Who is Burton Guibord and why haven’t we heard more about him? It turns out that he is a Native American musician with roots in northern Wisconsin. When our good friend Gary Tanin at Daystorm Records in Milwaukee sent us a preview of Guibord’s record, Are We Free?, I was eager to learn more about him. I had time for a couple of listening sessions with the album before heading to the WOAS-FM West Coast Bureau in Eugene, Oregon. I wrote a few notes about each track but wanted to know about Burton’s story to put more meat on the bones of the skeletal history I had learned from his songs. Trusty Google provided me with a wonderful summary by Marcella Jones on a site she set up to help fund the Are We Free? project. Interestingly enough, the story of the CD being produced stretches back more than twenty years and my thanks go out to both Marcella and Burton for the background material quoted here.
According to Jones, she started a venture called Native Voices Booking and Management in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1995. Her husband Ron Jones (Hochungra) and Andy Connors (Bad River Ojibwe) started a Native American music duo called Acoustic Warriors. Their first gig was at the Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee and NVBM was started to arrange more gigs for the duo. When Jones heard Burton Guibord, his powerful lyrics and songs told her he needed to be heard by a wider audience. With NVBM’s help, Acoustic Warrior, Guibord, and other artists managed by Native Voices recorded albums at their home studio or professional facilities (when money allowed). The original recording of Are We Free? was produced in 1996 and not long after, Jones recalled, “Burton moved home to the Bad River rez in northern Wisconsin and I lost track of him. Life rolled on.”
The cassette insert from the 1996 cassette version of Are We Free? written by Burton filled in the pieces of his earlier history and why he began writing and performing his music:
“Booshoo. (Greetings) I am Burton Guibord (Ozhaawashkoginiw – Blue Eagle) of the Bear Clan of the Bad River (Musk ka zibi) Reservation. Born in Chicago, my parents moved to Odanah village when I was 13. As a child I was told I had a talent for music, but that never stuck with me till recently when asked to put my songs and music in a recording.
These songs I bring to you are from stories that were told to me and also from my real life experiences. From the lives of our people in the city to the protesters on the river banks, from the clear cutting of our trees to the clearing of the graves of our ancestors, I speak from my heart and the truth of my people.
Sometimes it is hard to hear the truth. I bring these songs to you in a good way so that maybe someday we can walk together as real brothers and sisters, Mil-gwetch. (Thank You).”
Jones picks up the story twenty years down the road (2016) when she received a phone call from a woman who inquired if she remembered Burton. Jones continues: “Of course I did. Then [the caller] asked, ‘Do you still have the original recording of Are We Free?’ I do. She said, ‘Burton has been carrying around his LAST cassette of his music. Is it possible you could make some cds from the original for him?’ Thrilled and energized by this reconnection with the past, Jones contacted her friend (and ours) Gary Tanin at Daystorm Music to see if he could perform the tape to CD transfer. Jones was overjoyed to hear Tanin agree that Burton’s music was important. Gary said he would aid spreading Burton’s message by remastering the whole album. Tanin says, “Burton’s music is genuine, organic, from-the-heart storytelling. He speaks from a narrative and subject matter that’s in desperate need of a voice. Burton’s songs provide that voice and must be passed to the generations to follow.”
Following are my observations on ten of the eleven tracks. For some unfathomable reason, I had a devil of a time downloading the track’s I received from Gary (something that has never happened before). In my rush to hear them before hitting the road, I bungled my own transfer, there by dropping the track I’ll Be Back entirely (for which I do apologize).
Watching Over You – If Gordon Lghtfoot wasn’t a bit older than Burton Guibord, it would not be far off the mark to say he copied some of Guibord’s vocal inflections. There is also a noticeable Native American tenor to Burton’s voice and he is more of a guitar strummer
(compared to Lightfoot’s guitar picking style). With that said, the lyrical content of Guibord’s songs also echo backwoods sentiments circa early Lightfoot.
Madeline Island – To bang the Lightfoot drum once again, this could be Guibord’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy – a history song about this important center of Native life in western Lake Superior.
Why Can’t They Comprehend – A powerful narrative backed by laid back strummed guitar. If Jack Tempchin put this out, no one would think that he hadn’t written it (and imagine what The Eagles would have done with it?). Like Tempchin, Burton sings his songs with his own easy listening style.
Freedom – A talking blues told over more mellow strumming – but there isn’t anything mellow about the story Guibord tells. It isn’t a rant, it is just the sad truth about how Native peoples were pushed aside during the westward expansion of the United States.
Bluecoat – Upping the tempo, Burton continues telling the history of his people. This time centered around the so called ‘Indian Wars’ that left a spreading stain of Native blood on the land as the Bluecoats laid waste to the western frontier.
Ever Wonder Why – Burton leaves no stone of racial injustice and environmental catastrophe unturned. After the white men are gone, will the damage done to the Earth be restored? Who is to blame for the way things are? Burton wants to remind everyone it wasn’t ‘us’.
Hey Buddy – A laconic song about being down and out. A conversation turned into a thought provoking song about those living without in the land of plenty.
Northwinds – Supported by a nice bass note strum and a little connecting guitar riff, one can hear the wind whistling through the night. A campfire song for the olden days. Again, something Lightfoot could have written about life in Canada instead of northern Wisconsin.
Your Heroes – A little more country flavor slips into Guibord’s guitar and voice. The lyrics connect a certain yellow haired ‘hero’ to others who contributed to the destruction of the Native American ways. Can you say ‘Columbus’ boys and girls? Jerry Jeff Walker couldn’t write a better social commentary than Guibord presents here with Your Heroes. Topically, the line reminding people ‘if you don’t like it you can leave here’ sounds like it was pulled out of today’s news. History repeating itself?
Chi-Mookomaan – The chant that leads into Chi-Mookomaan and the song chants embedded in the middle reminds me of the Native gatherings held in Baraga, Marquette, and other northwoods centers of Native American culture. The lyrics continue the story of Native peoples being decimated by the whites that pushed into their ancestral homelands. The most ‘Native’ sounding off all the tracks and another chilling historical tale of the Native experience.
Anyone who does not enjoy Are We Free? would probably fall on the side of the line with the others who choose to deny history. Burton Guibord hasn’t written a preachy album here, it is, as they say ‘just the facts’. North American history has many tales of tragedy and triumph; woe be it if we ignore what happened to the Native People in the name of westward expansion. Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start The Fire was used to jumpstart kid’s interest in World History and I would suggest that Are We Free? could be used in much the same way to expand the way Native American history is presented in our schools. With Burton currently residing in Ashland, Wisconsin, it would be great to see him on a future bill at the Porcupine Mountain Music Festival.
Top Piece Video: Topical talking blues from Ashland, Wisconsin’s Burton Guibord (album Are We Free?)