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Edmonton Journal
Roger Levesque
May 11 2017

Original article via this link

Laura Vinson
 has worked all over Alberta’s music scene, but for the past few dacades, she has gravitated more and more to searching out her own identity in music and history. Today, she’s singing about her own roots in what she calls “Mountain Métis” culture.

“We are different from the Métis of the Red River Valley and from the plains Cree natives. We’re more of a packhorse culture, with horses involved since Day 1. That’s how I grew up. I was a guide and outfitter on horseback, like my father, packing through the skinny trails in the Rocky Mountains.”

Listen to Vinson’s songs and you will pick up on her implicit mission, to explore the history of native and Métis people, and to bring greater recognition to the key role that those ancestors played in the early history of the Canadian Rockies. Mountain Métis culture was centred in the Athabasca Valley near Jasper and through the area of present-day Jasper National Park from the early 1800s where many worked as guides for the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay companies in the fur trade.

“I really want to tell their story, the way they were instead of what’s in most of the textbooks.”

Vinson’s great-great-great-great grandfather was a blond Métis guide nicknamed Tête Jaune (French for yellow head), one of the first persons to find a path through what came to be known as the Yellowhead Pass in the Rockies (historical debate continues as to whether he was the same person known as Pierre Bostonnais or possibly Louis Loyer).

Involved in music for most of her life, Vinson will soon celebrate two key events. This week is her 25th wedding anniversary to Dave Martineau, long a key part of her band and her co-songwriter and producer. It’s also her 70th birthday later this month. Still very energetic with no obvious sign of slowing down, the singer jokes that “I’m supposed to be retired, but instead I’m just tired.”

Born in Edmonton, Vinson was raised in the town of Brule, near Hinton, by a father of Cherokee, Irish and English background and a mother of mixed Cree, Iroquois and French ethnicity. She rode horses as soon as she could walk and followed trails, fishing and camping before she ever started school back in Edmonton.

Later, she became an art and drama major to earn her bachelor of education from the University of Alberta. She moved back to Brule a decade ago, where she runs a bed and breakfast and her husband runs a music store and studio. Never too old to learn or teach, she’s taking piano lessons and guiding beginners on guitar.

Following an early contract with Royalty Records, Vinson has recorded most of her recent albums independently. She and Martineau have also created numerous film soundtracks and they just received their fifth AMPIA nomination for a recent documentary called Mountain Men. Several of those films have been collaborative documentaries on aspects of native or Métis history.

Vinson’s songs have also overlapped with those soundtracks. Her latest CD and digital release, Warrior, includes numbers like Mountain Girl, Tête Jaune, written about her great-great-great-great-grandfather, and the title tune for the late Edmonton musician Fred Larose.

Vinson first performed in public at 13 and was doing so regularly by high school. Early on, she joined up with folk and rock bands and then actively pursued a career in country, but she admits, “I always felt like a round peg in a square hole.” That confusion with her own identity first came out in Vinson’s early song Half A Half Breed. She formed her band Free Spirit about 30 years ago.

Along the way, Buffy Sainte Marie was a big influence. So were Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash and Joan Baez. About 20 years ago, she chose to focus on the roots of her own culture, writing and playing songs in an open-ended roots style that has since come to entail aboriginal influences like the primal 2/4 beat of native rhythms along with folk, Celtic dance rhythms and European elements.

“The Métis fiddle style comes from the Celtic and French Canadian traditions,” Vinson explains, “and I also want to reflect how the Europeans had an influence on the native culture.”

She has even had a Scottish bagpiper on stage and musicians like Maria Dunn, Dale Ladouceur and Farley Scott have contributed to Vinson’s band.

“It’s not as lucrative and you don’t get as much radio play, but what I’m doing now is much more satisfying artistically because I’m singing about who and what I am. I also think there’s a bit of a sway in the music industry back towards roots music, especially with the upsurge in folk festivals.”

Over the years, Vinson’s band has played the Edmonton Folk Music Festival twice, along with other Alberta fests like North Country Fair. Her music has taken her to tour Europe and Asia. She still puts in at least a dozen shows a year.

For its upcoming date at the Arden, Free Spirit will include Martineau on pedal steel, dobro and guitar, his brother Paul Martineau on drums, bassist Carla Rugg, Karen Donaldson Shepherd on violin, and Vinson herself on vocals, guitar and hand drum, plus dancers Jesse McMahon and Elijah Wells.


This article explores the expression and affirmation of the cultural identities of Canada’s indigenous peoples through the medium of popular music, and spe- cifically in the form of a new genre of (Canadian) popular music here labelled “Aboriginal Rock.” As exemplified in recent work by Robbie Robertson (whose song “Making A Noise” is used as a paradigmatic example) and other artists of Aboriginal descent, including Susan Aglukark, Kashtin, Buffy Sainte- Marie and Laura Vinson, Aboriginal Rock is defined musically by the blending of elements of indigenous music and culture with conventions of modern rock and popular music, and lyrically by the articulation and expression of the so- cial concerns, political claims and/or cultural identities of Canada’s many and diverse Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples. The analysis situates the emergence of the new genre in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the context of a model of musical syncretism which emphasizes the importance of changes in popular music/popular culture and in the wider socio-political environment among the conditions for such musical syntheses to occur. Finally, the discussion turns to the politics of Aboriginal Rock in terms of its functions and its location in a “negotiated space” between cultures and musical traditions.

