Ride, Gabriel, Ride Profile of Don Freed

By Morgan O’Neal

Don Freed was born in New Westminster, B.C. in 1949, and raised in Saskatoon where he began writing at age seven, performing original songs in coffeehouses in 1966. These numbers add up to forty years in the business of making music. If the recently deceased Rita Joe is the poet-laureate of the Mi’kmaq Nation, then Freed can rightly lay claim to the same title in relation to the Metis Nation. He is, after all, by any definition, first and foremost a poet. Peter Mansbridge of CBC Newsworld called him “a real-life Pied Piper.” Anyone who has seen him in the workshops with children that are now his passion would be hard put to deny it.

The January 24, 1970 New York Times review of the documentary “Johnny Cash: The Man, His World and His Music,” verified just how early in Freed’s career his unique talents were recognized in the industry. Roger Greenspun described his brief appearance and performance in the film: “The best sequence . . . doesn’t feature Cash, or June Carter or even Mother Maybelle, or the Tennessee Three. Rather it introduces a young man not mentioned in the film’s credits. His name is Don Freed and he auditions two songs for Cash. I think he is extraordinary, and if there were no other attraction [there are many], he would be reason enough for seeing the movie.” This is high praise for a young man from the sticks in a city known for critics cutting to shreds the least little lost chord.

freed 2After a couple of years in New York City, Freed was “laying in bed every night in my west village apartment with the feeling gnawing at me that I was supposed to be doing my work in northern.Saskatchewan, a place I had never been. I actually told people that I was going home to be a bush pilot.” He did go home. You can take the boy out of the Valley of Green and Blue but you can’t take the Valley of Green and Blue out of the boy. Back in Canada Freed moved around a lot, living in a number of locales and performing at clubs and festivals throughout North America. But what was really emerging during this period were the seeds of the creative educational project that has kept him busy for the past decades: the universally praised song-writing workshops with children of isolated communities all over the north of Western Canada.

One of my tasks at the Drum is to profile persons of Native ancestry who, often against great odds, have succeeded in getting themselves a life based in their own cultural histories by managing to reconcile contradictions inherent in being outcasts in their own traditional territories. There is, of course, many such individuals roaming around this continent, although they get precious little coverage in the mainstream press. When it came time to decide upon a profile subject for this issue, I recalled a conversation I’d had with Don Freed years ago, when we were both looking for something more substantial than what was happening at the time: shopping malls, parking lots and the horrid noise of commercial music blaring from the stereo speakers of new two-door hard-tops rolling off the assembly lines in Detroit and Windsor.

At the time, Freed had already begun to research his family past in the Archives at St. Boniface, where he was able to confirm that Gabriel Dumont was actually his own Great Great Uncle. His roots, therefore, were firmly planted in the rich soil of the Red River Valley. Since he began his quest for authentic Metis identity, amassing a wealth of knowledge about Metis history in the process, his work has been focused on making this history accessible to the widest possible audience. This is the primary reason for the children’s song-writing workshops in which the singer and the songs are the vehicle by which Freed transmits information of crucial importance for the development of Metis community. As Freed himself reports with visible delight, “children not yet born when many of these songs were written can now sing them by heart. Over a vast area the songs have been absorbed by a new generation.”

I have yet to muster Freed’s energy in order to research my family’s pedigree, but I do know that I am a Bird and hail from the same Red River Settlement. I can remember going every summer to celebrate near Bird’s Hill where the first Winnipeg Folk Festivals were later held. I’ve known Don for thirty years, so I can make no claim to objective reporting here. I like the person. I respect the artist. But there is much more at stake in Freed’s work now than there was back in the late seventies. We went our separate ways and came into contact only sporadically over the years. When I decided that he would be the perfect subject for a profile, I went to his website and was amazed at what the man had been up to since I had last run across him. After a bit of procrastination, I finally managed to telephone Don in Winnipeg. He was surprised to hear from me. I told him what I wanted to do, and he was agreeable. The interesting thing about the phone call, however, was that he was at that very moment packing in preparation to fly to Vancouver for an audition with the Artstarts Program, a provincial initiative that would allow him to continue his work with children in scattered communities around British Columbia when he makes a permanent move out here in a few months. Manitoba’s loss, in this case, is clearly our gain.

