Pioneering performer

Decades into career, indigenous icon's creative drive burns bright

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At last month’s Grammy Awards celebrating the best in music for 2015, two Manitoba recording artists were among those nominated for Best Historical Album. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985, a two-CD or three-record box set, included archival recordings by country artist Ernest Monias, known as the Elvis of the North, and folk performer Shingoose. Vancouver-based record collector, archaeologist and curator Kevin (Sipreano) Howes spent 15 years searching for the hard-to-find recordings by some two dozen indigenous artists and remastered them for this vital collection. Although the box set was beaten out for the coveted Grammy by a Bob Dylan historical collection, it succeeded in garnering considerable media attention worldwide and shining a light on music long neglected.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 06/03/2016 (2394 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At last month’s Grammy Awards celebrating the best in music for 2015, two Manitoba recording artists were among those nominated for Best Historical Album. Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985, a two-CD or three-record box set, included archival recordings by country artist Ernest Monias, known as the Elvis of the North, and folk performer Shingoose. Vancouver-based record collector, archaeologist and curator Kevin (Sipreano) Howes spent 15 years searching for the hard-to-find recordings by some two dozen indigenous artists and remastered them for this vital collection. Although the box set was beaten out for the coveted Grammy by a Bob Dylan historical collection, it succeeded in garnering considerable media attention worldwide and shining a light on music long neglected.

“The relevancy of the messages in these songs, with their substance, depth, culture and soul, are still very timely today,” Howes told the Globe and Mail. “It’s resonating with people because so little has changed… and because there is a desire to appreciate, preserve and share this culture.”

For Shingoose, the long-overdue attention for his earlier work is very much appreciated.

“It was exciting,” he says from his home at a care home in Fort Garry, where he has lived since suffering a stroke in 2012.

“It’s very rewarding to be recognized for your work by such a very large and important music organization. It’s important that this part of our culture not be forgotten. One good thing the Grammys are doing is projecting a different image of native North American music. I don’t think there was anything different about the sound of native recorded music from the sound that other people were trying to do, but there have been some great songs that have come from the native music community.”

Born Curtis Jonnie in 1946 on Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation just south of Letellier, Shingoose has been an indigenous music trailblazer for more than four decades.

“Shingoose is one of the unsung legends of the North American music industry,” says musician and Strongfront Productions president Jesse Green, who produced Brown Town Muddy Water, the acclaimed documentary on Manitoba’s aboriginal music history. “His dedication to the indigenous music scene began in the 1970s, and launching a career at that time is a celebration in and of itself.”

At age 4, Goose, as he is known by friends and colleagues, was given up by his mother to be raised by an elderly evangelical woman in Steinbach, where he was indoctrinated in the Mennonite Church.

“It was only supposed to be temporary,” he says, “but months turned into years. I’m the second generation of a first generation that was never meant to survive. My parents went through the residential school experience and suffered the residential school syndrome. Yet here I am. I survived. But I never had the family experience.”

By his mid-teens, Shingoose was a resident at the Knowles School for Boys just north of Winnipeg. He fled from there to Fargo, N.D., where his mother was living.

“I was living in Fargo when I met Tom Conovoy. He was a really good musician. His mother was Sioux Indian. Tom introduced me to all these great blues artists. He saw something in me that he identified with. I was a real cocky kid at that time and didn’t back down from anyone,” Shingoose said. “He told me I was too smart not to be in school. I was destined to end up being nothing, he said. So he got me into Boys Town.”

Founded by Father Edward Flanagan in 1917 as an orphanage run by Catholic priests on the outskirts of Omaha, Neb., Boys Town was a tough, no-nonsense educational institution for troubled youth. Here, Shingoose learned to play upright bass and sang tenor in the school choir. He also acquired his wanderlust.

“That was my first experience in touring,” he recalls. “The choir travelled across the U.S., performing. The year before, they had travelled to the Vatican. I was on a 10-city tour in 1963. I was 16 years old. We were in Sandusky, Ohio, when President Kennedy was assassinated. We were due to perform in Cincinnati the next day, where we sang a special mass for Kennedy. I found that I really enjoyed travelling. I loved the experience. I remember meeting Jayne Mansfield. The choir was introduced to her, and she came right over and gave me a hug. That was quite a moment.”

Nonetheless, the institutional aspect of Boys Town did not sit well with Shingoose.

“They even locked us up at night. So I ran away,” he says.

‘At the time, I didn’t even appreciate all that was happening around me. It was years later when I came to realize what an incredible trip that all was’ — Shingoose

It was 1965. Conovoy had a gig at the Beachcomber club in Norfolk, Va., a naval port city, and needed a bass player for his trio.

“So I packed up that night and took off,” Shingoose says. “That’s where I really got my musical education. Tom was one of my musical mentors. He taught me how to play melodic electric bass.”