The main title of this article is taken from the burden line of the song “Making a Noise” from the ground-breaking 1998 album, Contact From The Under- world Of Redboy, by Robbie Robertson. Both musically and lyrically, the song exemplifies a new genre of Canadian popular music here labelled “Aboriginal Rock.” This genre is characterised musically by the fusion or syncretism of elements of indigenous musical and cultural traditions with conventions of contemporary rock and popular music, and lyrically by the expression or ar- ticulation of the social concerns, political claims and/or cultural identities of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples, the many and diverse Indian, Inuit and Métis cultures. 

Laura Vinson
 is an Alberta-born Métis singer/songwriter of French/Cree and English/Cherokee descent. After singing contemporary folk at university, then briefly fronting the rock band Bitter Suite, she became best known for her work in the country genre with her band, Red Wyng, with whom she recorded four albums between 1978 and 1986. In the early 1990s, she re-emerged with a new band, Laura Vinson and Free Spirit, with whom she has released three albums, Rise Like A Phoenix (1992—the title refers to Vinson’s aspirations for Aboriginal culture), Voices On The Wind (1995) and Point Of The Arrow (1999). Vinson’s music is an eclectic mix of musical styles, incorporating ele- ments of reggae, tex-mex and zydeco, urban folk, country-rock and traditional Aboriginal conventions. Electric guitars co-exist with accordions and penny whistles, traditional chants and drumbeats; and in live performance, the band is often supplemented by a troupe of Aboriginal dancers and drummers.

There are strong politico-historical impulses at work in Vinson’s songs. She wants to give indigenous people, especially Aboriginal women, their rightful place in the history books and in contemporary Canada. “Petite Marie” tells the story of “country wives,” Aboriginal women taken as “wives” and then abandoned by the voyageurs who went back home to their “ladies” when the hunting season ended (“Country wives ... it’s their names we should read/in the history books that tell us/who discovered this country”). “Voices on the Wind” laments the loss of a people, as seen through the eyes of women and children left without husbands and fathers after the wars. “Daughters of the Dawn” is about contemporary Aboriginal women as trappers, entrepreneurs and moth- ers, while other recent songs tap into her own family’s story: “Louisiana Purchase” and “Sing the Violin” are based on the respective lives of Vinson’s great-grandmother and her grandfather, while “Half breed” (discussed further below) addresses the issue of racial prejudice from the perspective of her own Métis people.

For Laura Vinson, the political significance of Aboriginal Rock lies in its edu- cational potential as a means of informing indigenous people, especially the young, about their own heritage and culture, as well as educating the wider, non-Aboriginal, society. “This is part of what we would like to be able to do with the music—to enlighten ourselves as well as the dominant culture as to what has happened in the past and about our place in the world today.” 43 Vin- son reports that, in her other career as a social worker, many of the Aboriginal teenagers she works with “would rather be white.” According to Vinson: So many of them haven’t been brought up with the culture and haven’t been brought up with the truth, that they think it would be much easier to be white... [But] they’ll never be white. They’ll never look white. They’ll suffer that. And the sooner we can teach them that what they are part of is very beautiful, and has been done a very great deal of wrong, and therefore the problems we have stem from this generational grief, not because we are a bunch of screw- ups... the better off they are going to be.

On stage with Free Spirit, when performing her song “Voices on the Wind,” Vinson tells her audiences about the ten million Native North Americans who died, from war, disease or famine, in the century after European contact. Vin- son suggests “that kind of generational loss has created immense problems for our people and they try and cure it with alcohol and drugs and it doesn’t work. It makes it worse. ...our own people don’t know some of their own stories and their own histories, and ... what a great culture we have ... There’s lots of messages that can be presented through music, other than, ‘Oh, have another beer’."

Another message Vinson presents musically is the experience of her own people, the Métis, recognised neither as status Indians nor as full members of “white” society. She has been performing the song “Half Breed” since her Top Forty country days in the late 1970s, but the musical synthesis in the new version on her 1999 album, Point Of The Arrow, lends added meaning to the lyrics. The song opens with drummers and powwow-style chants, which give way to acoustic guitar, fiddle and a moderately paced country-rock beat, sup- porting Vinson’s powerful voice:

Some say that I am English and some they call me French,

some even call me squaw but I pretend that I don’t hear them.

Some say you don’t look Indian, what are you doing here,
prejudice works both ways I fear.

(Ch) Half of a half breed, somewhere in between I am a Métis, never what I seem

No treaty rights, no place like whites
Métis don’t fit in society’s scheme
Half breed don’t fit in this country’s dream ...

Subsequently, after extended solos from fiddle and Indian flute, the track ends with renewed drumming and chants. Vinson’s new arrangement, with the message of the lyrics sandwiched between traditional indigenous musical forms, serves symbolically to re-emphasise her view that the Métis, and their heritage, are an integral part of the fabric of First Nations culture and history, even if they are not always accepted as such, even by Aboriginal people. 

Half a Half Breed

Whats on Twitter

TheSpiritSings "It Reminds Me" by Laura Vinson & Free Spirit. Many songs from the theatershow "The Spirit Sings" #m%C3%A9tis #alberta
10:23AM Sep 06
TheSpiritSings Our leading lady Laura Vinson is hosting the event July 21-24th Entrance Ranch near #Hinton
09:12AM Apr 30
TheSpiritSings Laura Vinson and Free Spirit are up for a Canadian Folk Music Award this weekend. Fingers crossed and good luck!
08:21AM Nov 04