Fresh out of high school back in the mid-1970s, Eastmain’s Lloyd Cheechoo was in Moose Factory playing drums and a bit of guitar in a band with his cousins. One day a fiddle player named Clarence Louttit asked him a favour: someone from the Oji-Cree Cultural Centre was recording local artists for a compilation, and Louttit wanted to know if Cheechoo could add some guitar to his tracks. Once that was done, the recorder said, “Hey Lloyd, do you have any songs?” So it happened that Cheechoo contributed two songs to a compilation called Goose Wings – and 40 years later, those songs are about to be re-released internationally by a celebrated label in Seattle.
The forthcoming Native North America, Volume 1 (NNA) is a two-CD compilation of artists from Northern First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities being prepared by a record label called Light in the Attic, which specializes in releasing rare and lost recordings to new listeners the original artists would never have dreamed would hear them.
The new compilation contains two songs by Cheechoo – an ode to James Bay, and his musical retelling of the contact between Crees and white explorers from Scotland. Also featured on the album are artists who would once have been household names in Eeyou Istchee, such as Willie Mitchell, Brian Davey and the legendary Morley Loon. Light in the Attic is highly respected for the love they put into their projects, and this one will contain a 120-page book detailing the histories of the 23 featured artists.
Vancouver DJ and record historian Kevin “Sipreano” Howes is the driving force behind the project. For the past decade, Howes has been digging up lost albums, singles and compilations of Aboriginal music recorded across North America between the 1960s and the 1980s.
Howes said he loves learning about the history of the Canadian music industry, but has always found the history has been disproportionately slanted toward artists who were commercially successful – and white.
“Growing up, we’d hear countless stories about Gordon Lightfoot and Anne Murray and the Guess Who – all fantastic artists in their own right – but I discovered through record collecting that there was a lot more great music recorded in Canada at the time that didn’t break through commercially, but was equally valid and important culturally and musically.”
The fact that a record wasn’t successful didn’t necessarily have any connection to its quality, Howes pointed out.
“Artists who received commercial success, that comes through promotion and media and support,” he explained. But for Indigenous artists, much of that support and financing didn’t exist. “The recordings themselves, the vinyl recordings the compilation was produced from, some of them are very obscure and difficult to find. Some were only recorded for CBC broadcast, and weren’t sold in stores.”
The very best an artist could hope for, Howes said, was for a few records to make it to stores across Canada. But most of the time, recordings of Aboriginal bands and singers were limited to the regional communities in which the artists performed.
While Howes acknowledges that veteran artists might have viewed the small numbers their records sold the first time round as a defeat or failure, he says “good music will last forever, and maybe it takes time for people to fully digest it. Now, even though it’s some 30 or 40 years after these recordings were made, there’ll be a lot of people who’ll be interested in hearing about it and learning about it.”
The only problem is that the records themselves are disappearing – and so are the people who made them. Because the vinyl records were made in small batches, it’s easy for them to have been lost, damaged or thrown away. Howes was driven not just by his love of the music, but also by the knowledge that if it wasn’t preserved and protected, it might be lost forever. After years of collecting Aboriginal recordings, Howes was dismayed at how little information exists about the artists.
“I Googled Lloyd Cheechoo and couldn’t find out anything about his music,” he said. “I looked in the index of the History of Canadian Music book and I didn’t see his name. But his music affected me in such a positive way. I had to go right to the artist. So I phoned Lloyd, and I said ‘I’m calling from Vancouver and I have the record here that you cut in the 1970s. I want to thank you for your music. We’d like to try to put it out.’”
Winds of change
Reached at his home in Eastmain, Cheechoo – now the Executive Director of the Cree Native Arts & Crafts Association – says he’s very happy about the upcoming compilation’s release.
“It came out of the blue and surprised me,” he said. “In that era, all we did was play live. I know most of the people on the compilation, all throughout Ontario, from the festivals that happened. To come together in one album is great.”
Having begun his career as a musician while he was still in high school, Cheechoo recalled the flowering of Native music of the 1970s as having political roots.
“At that time, that era, that’s a time when these people had come around us when we were high school kids, saying ‘Grow your hair, braid your hair, it’s great to be Native again.’ There was an awareness that was created there. We went to cultural gatherings, sweat lodges and pipe ceremonies. It was a very interesting time.”
