John Trudell: Warrior-Poet Waxes on Bone Days

By Ronald B. Barbour

John Trudell, the archetype warrior-poet has just released his fourth CD entitled Bone Days, which offers a jarring, steely, glimpse at the gritty underbelly of the world through his sometimes cynical eyes.

Trudell is a humble man whose rich and colourful life has included a four-year stint in the American Armed forces serving in Vietnam, front-line political activism with the American Indian Movement and the subsequent bombing death of his pregnant wife and children as a result of his activism, and a twenty-year musical career that has had him rubbing shoulders with the best in the business – with the likes of Jackson Browne, Jesse Ed Davis, Jeff Beck, and Tony Hymas.

Trudell’s songs, which he refers to as his art, are an extension of his words and the process he goes through with writing starts with the concept of the album.

“There is a process,” says Trudell, “but part of it is, I just write. Whenever it comes on me and I get these ideas, I write.

“Every album represents a concept to me. As soon as I know what the concept is, then I start writing some things specifically for this particular album. So part of it is that and the other part is that I just go back and I find things that I wrote 20 years ago, or 15 years ago or 10 years ago. And then I incorporate the old stuff with the new stuff and then I’ll go sit down.

“So when its time,” Trudell says, “what I’ll do is sit down with whoever is going to make the music and we’ll talk about what kind of texture, what kind of feel, musical sound we want to have with any given song. We’ll work that out so maybe I’ll sit down with Mark (Shark, Guitarist) and say ‘I’d really like this song to have some Hendrix /blues feel to it or something.’

“And other than that, I don’t try to get in it any more. I give them that then they try to take the lyrics and usually we’ll start off with 18 sets of lyrics and the 12 or 13 that can bring the music are the ones that we end up using. We never write the music first.

“My feeling is that the music becomes an extension of the words,” says Trudell. “I use the words to express what it is that I want felt and then the music becomes an extension of that. So it’s almost like that it becomes a part of that poem and then it becomes a musical poem. That’s been our system.”

And the source for his songs is the world around him.

Crazy Horse, the opening track on Bone Days, for instance, deals with the Indian belief that we are intrinsically connected to the earth.

“One does not sell the earth that people walk upon – we are the land? How do we sell our mother? How do we sell the stars? How do we sell the air? … possession, a war that doesn’t end…” (from Crazy Horse, John Trudell, Bone Days, on Daemon Records, 2002)

“I think we wrote Crazy Horse, well I wrote the lyrics to it in 1988-89, somewhere in that time-frame,” recalls Trudell. “Well actually I wrote the lyrics for a project called “Oyahte” which came out of Europe, out of Paris, so I wrote the lyrics for that project … Jean Richard was producing it. He and a man named Tony Hymas (keyboard player, Jeff Beck Band).

“I wrote these lyrics and Tony and Jeff Beck made the music to go with these lyrics, so it was a whole different performance. So whatever agreements were made on that, were made on that, but I had these lyrics that I wanted to use within my own style. And so right around the beginning of 1990, we came up with the music that we have for it now, and we’ve been performing it live since then. It’s just that we’ve never got around to recording it until now.”

Native themes…for everyone
Although many of his songs are written with and around Native themes, Trudell is quick to note that he writes his songs for all people – and these days, with the world “being turned into an industrial reservation, the next Indians are a different colour than us. The next Indians are their own citizens,” says Trudell.

“When Bone Days came around, I thought that what I wanted to do with this particular CD is – I wanted to open it and close it – Crazy Horse at the beginning and Hanging from the Cross at the end. I wanted to open it and close it specifically around Native themes.

” I wanted the opening and closing song to be straight, up-front that this is Native. And everything in between, I wanted it to reflect that it could be any person. The story that goes on in between, inspired by Native but not limited to Native experience.”

Growing popularity
Trudell’s work has not gone unnoticed in Native American circles with being awarded the very first Native American Music – Living Legend Award given out in 1998, and then followed up in 2000 with Trudell’s release of that year, Blue Indians receiving three Nammys – Trudell winning Artist of The Year Award, Song of the Year for the title track, and Jackson Browne winning Producer of the Year Award.

Although all of his releases have sold relatively well overall, the movement has been slow but consistent, without ever having a surge of sales with any of his titles. With only his last foue releases being available in CD format, Trudell is in the process of satisfying the cries of his fans for the reissue of his earlier works.

“Next February will mark the 20th anniversary of the first thing I ever released (Tribal Voice). We’re going to take all six cassettes: Tribal Voice; the original Grafitti Man; another cassette with Jesse Ed Davis called Heart Jump Bouquet; another Tribal Voice called …But This Isn’t El Salvador; and then another music one after Jesse died that I wrote with Mark Sharp called Fables and Other Realities; and a children’s cassette that I put out using my daughters who were 9 and 10 at that time and I called that Child’s Voice.put all that together and release it as a little box set after the first of the year.”

On tour
Trudell and his band Bad Dogs will be touring Bone Days in Italy and France in mid-July for a few weeks and will return to begin work on his next release which he hopes to have out sometime in 2003.

As for Trudell touring Canada, he hopes to come back to the west coast but it will depend on his ability to tour the album in North America.

“In the early ’80s I spent a lot of time in Vancouver,” says Trudell. “I really like that area. But I’ve never been there with my band. It’s kind of like a little dream I have. Because the Native community, when I was there in the ”80s, the Native community, actually the activist community, they were very supportive of the issues we were involved in so it was like having another family there.

“But the issues that we were involved in, they shifted to the south and certain things, so it’s been years since I’ve been back up there. But I would really love to take my band up there. Maybe that will get to happen one of these days.”