Day 6

New Willie Dunn anthology an overdue recognition of his talent and legacy, says Anishnaabe musician

Anishinaabe musician Raven Kanatakta, who is one half of the duo Digging Roots, remembers Dunn as a family friend, a musical mentor and an icon who paved the way for many Indigenous musicians like him.

Raven Kanatakta played alongside the iconic Indigenous musician

Willie Dunn often highlighted Indigenous issues in his work, including in the iconic The Ballad of Crowfoot. (CBC)

Originally published May 14, 2021.

When Willie Dunn wrote music, he intended it to last centuries.

"I asked him one time, I was like, 'Hey Willie, how do you write your songs?'" recalled Anishinaabe musician Raven Kanatakta, who played alongside Dunn.

"He was like, 'Well, I write songs that will last 300 years.'"

Dunn, a singer-songwriter and activist of Mi'kmaq, Scottish and Irish descent, is perhaps best known for his songs I Pity The Country and The Ballad of Crowfoot. He died in August 2013 at the age of 71.

But his poignant music lives on in a recently-released anthology, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies — a collection of Dunn's work from the early 1970s to the 2000s. It has been praised by critics, with Pitchfork calling it a "brilliant and troubling anthology, which shows the breadth of his skill." 

However, despite his prowess as a songwriter and storyteller, and work with the CBC and National Film Board, he never achieved mainstream success.

"He was just this Renaissance person that was bringing back that heartbeat and that movement that we're feeling in the community right now where people can sing their songs again and where they can play their drums, and where they can express who they are and where they come from," recalled Kanatakta, who is one half of folk-rock due Digging Roots with wife ShoShona Kish. 

Raven Kanatakta, right, is one half of the folk-rock due Digging Roots, with wife ShoShona Kish. (Ratul Debnath)

An Indigenous role model

Kanatakta first met Dunn, a family friend, when he was young. It was in Grade 6, however, that the musician's ability struck Kanatakta during a classroom performance.

Dunn played his song about Charlie Wenjack — the 12-year-old Anishnaabe boy who in 1966 ran away from a residential school near Kenora, Ont., and died from starvation and exposure to the elements — and captivated the young crowd, he recalled.

"It was really amazing because up until that point, there wasn't really a lot of Indigenous people in the media in general," he said. 

"Any time I ever saw anything with a label [that read] 'Indian,' it was always sort of like some Wild West film that was just pretty much derogatory in nature."

But with Dunn at the front of the class, Kanatakta found strength in the singer's "empowered sensibility of identity." He was already deeply into music, playing piano and the drums. 

As he leaned into songwriting, he turned to the guitar.

"The influence of my grandfather, and the influence of Willie, coming in with these powerhouse songs ... I just started to gravitate towards my guitar and my songs and just that power of music," Kanatakta said.

WATCH | The Ballad of Crowfoot, considered Canada's first music video, by Willie Dunn

Connected with audiences

When Kanatakta moved to Ottawa in 1990, not long after the Oka Crisis ended, Dunn asked him to join a few of his gigs.

Dunn rarely had a setlist, instead relying on intuition or his bandmates for the next song.

"It was this very impromptu kind of musical relationship we had, which was really based on being in the moment and letting those songs speak to the audience in that moment," Kanatakta said.

That relationship could create powerful moments on stage, like during a Canada Day concert in the early '90s.

Dunn, with Kanatakta by his side, had performed a set of political songs with messages and statements of empowerment, colonialism and oppression, Kanatakta recalled.

"I remember Willie turned to me and he was like, 'What do you want to do next?' I was like, 'Well, we're on a roll here. We might as well do Crowfoot,'" he said.

Dunn pushed back, saying it was too "heavy" a tune, but Kanatakta felt it was the right time, especially with the Oka Crisis still on people's minds. Ultimately, they ended performing a 20-minute rendition of the song.

"And by the end, yes, there was a lot of people crying," Kanatakta said.

The recently released anthology of Dunn's music is titled Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology. (Light In The Attic Records)

Dunn wanted to record blues album

After that concert, Kanatakta says Dunn spoke with audience members who wanted to share how they felt. It was the artist's way of sharing the history of Indigenous peoples in this country.

"There's a lot of racism in this country, but I really feel that the more educated that people become, the better off for everybody really — and the better relationships we'll have and more of partnership and learning how to live together. It's what we can really achieve."

Asked how Dunn would feel about his music being re-released, Kanatakta says he would love it — but ever a perfectionist, would have questions.

"He'd turn to me and [say], 'Why did they choose that version of the song?'" Kanatakta said, laughing.

But he laments the fact that Dunn didn't have more opportunities to record music. Not long before his death, Dunn told Kanatakta he wanted to record a blues album. 

"I was really, really wanting to work on that blues album with him," he said.

"But I think it's going to have to happen in the next lifetime."

Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Raven Kanatakta produced by Pedro Sanchez.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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