The Indian Country Today Media Network website rightly called him the “noted activist, poet and Native thinker” in reporting the death of John Trudell on Dec. 8 at 69.
All these facets of the enormously talented Trudell, came together in a singular recording career that mixed his poetry and Native American traditional music into his own unique blend.
“In practical reality it’s spoken word with music behind it,” he told an interviewer upon the release of Bone Days, his 2002 album with his band Bad Dog. “But I really don’t have a description for it.”
He did observe that in lieu of the “dead poets that were dangled in front of us,” his generation’s living wordsmiths had become rock stars and hence were recognized as singer-songwriters rather than poets.
“But there’s a place for spoken word in our reality,” he noted, and indeed, he carved out that reality in recordings like his initial 1982 release Tribal Voice up through this year’s Wazi’s Dream. Words, he said, were “the source of feeling” in his songwriting; “the music then becomes part of that feeling and carries it.”
He used Bone Days’ cynical political commentary “Carry the Stone” as an example, recalling how he had walked through airport security in London, and responding to what he felt was unnecessary rudeness, remarked that “the more evil the empire, the more paranoid the society”—which became a key lyric in the song.
“It was just something I flipped off to them and then said, ‘Hey, that makes sense.’ It wasn’t something I was consciously thinking.”
When he finished the song’s lyrics, the brought them to Bad Dog guitarist Mark Shark. Following a general discussion of the “musical texture,” Shark then took the lyrics and recorded the backing music.
“But every song I’ve ever written always starts with the words, because I want the music to be the musical extension of the feelings of the words, and not the words being the emotional extension of the feeling of the music,” Trudell explained.
And while Bone Days was released in 2002, the titletrack remains timely.
“You know, ‘no meat, down to the bone,’” he said. “The average human being in America is going through some sort of hard times—physical, emotional, psychological. Everybody’s carrying a bit of bone days in them.”
The lyrics, he added, were also about “the great search for truth, so I didn’t want the music to just have a depressed or defeated feeling, but if nothing else, that resigned feeling that has to be dealt with.”
Bringing the lyrics to Shark, he offered no further direction: “Everybody interprets things differently with their own perception, and I want poetry to pull out of them their own feelings. And I want it to come from them because in a way it’s almost like a mixing of natural energy–my feelings and the musicians’ feelings—and I like that better than being in a situation where I micro-manage every aspect of the songwriting process: If you’re going to collaborate, collaborate. Otherwise quit wasting your damn time.”
Vietnam vet Trudell was chairman of the radical American Indian Movement in the ‘70s (he amassed a 17,000-page FBI dossier), then began writing after his wife, three children, and mother-in-law perished in a fire of suspicious origin in 1979. He met Jackson Browne that year, and Browne helped him record Tribal Voice with fellow Native American (and Bad Dog member) Quiltman, who sang and chanted within the tradition in providing a musical and spiritual context for his spoken word poetry.
“I started with Quiltman to put spoken word with the oldest musical form—Native American music—and he was willing to go for it, though we had no experience,” said Trudell, who wanted to place his concept in “the newest musical form,” for which he enlisted late Kiowa rock guitarist/ songwriter Jesse Ed Davis, who had worked with the likes of Browne, Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
“He was the only one who knew what I was talking about,” said Trudell, who collaborated with Davis on the acclaimed album A.K.A. Grafitti Man.
Trudell recorded two more albums with Davis before his death in 1988.
“Mark picked up his guitar, so to speak, and carried on,” said Trudell. “Then Quiltman came in [again] and it was quite an evolution, adjusting traditional Native American songs to where he just makes his own harmonies to go with contemporary songs.”
“Because the whole point is to take from our native culture and from contemporary culture without using one art form to mimic the other,” Trudell concluded, “so that our native identity remains the native identity, the contemporary identity remains the contemporary identity, and the mixing of these two musical identities creates a third musical identity.”
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