Graded on a Curve:
Willie Dunn, Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology

Many ears were hipped to Indigenous folksinger, poet, filmmaker and activist Willie Dunn by the 3LP/2CD set Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. Issued by Light in the Attic in 2014, that one’s received a recent repress, and in even better news, the next volume in the series is Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology, which gathers tracks from his four albums and more, with everything remastered by John Baldwin. The icing on the cake for vinyl buyers is the inclusion of Willie Dunn Notes, the 24-pg newsprint insert with exhaustively researched liners assembled by the set’s producer Kevin Howes. Essential for folk fans, it’s out now.

Willie Dunn’s best-known song is “I Pity the Country,” in large part because it was one of two recordings featured on Native North America (Vol. 1). That revelatory compilation, GRAMMY®-nominated and prominent in numerous year’s best lists including the top 10 reissues offered by this very website, smartly placed “I Pity the Country” as track one on side one.

When a musician attains a belated boost in profile, their best-known song often just happens to be their best song period, but that’s not the case with Willie Dunn, as Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies begins with the nearly 10-minute powerhouse “The Ballad of Crowfoot.” Now, that song is arguably the artist’s greatest composition (as it plays it sure feels that way); that the ensuing 21 songs here are unmarred by even a hint of anticlimax is testament to Dunn’s talent.

“The Ballad of Crowfoot” is included on both his debut and its follow-up (both eponymous, released in 1971 and ’72 with an overlap of six tracks), but neither of those shorter versions are the one that’s heard on Creation Never Sleeps. The recording collected here is sourced from the soundtrack of the short film of the same title that was made in 1968 by the National Film Board of Canada’s Indian Film Crew, of which Dunn was a member.

In its tactic of filming archival photographs, The Ballad of Crowfoot is a noted predecessor to the style of documentarian Ken Burns. Additionally, the film has been described as Canada’s first music video, which isn’t off-target, though it seems more appropriate to place its historical focus and social commitment in the context of the non-commercial filmmaking tradition that flourished all over the globe as the 1960s progressed.

“The Ballad of Crowfoot” is a protest song accompanying a protest film, made by a young folk singer in protest mode; this track and “I Pity the Country” are uncompromising in a manner reminiscent of Phil Ochs but deepened with vocal delivery that can bring Leonard Cohen to mind, a combination that has held up exceptionally well over time.

This is to say that Dunn was more than just a straight folkie even when he was working in the straight folkie neighborhood. But to be clear, he was heading for the outskirts pretty quickly, as heard in the especially Cohen-like “Peruvian Dream (Part 1),” and with his early stuff further elevated by a clear preference for the guitar-based beauty moves of Bob Robb over standard strumming, so that fans of Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, and Townes Van Zandt should definitely take note.

For his second self-titled effort, released by the fledgling Kot’Ai label (his debut was recorded for Summus Records), there was a concerted effort to move away from a trad folk sound, with a deeper emphasis on rock rhythms (“Crazy Horse”), fiddle (“Louis Riel” and “School Daze”) and in a wildcard move, harp (“The Carver”).

Too often, this sort of stylistic progression results in disappointment, but Dunn succeeds partly because he retained his core backing group of Robb, bassist Norman Ricketts and drummer Jerry Saddleback from the first album, but also in how the topical thrust doesn’t suffer in the scheme (“Oh Canada”). Unlike scads of folkies during this era, Dunn had no interest in going introspective.

Probably my favorite moment from the second album selections is Dunn’s singing in “The Carver,” which blends that similarity to Cohen with a touch of C&W, specifically a vibe that recalls Waylon Jennings. I also dig how side two wraps up with “Down by the Stream (Starlight Maiden)” and “Rattling Along the Freight Train (To the Spirit Land),” tracks that were recorded and released on LP by the CBC in 1967.

Those cuts, “The Ballad of Crowfoot” and the album selections detail the first portion of Dunn’s career in cohesive, highly satisfying fashion. That sides three and four, which offer material from 1980’s The Pacific, ’84’s The Vanity of Human Wishes and the 2004 CD Son of the Sun (all issued by the German Trikont label) maintain the level of quality and broaden Dunn’s range is borderline miraculous, as the seven-year break in recording coincides with a dark, chaotic life stretch.

The Pacific combined Dunn originals with songs crafted around the poems of Robert Service and T.S. Elliot plus chapter 111 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. That track, “The Pacific,” delivers Creation Never Sleeps another standout, but even better is Dunn’s combination of two sonnets by Shakespeare (33 and 55) with the music of the traditional Native American Friendship Dance. And the original material from The Pacific (“Pontiac,” “Nova Scotia,” and “The Dreamer” are featured here) totally holds up alongside the album’s dives into the literary, in turn reinforcing Dunn’s poetic stature as wholly legit.

Indeed, across this set, the man’s lyrics are as robust as his singing and the accompanying music, with the relatively scaled back songs (all originals) that fill Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies’ final side establishing brilliance that was undiminished if undeniably impacted by life struggles, ensuing growth, and the sheer passage of time. Light in the Attic’s collection presents the late Willie Dunn as a heroic figure, a stature that’s destined to increase as more listeners discover his work.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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