Willie Thrasher’s Long Journey Home

Carena Liptak

Willie thrasher

At the top-west corner of the Northwest Territories of Canada, 70 miles south of the Arctic Coast, the seaside hamlet of Aklavik is icy, flat and crystalline. It’s a trapping and fishing community, population 633—less than half of the number that lived in Aklavik when songwriter and performer Willie Thrasher was a child there in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “It was one of the most beautiful lives,” he recalled. “My mom and dad lived off the wild, and the Arctic Ocean. We hunted caribou, and we used to go up to the Arctic Ocean to go whaling for about a month out of the year. The Inuit people would get together, all the hunters and whalers and trappers, and they would go off to the great north land. This was always a time when they had a lot of free time to spend how they wanted, and they spent it living off the land.”

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Thrasher’s was a whaling family. His great-great-great grandfather came to northern Canada on a whaling expedition from Europe, and his group stopped to rest in one of the Inuit communities after a long stretch of hunting grey whales and Belugas. There, he fell in love with a girl in the local community and began spending time with her. When the ship packed up to go back to Europe, Thrasher’s great-great-great grandfather stood on the deck and looked back towards the shore, saw the girl he loved standing at the dock, and jumped from the boat into the water. He swam back to her, and when they married they took the name of the whaling boat—Thrasher. The family has had that name ever since.

At least, Thrasher told me, that’s what he thinks. “My brothers from the north, they know much more about it, and they have pictures and legends,” he told me. “I haven’t learned too much about how my dad got the name, but I do know it came from a whaling boat named Thrasher.”

Last year, Light In The Attic Records released a compilation album of native songs, entitled Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock and Country 1966-1985. The collection was amassed and meticulously curated by Kevin “Sipreano” Howes, an ethnomusicologist of Canadian native music and a passionate fan who spent a decade and a half collecting largely undervalued and unknown gems from the vast landscape of Canada’s musical history. The songs date from the 60s, 70s and 80s, and almost without exclusion saw underwhelming response from their initial releases. On Native North America, Thrasher appears alongside the greats of native Canadian music: the songwriters Willie Dunn, Willy Mitchell, Éric Landry, and Inuit garage rock band Sugluk. Yet none of these musicians, who make up the backbone of native music in Canada, have much name recognition today. As with any little-known genre endemic to a culturally marginalized group of people, burden rests heavy on the head of the collector: Howes has curated a canon without a paper trail, and without a guide, those same songs could easily be passed over.

It got in my head, because he was talking about my culture. That was taken away from me.

In his adult life, Thrasher has had to work hard to return to the legends and history of his family and the Inuit community. When he was 5, he was removed from his parents’ house and forced to enroll in the Indian Residential School System, a Catholic missionary-run program funded by the state whose mission was to assimilate native children. The system formally came into place in 1876 after the passage of the Indian Act, and the last residential school system closed in 1996. “It happened all over the north,” Thrasher told me. “The traditional people, they all went to residential schools. I remember when my mom took me to the residential school, that was the biggest, darkest change in my life.” Thrasher was not allowed to speak his language or participate in his family’s rituals and cultural traditions. The missionaries cut his hair so short that his scalp bled. For the next decade, he spent ten months out of every year at the Roman Catholic-affiliated Guy Hill Indian Residential School, over 1500 miles away from home. “The job of the missionaries was to rip the language out of us and turn us to Christianity and rub out our traditional ways,” Thrasher explained. “It was a dark moment in history—I’ll put it that way.”

Thrasher is a kind, luminous man, who uses the word gorgeous a lot and sees beauty in nearly everything and everyone. He did what any kid would do: he got his soul saved by rock and roll. Guy Hill had a set of drums in the gymnasium, and Thrasher, a shy kid who didn’t have a lot of friends, starting coming to the gym alone and teaching himself how to play. “Well, I’d seen drums before, so I sat down and starting kicking around on them,” he said, “and then I saw A Hard Day’s Night. I remember thinking, Ringo Starr was pretty damn good. He was my favorite one and that’s how I learned to become a drummer.”