Still in his teens, Shingoose was out on his own. Following his stint with Conovoy, he hooked up with the band Wild Honey. After changing their name to Puzzle, the group won a battle-of-the-bands competition in Washington, D.C. Shingoose was singing and playing bass, the only indigenous person in the band. The prize was a recording session for ABC Records with recording engineer Eddie Kramer. Kramer’s credentials read like a who’s who of rock music superstars, including working with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Carly Simon, Joe Cocker and the Kinks, to name a few. He also engineered every Jimi Hendrix Experience album.

The members of Puzzle went to New York to record with Kramer, staying at the Albert Hotel on 10th Street East, a short distance from Greenwich Village. They spent a month rehearsing in preparation for the recording session. Kramer had designed and built Electric Ladyland Studios, Hendrix’s own recording facility. Shingoose hung out with Kramer at the studio, where he met Hendrix.

“He was all decked out in chartreuse and wearing big, platform-like boots,” Shingoose says. “He walked in and looked at me and said to me, ‘You’re beautiful, baby!’”

“Eddie Kramer was a remarkable person,” says Shingoose. “He had been the tape operator for George Martin on the Beatles sessions, so he knew them. Our manager’s wife was friends with Yoko Ono. She used to look after Kyoko when Yoko went out. One night, I’m at their house and in walks John and Yoko with her child, Kyoko. I’m sitting there watching TV with the other guys in Puzzle. I used to dress in native clothing back then — moccasins, buckskin, beads. John Lennon looks at me and says, ‘You must be American Indian’ in a very British accent. I was very flippant and said back to him, ‘You must be British, mate’ in my best attempt at a British accent, and we both laughed. Then they left. It wasn’t a star trip, just a couple of regular guys talking.”

These star-crossed encounters were of no special significance to Shingoose until many years later.

“Here I was, a young Indian kid from Roseau River, having a blast. At the time, I didn’t even appreciate all that was happening around me,” he says. “It was years later when I came to realize what an incredible trip that all was, meeting Hendrix and Lennon. I’ve been very fortunate in my life.”

He saw the Beatles perform at District of Columbia Stadium (later Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium) in 1966.

“The screaming was so loud that you couldn’t hear them singing and playing; thunderous screaming,” Shingoose said. “I couldn’t take it, so I left.”

Puzzle fizzled out after opening for Jay & the Americans and a few other acts. Shingoose stayed on in the Washington scene as an itinerant bass player.

“I lived the hippie lifestyle, with all the drugs,” he says, “living communally in an abandoned mansion in Bethesda, Md., near Washington, D.C.”

Shingoose in a publicity photo from the 1980s.

He worked for a time with Bill and Taffy Danoff, playing the renowned Cellar Door club. (The duo co-wrote John Denver’s hit Take Me Home, Country Roads and later became the Starland Vocal Band of Afternoon Delight fame.)

“There was a lot of great music going on then,” says Shingoose. “Emmylou Harris was playing clubs around there then. I remember seeing her playing at the Childe Herald, a club in Dupont Circle.”

He took a gig backing blues guitar legend Roy Buchanan, who lived in the D.C. area. Buchanan’s distinctive guitar playing has been celebrated by the likes of Jeff Beck and Robbie Robertson.

“I played with him for the better part of a year,” Shingoose says of Buchanan. “He was a born-again Christian, and I knew all about that, so we got along fine. He called me Preacher. He was an amazing player. So good. He would play this Patsy Cline country song, and you couldn’t tell if it was a steel guitar or regular guitar because he could bend the strings in such a way that it sounded just like a steel. I had some tapes of us playing together, but I don’t know whatever happened to them.”

By the early ’70s, Shingoose was working in Toronto.

“One of the reasons I came back to Canada was because of all the brutality and horrible treatment the American government was doing to the South Dakota Indian people,” he says. “I felt the rage and wanted to grab a gun and stand up with those people. But I also saw that people like Floyd Westerman were saying it all in great words, great art, and staying true to the message and integrity of the songs.”

He began performing on his own in coffeehouses and festivals across the country under his grandfather’s family name, Shingoose.

“I consciously took that name as a way to promote myself and to establish an identity as a native artist,” he says.

At the 1973 Mariposa Folk Festival, he met aboriginal poet Duke Redbird, and the two began writing together. This led to the recording of his EP Native Country in 1976.

“That was recorded in Ottawa,” he notes. Singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn played on the recording.

“I had met Bruce at Mariposa and bumped into him again a few years later,” Shingoose says. “I asked him if he’d like to help me, and he said he’d love to. He has always been supportive of my career. One time, my car broke down in Penticton on my way to the Vancouver Folk Festival, so I called him up, and he paid for the repairs. He said, ‘Gotta make sure you make it to the gig.’”