Cheechoo recalls recording the two songs included on the compilation almost by accident, after he accompanied fiddler Clarence Louttit to the Moosonee radio station to back him up on his own recordings while they were being recorded by Mel Stewart of the Oji-Cree Cultural Centre.
“After they were done, he said, ‘Hey Lloyd, do you have any songs?’ I said, ‘I have one song I finished writing.’ He said, ‘Can I record you?’ I said sure.”
The song told the story Cheechoo had heard from his grandfather Noah, about the first European ship ever seen in James Bay, that of James Cook, off the coast of Waskaganish.
“I loved that story. It was passed down and [my grandfather] picked it up. So I started getting these ideas of a song around it. One day I remembered that I had notes, and I figured it was time to write the song. I called it Winds of Change.”
They recorded the song in Timmins on a four-track recorder, with Cheechoo playing guitar, bass and drums, and his cousin Vern Cheechoo contributing electric guitar. Until then, Lloyd Cheechoo had only been a drummer in a high-school band with his cousins, and his break into song writing came as a surprise.
“Vern said, ‘Where the hell did you get that song, man?’ I said, ‘I wrote it!’”
When they finished Winds of Change, engineer Mel Stewart told Cheechoo there was room for another song.
“I had started writing another one, but I only had two chords, a B and a G,” Cheechoo recalled. “[Stewart] heard the arrangement first and said, ‘Not bad. I’m going for lunch – give me another verse and we’ll put it down.’ So I started writing the verse, and he came back and said, ‘Good enough!’”
The resulting track, James Bay, appeared on a compilation called Goose Wings: the Music of James Bay along with tracks by Lloyd’s cousin Vern Cheechoo and Lawrence Martin (who also played with the Cheechoos’ band) and other musicians like Moose Factory’s Brian Davey and Chisasibi’s Roger House.
Though they were a proud memento – and James Bay was used in some regional tourist projects – the recordings took a backseat to playing live.
“We did dances,” Cheechoo said. “Dances were big around Moosonee and Moose Factory. It was like a full-time job, consisting of playing every weekend. That was pretty good for us. Moose Factory was known for live music, with big halls and big stages. People from Waskaganish, Eastmain, the other coast, they’d fly down for these dances. Open bar and everything! It still goes on today, but not as much as the 70s. The 70s was the heyday for live music.”
“I went on the road with Morley,” Cheechoo recalled. “It was very fun and interesting times. He said, ‘Lloyd, you should learn to sing in your own language.’ Apparently Kashtin said that Morley told them to do that, and that’s when they started doing their songs in the Innu language. I was lucky that I was hanging around with an icon like Morley.”
While Cheechoo understands that not every artist from the era could be represented, he noted that Roger House wasn’t included. “He was the songwriter for us,” he said of House. But he was excited about the songs by Brian Davey, Willie Dunn and Willie Thrasher. In particular, he cites Mistissini’s Kitigan Zibi-born Willie Mitchell as an icon.
“He was a great songwriter – Birch Bark Letter and Call of the Moose. Nobody could write better than him. He was fantastic.”
Howes agreed that it was a shame to have to leave some artists out, and underlined that no single compilation could ever provide a complete history of the James Bay music scene.
“This is just a cross-section of what was happening at the time,” he said. “When you look back 40 years ago – many of the artists didn’t even get to cut a record. They were just performing live at different events. But the artists who were lucky enough to do vinyl recordings, that’s all that exists, and the records are becoming extinct.”
At least these tracks will be preserved and remembered – and given an enormous international audience among Light in the Attic’s dedicated music fans. Nearly 17,000 people have “liked” the label’s Facebook page.
“Some of the artists are still active in music and hopefully it’ll raise awareness of what they’re doing today and provide opportunities for them to get on stages and perform,” Howes said. But above all, he hopes that the compilation will bring a renewed sense of pride to the musicians it spotlights.
“I want to hand a copy of this compilation to Lloyd Cheechoo and hopefully see a smile on his face, that we’ve done his music proud. I look forward to getting it into the artists’ hands. If the artists are happy with this project, I’ve done a good job. Everything else is the icing on the cake.”