Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, the compilation of the Indigenous Canadian singer-songwriter’s music issued by Light in the Attic Records back in March, is a joy that imparts two burdensome revelations. The anthology pulls from Dunn’s four studio albums recorded between 1970 and 1999. On each track Dunn cuts an imposing stature. He was blunt, poetic, focused, and diverse. His style ebbed between genres much like how he constantly migrated across Canada. Longtime friend and collaborator Obediah (Johnny) Yesno characterized Dunn perfectly; “… the audience always writes in to ask if the songs are on records. They’re not…most of the time you can’t even find him. He can’t stay in one place.”
Dunn was a singer-songwriter, an artist, a filmmaker, a leader, a teacher, and an activist, raising awareness and protesting on behalf of Indigenous rights. His activism extended to rerecording his own albums and donating the proceeds to Indigenous rights groups despite struggling with finances for most of his career.
The compilation’s first revelation is that recognition has eluded Dunn even beyond his unfortunate passing in 2013. Part of this was by his own admission. He refused record courtships from Columbia Records when signing would’ve had him in leagues with Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash.
The other tragedy is that Canada hasn’t progressed far from its colonial roots despite some pleasant lip service. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau still engages in misguided reparation attempts. Thus Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies is an essential listen beyond its high standard as Dunn’s music is as relevant now as it was when he recorded with the Akwesasne Tribe nearly fifty years ago. Dunn wove history and poetry, both Indigenous and English, into 22 tracks of the highest caliber. Here are five that highlight not just the pristine quality of his output but illuminate Dunn’s character.
The Ballad of Crowfoot
Dunn’s one-man folk epic recounts the story of Crowfoot, the Siksika chief who negotiated Treaty 7 on behalf of the Blackfoot community. Crowfoot has his land pilfered, his morals bullied into the signing of treaties, his guilt racked, and by the end of the ten minute ballad he witnesses the government’s refusal to honour trade agreements. After every wincing detail the chorus chops through with the promise of a better tomorrow. It echoes Crowfoot’s devotion to his clan combatting his doubt in his choices. Dunn shows how lofty hope is by concluding with the vague optimism of finding love as opposed to “usual treachery.”
“The Ballad of Crowfoot” is equally notable as a short film. Dunn directed the piece with grassroots funding and the Canadian government handling distribution. It was the rare combination of the system and radicals working in tandem. Often considered Canada’s first music video, the 1968 short is composed of archival tribal footage and photographs set to Dunn’s track. It was poignant enough that it entered the curriculum of classrooms across Canada.
Dunn’s track operates just as well without the context of the film nor its bleak imagery. His voice booms with the weight of a withering community, his depth mirroring the history and bloodlines Crowfoot upheld against the incompatible force of colonization.
The tender, finger picked, “Charlie” is an astounding folk number. Dunn tells of Chanie Wenjack, a young Anishinaabe boy who died mere feet away from a CN (Canadian National) railway track after fleeing his residential school on October 23, 1966. The freezing snow wracks the boy’s small body and his thoughts wander towards his father and his deceased mother and the track grows colder as Wenjack’s time in the frigid winter crawls onwards.
“Charlie” marks a few recurring themes in Dunn’s life. Notably, his finances. He received $600CAD for recording “Charlie.” Dunn was grateful for the then large sum because he knew how brutal the music business was, how rampant exploitation ran throughout the system, and how broke he was. Dunn’s finances were never stable, he was forever in a state of possessing only enough to pass from couch to couch. Dunn wouldn’t find any financial stability until later in his life.
Years later Dunn re-recorded “Charlie” for Martin Defalco’s television series Adventures in Rainbow Country. He omitted any direct lyrical mentions of Wenjack to echo Defalco’s aim. Defalco extrapolated Wenjack’s passing to the flaws of the Canadian system. The track evolved from a singular heart-wrenching recount into a symptom of a larger virus.
I Pity the Country
Dunn’s most famous song houses his unique evisceration of colonialism. His stony delivery, deterrence of radio-palpable friendliness, and honesty disposed of any aesthetic poeticism – one of the lines is “Deception annoys me” and Dunn moves mountains with its simplicity – are the reasons “I Pity the Country” reverberates today and probably why it never grew on the airways. It was too raw. Even Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s fantastic cover from earlier this year is a totem of gathered dust from years of burial. Her version trembles with soot but shows Dunn’s words as ever relevant. Dunn is not so much jabbing into the gut of colonialism; he’s empathetic to the people and disheartened that a system has yet to remedy its colonialist scars. As an Indigenous man he’s furious, but as a Canadian he’s disappointed his country succumbs to such lows.
Dunn was adamant about retaining his own image when Columbia Records tried to recruit him in the late ‘60s. They wanted him to play the cowboy and indulge in his country influences. And Dunn could’ve excelled as a country artist, “School Days” and “Crazy Horse” being two of his strongest takes on the genre. But he was far too rebellious to be confined by a lasso.
“The Carver” is Dunn’s most overt example of his wide influences and output. Dunn’s music, much like the man, couldn’t remain in one place for long. He bounded between genres while maintaining his own identity. “The Carver” is the sonic encapsulation of his propensity to remain in motion. Take it as a microcosm of Dunn’s large output palette. Even within the realm of folk Dunn was hard to characterize, and even harder still when he ventured outside of it.
“The Carver,” conceived during the recording sessions of “The Ballad of Crowfoot,” may be Dunn’s most divergent piece. The track is a psychedelic session where Dunn’s hearty register skips across the flowery guitars like a stone on atop a lake. Dunn never replicated the approach, at least not on any of Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies‘ other tracks.
Sonnet 33 and 55/ Friendship Dance
Dunn’s native heritage was as key to his artistry as his English blood. The singer is the mediator between both worlds on “Sonnet 33 and 55/Friendship Dance” as he was in real life. He coagulates tribal drumming (provided by Akwesasne Singers from a Mohawk Nation on the banks of the St. Lawrence River) with Shakespeare’s flowery prose. Dunn was a vested student of English poetry but melding Shakespeare with tribalism insinuates a deeper purpose. It’s the veil Indigenous people have to adopt in order to fit into Canadian society.
Dunn reimagines Shakespeare’s poetry as speaking to the image of the First Nations. He converts Sonnets 33 and 55 into celebrations of Indigenous identity. The prose, teeming with metaphor, gains traction from the rhythmic drums, bringing it closer to earth. Likewise Dunn’s pointed recitation adds a poet’s flair to the traditional accompaniment.