Coincidentally, Freed was also committed to meet with a group of young children–“Les Petits Danseurs Michif” led by Mooshum Bob Kelly’s Dance and Cultural Society–to work his song-writing magic with them on the night of his arrival. I was invited along to the first meeting. Everyone in the room got right down to business. A white board was set up in front of the group of kids gathered around Don; a few different story lines were suggested; words, phrases and rhyming lines were bandied about. Slowly, but surely, a song began to take shape. One of the older girls began to transcribe lyrics in bright jiffy marker colours on the board. The plan was to practice the song in order to give a live performance before Elders organized for the following evening at the Friendship Centre on East Hasting Street. Not a lot of time for fine-tuning, but everything came off without a hitch.

The lyrics and music of this song grew organically, helped along by deft direction from Freed. Out of the confusion of individual thoughts and group discussion, a finely crafted poetic expression of a typically warm relationship between Metis men and women appeared as if by spiritual intervention. And it was largely quite literally written by the kids. A jig was added to follow the first two verses and accelerate the tempo for the final chorus. “Mooshum and Kookum” is the joyful result, and although it may (as Don later noted) need one more verse to be complete, it works mighty well in its present form.

Mooshum’s Moosehide Moccasins wake him up in the morning.

The smokey sweet aroma makes him dance on the hardwood floor.

Kookum puts the kettle on, and then she makes some bannock.
That’s why Mooshum didn’t want to be a bachelor.

Didn’t want to be, didn’t want to be, he didn’t want to be a bachelor!

Mooshum takes her in his arm and then they both start dancing.
He’s so tall, that her feet so small are lifted off the floor.

Though many year’s have come and gone, for her he still is handsome.

And that is why she didn’t want to be a maiden any more.

A maiden anymore, a maiden anymore, she didn’t want to be a maiden any more!

The following evening everyone arrived on time dressed in their best, complete with traditional sashes. After a few trial runs Don and the kids joined the Elders and others seated proudly around the room in which a meal had earlier been enjoyed in anticipation of the performance. The Elders immediately joined in and began to sing and clap and stomp their feet to the beat of Freed’s guitar and harmonica and the excited voices of proud children. The feeling in the room was a desire to continue all night. But there was school the next day, and the Centre had to be cleaned. But the result of the event was a jolt of joy I have not felt in quite a while, a lightning bolt of human energy created by a group of kids led by a proud and passionate Metis troubadour.
I realized after I had witnessed this impressive phenomenon that at least one thing had remained consistent over the years: Don Freed continues to compose intelligent lyrics and perform them either solo acoustically or in groups made up of some of the best musicians in Canada. I can still remember the first time Colin James appeared on stage, long before he made it ‘big’ in the business. It was with Don and a small local group of musicians in a basement venue in Saskatoon. I doubt if Colin was old enough to have a driver’s license at the time. Over the last three decades Don Freed has performed at all of Canada’s major folk music festivals and has been featured on many radio and television programs. He’s toured with such diverse performers as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Jane Siberry, was the first to hire Colin James as a recording side man, and co-wrote “Crazy Cries of Love” with Joni Mitchell on her “Taming the Tiger” CD.

Now, however, Freed’s skill and talent, to which working with kids has added the quality of patience, are directed at children, many of whom are in dire need of ways to express their sometimes confused emotions in order to release both the joys and the fears of being a child of Aboriginal ancestry in today’s society. In 1993 he began conducting workshops with Native elementary school children in Northern Saskatchewan. “It seemed that any time you heard about Northern youth there was always tragedy attached to the stories,” he says, “so, I’ve got them to express themselves and their cultures and brought out a positive story.” This ‘positive story’ was seen by the entire country in a documentary produced on his work with First Nations youth that aired on CBC Newsworld in 2001. The film and the project itself were later the subject of a feature article in Billboard Magazine.