Willie Thrasher - Spirit Child

Thrasher heard country music in his community’s whaling camp, and again in school. He started listening to CCR, Neil Young and the Rolling Stones. “The good old rock and roll,” Thrasher joked. It was this music that became a new cultural home for Thrasher and his friends, after they lost the identity they had been born into. “Music was a lifesaver,” he said. “The Beatles, The Stones, CCR. That made us into who we are.” Thrasher met a guitarist named Louis Goose, who liked to play country music and southern rock and roll. The two of them started playing together. Then two more guitarists, Jerome Tucker and Thrasher’s brother Lawrence, joined in along with a bass player named Moses Kalinick. And thus, Thrasher’s first band—The Cordells—was born.

As young teenagers, The Cordells became the first widely popular Inuit rock group, traveling and playing gigs in the eastern towns in the Northwest Territories. They played covers of all the songs they liked: country songs for dances, CCR tunes in bars. One night, an old man came up to The Cordells’ table after a show and began to ask them why they only played rock and roll music. “He said, ‘Why don’t you write Inuit music? Why don’t you write about your culture?’” Thrasher recalled. The guy was white, but very knowledgable about Inuit history and culture—more so than Thrasher was, at the time. “It got in my head, because he was talking about my culture. That was taken away from me,” he said. “I knew he was trying to influence to write songs about our way of life, and I’ll never forget the old man that night that came to my table.” Thrasher didn’t catch the man’s name, and he never saw him again.

None of the Cordells had ever tried to write music. They continued playing together for a couple more years, but scattered after they graduated from the residential school, around age 15. Thrasher began to travel and perform more as a solo artist. He couldn’t travel with his drums, so he asked the members of the Cordells to teach him how to play guitar, but they refused because they didn’t want another guitarist to share the girls with. Thrasher taught himself, slowly. Years later, after playing a show in Ottowa, he penned his first song, “Eskimo Named Johnny.”

“I was upset because I did not have a culture at that time,” he explained, “and the old man had brought back a lot of memories.” “Eskimo Named Johnny” tells the story of an Inuit guy estranged from his culture, and constantly in search of the route back home. In 1981, Willie Thrasher released his debut and only solo album Spirit Child—a collection of the first songs he ever wrote, and the self-documentation of his return to the culture he lost in the Residential School System. The album came out on the Canadian label CBC records, but without the broadcasting and promotional resources of its counterparts in the states, Spirit Child floated around for a few months and died away. On October 30 of 2015, Light In The Attic reissued Spirit Child as part of an ongoing revitalization of native music, and an attempt to see that music get its international due this time around.

Today, Thrasher thinks of Spirit Child as a kind of time capsule. “I was young and wild, living under the great Northern Lights,” he recalls. Thrasher traveled a lot after the album was released—across Canada, and down into the states. He played in 39 U.S. states in support of the album. The album’s title song is one of his favorites. “Spirit child where you going to, spirit child can I go with you,” it begins. “It tells the story of a lost boy searching for his culture,” Thrasher explained, “and traveling around picking up the pieces of something he lost a long time ago.” It’s a personal song, and the one that touches him the most when he listens to the album.

He did what any kid would do: he got his soul saved by rock and roll.

Thrasher is a mobile musician, whether busking on the streets of his home in Nanaimo, B.C., where he has lived for the past 15 or 20 years, or traveling across Canada and the States. Getting to share his culture, and learn about musicians from other backgrounds, inspires him to keep writing. One particularly memorable tour took him to New York City and the Hudson Valley, where he met Pete Seeger. “We were there performing in ‘91 and we ended up staying on the Hudson River,” he said. [Seeger] and I started playing guitar together and he chanted with me over one of the songs that I’d written. It was such an honor to meet a legend. We stayed up late talking over a little fire, and he told me stories about his journeys and who he was.”

These days, Thrasher prefers to write outside. He’s working on a new album to follow up Spirit Child’s reissue, and he sees a momentum building behind the Inuit songwriter movement—a movement that will go on to inspire a new generation of musicians to write about their roots. He typically writes alone. “I go by the ocean or up in the mountains, and I take a pen and paper and my guitar,” he told me. “ I let the wind bring me the feelings of all around the world, like driftwood. The beauty of the earth and the beauty that’s been here for millions of years. Sometimes I go for a walk by the sea and when something comes up, I take it home and finish it when there’s no one around. Being a part of that, and then picking a moment and writing about that moment and making it into a song—it’s very spiritual.”

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