John Trudell's poetic arrows

Issue 

BY BILL NEVINS

ALBUQUERQUE — A New Mexico tribal drum circle concludes an honour song and John Trudell steps onto the stage, all in black, even his eyes shielded by opaque lenses, his dark hair streaming past his shoulders. His band Bad Dog strikes up a rhythmic pulse and Trudell's poetic declamations — some would say prophesies — begin.

As lead guitarist Mark Shark underscores Trudell's words with bottleneck blues shrieks or rippling descending notes, the poet paces and bows his head as if to punctuate his words. Suddenly, Trudell removes his shades, strides deliberately to the stage edge and speaks as if to an imagined horizon far behind the hushed audience: “Indians are Jesus, hanging from the cross. Hanging from the cross.”

The blunt assertion of those lines, couched as a rocking dance-step rant, is startling. A short, sharp, matter-of-fact refutation of centuries of Euro-Christian theological indoctrination of native folk the world over. An arrow shot to the heart of the so-called “Western tradition”.

For John Trudell, words are weapons. He is of mixed tribal descent, having grown up on and near the Dakota (Sioux) reservation in Nebraska. He is a Vietnam veteran and was an engaged peoples' rights activist in the 1960s and 1970s. As national spokesperson and leader of the American Indian Movement in the 1970s, he was labelled a dangerous agitator and motivator of crowds. His FBI file runs to the tens of thousands of pages.

Astoundingly, this notorious “subversive” has become both a Hollywood film actor (in Thunderheart, Smoke Signals and other major films) and a major recording artist, having closely collaborated with Jackson Browne and the Indigo Girls, and warmly praised by the likes of Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan.

Since the early 1980s, Trudell's words have been directed not so much into speeches — though his infrequent solo public monologues are legendary (and recorded in part on the mesmerizing spoken word CD, DNA: Descendant Now Ancestor on Asitis/Red Line Records) — as they have been channelled into an extraordinary body of musically backed poetry, delivered in recordings and live performances with his longtime band, Bad Dog (Mark Shark on guitar, Rick Ekstein on percussion, Billy Watts on guitar and Quiltman, who provides moving native chants and vocals).

On stunning recordings like the classic AKA Graffitti Man (Ryodisc), Blue Indians (Dangerous Disks) and his latest, Bone Days (Daemon Records), Trudell delivers short sharp bursts of verbal “automatic fire”, interspersed with extended meditations on the state of the Earth, the lessons of history and the painful or joyous meanderings of the human heart and spirit.

All Trudell's writings, even his conversations, are laced with wordplay — at once clever, funny and resoundingly melancholic. In a song about loss, Trudell (who has borne the heaviest losses imaginable: the deaths by arson of his wife and children) admits, “My heart doesn't hurt anymore, but my soul does”, and muses, “Maybe that's what souls are for”.

A postmodern fatalist who still carries hope in humanity, Trudell utters observations and discerns possibilities which undeniably can be classified as political.

“The more evil the Empire, the more paranoid the society”, is a line from “Bone Days” which Trudell says is derived from his own offhanded muttering in protest at over-invasive airport security. Yet in the context of his sweeping vision, such a declaration takes on apocalyptic connotations. When Trudell states in another song, “Whatever can happen just might”, both the best and the worst scenarios come to mind.

And in his early 1990s song, “Bombs Over Baghdad”, from the great AKA Graffitti Man album, the prospect of a very real imperial showdown looms. Trudell himself seems shocked by the lasting relevance of that song, remarking to this reporter that when performing it in 2002, “We don't even have to change the names — it's still George Bush and Saddam Hussein. When we put that song out last time, the war ended. Maybe we can hope for the best this time, though I don't know about that.”

For information on John Trudell and Bad Dog, visit <http://www.johntrudell.com>.

From Green Left Weekly, October 30, 2002.
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