Since beginning his work with children Don has accomplished much. In 1990 the lyric to Don’s song, “Mr. Ford and the Petty Thieves” was included in the ACCELERATE Destinations, Prentice-Hall High School curriculum. In 1993, Freed recorded “Young Northern Voices,” songs written in workshops with children in the Northern Lights School Division in Saskatchewan. These songs were performed at the 1993 World Indigenous Peoples Conference on Education in Woolongong, Australia. For 18 months from 1994 to 1996, Don was Writer-in-Residence in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, during which time he initiated the production of a St. Michael School’s student musical, “The West Flat Can,” where students looked at various social problems arising from growing up in the West Flat.
In 1996, “Singing About the Métis” was produced on both cassette and CD. These songs of Métis history and culture were written with the Prince Albert elementary students Don worked with during his residency. In 1997, he produced the “Métis Historical and Cultural Pageant” in St.Louis, Saskatchewan, with Grade 1 – 12 students from St.Louis School. During the month of January spent there, teachers in this small town made the hard decision to cancel hockey in order to facilitate rehearsals (and to everyone’s surprise and relief no one even complained). In 1998, Don started the Inner City Harmony Project, a series of song-writing workshops with nine Saskatoon Community Schools resulting in the recording “A Class Act.” All of the albums recorded with children have been produced by Don and have proven to significantly increase self-esteem in children who have few opportunities to participate in the arts.

In 1999, The Gabriel Dumont Institute produced “Sasquatch Exterminator,” an illustrated children’s book written by Don and students from Cumberland House. A CD of the same name accompanies the book and both are now being widely used for Aboriginal language development and retention with adult and child learners. That same year Saskatchewan Social Services contracted Don to work with young offenders for a month on site at the North Battleford Youth Centre. “Mystery Boyz” features ten songs written by these incarcerated youth. He also produced a show for the Northern Saskatchewan International Children’s Festival that featured the young singers from two of Saskatoon’s Community Schools, and Cumberland House and St. Louis.

Freed finished off eight years of song-writing workshops by producing “Our Very Own Songs,” a double CD of original compositions representing the youth of 28 communities in northern Saskatchewan nominated for Best Children’s Recording at the Prairie Music Awards. A website and songbook were also produced (www.ourveryownsongs.ca). In 2003, Don was contracted by the Edmonton Folk Music Festival to conduct two weeks of workshops in an inner city school. And in the same year performed at the Folk Festivals in Regina, Edmonton and Winnipeg. The fall of 2003 found Don in Deline, Tulita, and Yellowknife in the North West Territories, conducting workshops on behalf of the NWT Literacy Council. And in 2004, Don did a two-week tour of the Yukon as part of Culture Quest, New Music by First Nations Artists, and a concert in Winnipeg celebrating Metis culture which was recorded by the CBC and broadcast nationally.

In 2005, Freed was featured performer at Winnipeg’s Festival Du Voyageur and completed recording the much anticipated “The Valley of Green and Blue – A Metis Saga” which was released in September of the same year.. Included in this CD is the now famous “When This Valley,” a song considered at the grassroots level to be the Metis National Anthem. A film is now in the works documenting the live recording of this song by a Metis choir on June 21 of 2005 in the church at the National Historical Site of Batoche, Saskatchewan. Freed is now preparing to move to British Columbia where he will continue his important contribution to the building of the Metis nation in song. After that he has plans to do the same thing in the East and in Nunavut.

The ultimate objective of this work “is an illustrated song book and recording for use in elementary schools from coast to coast to coast.” .In the meantime, three important future dates deserve attention. In May, he performs with a school choir from North Battleford, Sask. at an international gathering of arts teachers at the University of Regina. At the end of June, he is keynote speaker at a symposium on health concerns and youth in northern communities. And in August he will perform with children from Saskatchewan at the Edmonton Folk Festival. I can think of no better way to end this profile than with the first verse of the Anthem:

When this valley’s no longer a wound that won’t heal
When its story is well understood
May infinity fly where the blue of the sky
Meets the green of the river and gold of the straw
In the valley of old St. Laurent.