One song on the EP, The Ballad of Norval, written by Shingoose and Redbird about aboriginal painter Norval Morrisseau, caught the attention of American country singer Glen Campbell, who expressed interest in recording it.

“We hung out with him for about six months,” says Shingoose. “He flew Duke and I to his shows in Ohio and California, and we hung out with him in Malibu.”

Shingoose remembers Campbell driving golf balls off his balcony into neighbours’ yards. In the end, Campbell did not record the song. In Malibu, Shingoose also befriended actor Max Gail, who played Det. Stan Wojciehowicz on the sitcom Barney Miller and had an affinity for indigenous issues. Living across the street was Bob Dylan. Dylan’s Canadian-born groundskeepers would often invite Shingoose over for coffee. One morning while they were all in the kitchen, Dylan came in.

“I was introduced to him as ‘This is our friend, Goose. He lives across the street.’” Dylan barely acknowledged him.

“My earliest memories of Shingoose drift back to the days of my youth in 1974,” says indigenous music journalist Brian Wright-McLeod, author of The Encyclopedia of Native Music and contributor to numerous publications, including News From Indian Country, Native Peoples Magazine and the Smithsonian’s American Indian. “I recall seeing a short music video, The Ballad of Norval, on CBC television. During that time, there was very little positive imagery or any real modern depictions of native music or artists. It was a powerful moment simply for that reason.”

Shingoose returned to Winnipeg in 1981 after meeting local independent film producer and writer Don Marks. Although not indigenous by birth, Marks was raised in the indigenous community.

“Our stories were very much alike,” says Shingoose, who was saddened by Marks’s recent passing. “He empathized with aboriginal life. He was raised among us, and some of it rubbed off on him. I was just a performer, but he put together InDEO, which was an Indian musical (Shingoose contributed music and performed the lead role). He produced, directed and edited it. He was such a hard worker. But I got to watch and listen. I also went to Ryerson Polytechnic and got some training, too. I learned how to produce and direct and got field experience. Don introduced me to a whole new world of high-tech production. He taught me how to be a producer.” It was the start of a whole new career for Shingoose.

InDEO morphed into the show Indian Time,” says Shingoose. “We kept utilizing strong Indian cultural icons to share this culture with the general public.”

The two created Native Multimedia Productions, which produced the Gemini award-winning Indian Time specials for Bravo TV with Buffy Sainte-Marie and Oneida comedian Charlie Hill, and developed the long-running First Nations Magazine for CKND TV. Shingoose served as aboriginal consultant to TVOntario and as director of education for the Canada Arts Foundation. He hosted a three-part documentary series for CBC Radio on First Nations music.

“Shingoose’s career has been about possibilities becoming a reality,” says David McLeod, CEO of NCI Communications, “The Indian Time television specials, for example, placed a spotlight on indigenous talent during the 1980s, when many Canadians weren’t aware of the amazing calibre of talent that existed within our community.”

Shingoose also helped establish the Juno category for aboriginal music.

“I was co-chair and later chair of the Aboriginal Music Committee,” he says with considerable pride. “That award has launched a whole era of appreciation for native songwriters and performers.”

In 2007, his song Treaty Rights became the anthem for the 2007 Aboriginal Day of Action.

MIKE APORIUS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Shingoose in 2007

“Goose has always been there for the people as an entertainer, an activist and a role model,” says Wright-McLeod.

In 2012, Shingoose was inducted into the Manitoba Aboriginal Music Hall of Fame.

“I thought that was a great nod from the aboriginal community,” he says. “I realize my experience has been a blessed one, and I share it as much as I can. And at this time in my life, it’s rewarding to know that you’ve had a positive influence on Indian people and the younger generation as well. I’m going to be 70 this year. That’s over 50 years in showbiz in one way or another. That’s pretty amazing.”

That same year, he suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side and required him to use a wheelchair. Nonetheless, his spirit remains unabated. He has plans for Indian Time 4 and packaging all the shows on DVD. He is also working on a new album for fall release.

“As long as I can keep using my brain, I’ll be doing something creative,” he smiles.

“Shingoose is not stuck in time,” says NCI’s McLeod. “He’s utilizing his laptop and a cellphone to produce new projects. He still has work to be done. That’s very inspiring for myself and many others within the indigenous community.”

“Shingoose has been a constant light in aboriginal music, year after year for decades,” says singer/songwriter/activist Buffy Sainte-Marie.

“When there were very few of us spotlighting First Nations music and issues, he was there. He’s been an entertainer and a producer, he writes songs, and most importantly, he has brought together people from faraway places to work together in music and comedy based on aboriginal life. I’m proud and humbled to know him as a friend and as career-long mutual fans.”

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