Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Hello, America: The Life and Work of Willie French Lowery

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Hello, America: The Life and Work of Willie French Lowery

Article excerpt

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Willie Lowery has led a dual musical life (with, of course, much overlap) as both a southern musician and an Indian musician. As a southern musician coming of age in the 1950s and '60s, Willie engaged with music in ways that mark the experiences of many southern musicians; these common experiences, which include musical blending of white, African American, and Indian genres, and an emphasis on place and space in tones, timbres, and lyrical content, recall the work of other southern artists such as Link Wray, Arthur Alexander, Doug Sahm, and Levon Helm. In the late 1960s and early 1970s Willie frequently shared the stage with white southern rockers such as the Allman Brothers, testament to his membership in a fraternity of musicians bound together through the emergent genre of southern rock.

At the same time, Willie's Lumbee-centric work throughout the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and beyond, while thoroughly informed by a variety of southern musical genres, was highly Indian in intention and representation. His status as a conspicuously visible Native performer (he worked with Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Ulali, and Pura Fe, among others), educator, and activist demonstrates a dedication to Lumbee cultural politics that has made him a celebrity throughout Native communities in North Carolina. In truth, these dual musical identities are as entwined as the kudzu and the oak; the only place we might begin to pry them apart is on paper. However, there is no better forum to explore these issues than in conversation with Willie, preferably over a hot cup of coffee and slice of freshly baked cake.

Willie French Lowery occupies a singular place in the musical history of North Carolina. He was born on May 13, 1944, and grew up in a poor farming family in Robeson County, the largest county in North Carolina and home to the state's sizeable Lumbee population. Following the death of his mother, Margie Revels Lowery, when he was still a child, the Lowery Family moved from the countryside to the town of Shannon, just outside Red Springs. As Willie recalls, "To me, with 300 people, [Shannon] was a city." This region of Robeson County--home to whites, African Americans, and Indians--was rife with volatile racial tension. "It was prejudiced as hell is what it boiled down to," explains Willie. "Everybody there was prejudiced. It was a mess."

From an early age, Willie was inspired by music. He remembers, "I could hear music in my head as I was plowing the old mule." When his sister Alice married a man who owned a guitar, Willie began his musical education (often on the sly, as his sister's husband "didn't like for anyone to play the guitar"). He proved a quick study, and was soon entertaining his classmates at the Cherokee School. It was this encouragement from fellow students--classmates that had, incidentally, laughed at him for missing classes to pick cotton during harvest time--that fed him the "energy" and the "drive ... to be something, to do something." Willie's father, Lorenzo, cut hair on the side, and his ad hoc barbershop (operated out of the Lowery home) offered Willie yet another forum in which to develop his musical skills; noticing the reception his son was garnering from customers waiting to get a trim, Willie's father exhorted him to "play that guitar for those people there."

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Willie's first professional job as a musician was playing guitar "for the 'hootchie-cootchie' women" in a traveling carnival. He showed a knack early on for complex harmonic structure and, following his tenure with the carnival, began to develop his theory and skills as an arranger under the tutelage of local African American bandleader Jose Sapp. While Willie's proclivity for augmented chords and blue notes heralded coming sea changes in popular American music, they were not always welcomed in the gospel performances in which he occasionally participated. "D major seven was unheard of back then in gospel music," Willie recalls. …

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