, especially by Indigenous songwriters like David Campbell, Alanis Obomsawin and the late Shingoose, nearly silenced in the digital shift. 

A filmmaker, songwriter, and politician who ran for the New Democratic Party, Dunn was central to the North American folk scene throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The arrangements are sparse, featuring acoustic instruments and Dunn's sonorous voice over folk and country sounds. Often, Dunn delivers his lines with a subtle rising inflection as if posing a question. The effect is one of constant inquiry. Although the music is calm and gentle, it is not passive.

Over the 22 songs included on Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies, Dunn is fully engaged with the history of Indigenous people and the ongoing interruption of European presence on Turtle Island. Of Mi'kmaq and Scottish heritage, Dunn's scope is broad, recalling how the cultural disruption of the continent began and pointing out how the programs of assimilation continue into the present, while also celebrating the legacies of influential Indigenous leaders including Crowfoot, Crazy Horse, Louis Riel and Pontiac.

Dunn's most famous song, "I Pity the Country," is an indictment of western governmental and religious structures that exclude and criminalize people based on heritage and economic status. The song — which is also enjoying new life thanks to a recent cover by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson — is an anthem in folk music circles and should be on the curriculum of social studies classes across the country alongside his version of "O Canada!" Canada's national anthem, according to Dunn, leaves out a few key details. Accompanying Dunn's spoken word rendition, a single nylon string guitar opens the piece with the imperial anthem "God Save the Queen" before morphing into the colonial melody. As if delivering a eulogy, Dunn twists the familiar phrases of Robert Stanley Weir's lyrics to acknowledge a land inhabited for "one hundred thousand years." In this version, the history of Canada doesn't begin with Confederation but stretches back throughout time to the very beginnings of the human experience. Dunn's treatment trades "glowing hearts" for hearts "saddened" from witnessing the land "robbed and stripped" by colonial expansion. Forests are levelled, and the First Peoples are "shunted aside to the jails and the penitentiaries." The anthem now grieves a Canada that was "once glorious and free." 

One of the long-lost gems in the collection is the song "Charlie." Decades before Gord Downie first learned about the story of Chanie Wenjack, which served as the inspiration for Downie's 2016 album Secret Path, Dunn sang about the 12-year old who died of hypothermia after escaping residential school. In "Charlie," Dunn imagines young Wenjack, lost, "lonely as a single star in the skies above," plodding along the snow-choked rail line toward home. The song fades with Charlie still on his eternal journey to recover a life torn away by church and state. It's a journey that many have walked and continue to walk.

This could be the perfect time for Dunn's body of work to reenter public consciousness. The gulf between the privileged classes and the desperate masses has never been greater. With more people becoming aware of social inequities and government-sanctioned discrimination, Dunn's music is a hard shot of truth to awaken a world in slumber.
(Light In The Attic)

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