Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Gruff Rhys' "American Interior": Book + Music Review
His distant descendant by a maternal uncle, Welsh musician Gruff Rhys, is best known for his singing and songwriting as a founder of Super Furry Animals, and currently as a solo artist and a member of Neon Neon. Long intrigued by his forebear, Rhys pursues Evans' path on an ambitious 2012 "investigative concert tour" up the great rivers of Mid-America into the Great Plains. It's all documented in a "psychedelic historic travelogue", an album, a film directed by Dylan Goch, and a bilingual app mingling these media from Penguin (the last not made available for this review).
"It sounds like a joke: here were a Scotsman and a Welshman employed by a Spanish king, leading a boat full of French speakers into the precarious tribal waters of the Mississippi." Furthermore, John Evans sought to rid the West of the British, reach the Pacific, capture a unicorn, grab a seashell or two as proof, and then return for a two-thousand peso reward from Spanish Louisiana's governor, at a time when British Canada threatened to sweep south into Mexico, after French Canada succumbed to the British Empire, and as the American expansion under Thomas Jefferson eyed territory which the Spanish feared losing.
Into this geopolitical arena, young Evans entered. For five years, he mapped many blank spots and tried to verify what Rhys rightly calls the "most useful invention" of Prince Madoc. Supposed to have arrived from Wales in 1170 and rumored to have spawned a clan of Welsh-speaking natives who mingled with, or were, the Mandan of the present-day Dakota states, Madoc's reputation endured. In colonial America, a few Welsh emigrants swore they had met tribesmen who answered them in their common language. Rhys labels these as "ear-witness accounts". He explains how these settlers made Madoc "a tangible hero" among those pioneers who confused, for example, Kentucky's "Padoucas" with the supposedly Welsh "Magodwys" who had perpetuated their customs in Native America. This legend had persisted from Elizabethan times. Madoc's landfall (purported at Mobile Bay, Alabama) was appropriated by the English Crown, in a concerted effort to concoct noble lineage and irrefutable prior proof that the British could lay claim to the continent their forays now forced open to conquest.
As a Welsh speaker, Rhys brings the advantage of judging not only the discredited claims for Madoc, but providing comparisons between Welsh and Native American predicaments. Both communities feature indigenous speakers of a threatened language and ancient culture. Both face a relentless pressure which shoves the natives off their homeland, erases names and memories, and which forces their political assimilation. Evans, after all, proved no friend of the British. In 1793, he had been imprisoned by the Spanish in St. Louis, who feared either an American agent or a British spy. As a patriotic Welshman, he favored American claims to the New World's frontier. But he defected on the western side of the Mississippi River to the Spanish, becoming their citizen, so as to finance a 1795 expedition. Spain wished to fend off any British takeover west of their great river border. Spain had taken vast territories from the French, and soon Spain was at war with the British again in Europe.
So, the Spanish authorities sent Evans upriver to drive off the British who infiltrated into the Midwest across a contested Canadian frontier. Evans proves in Rhys' wry telling "responsibly delusional". He charted (but did not understand the sight of) volcanoes and veered from crocodiles. He survived passing through the lands of twelve tribes of hostile reputation, and an assassination attempt by a British operative from Canada. A skilled cartographer, after nine months in the Dakotas, the diligent emigrant Evans in conscientious fashion ultimately failed to match the Mandan evidence with any Magodwys of Madoc's purported lineage. By winter of 1796, Evans turned back from near Canada when his funds ran out and weather blocked his progress westward. His luck appeared to run out, too.
Yet, his mission paid off a few years later. Evans' hosts among the Mandan and guides from the Arikara told him what he needed to draw the first map of the source of the Missouri River. He noted the presence of what we call Yellowstone, and indicated how the Rockies comprised not one but three tiers of mountain ranges. This information enabled William Clark to plot the correct course when he and Meriwether Lewis planned and carried out their own venture less than a decade after Evans.
Rhys tracks Evans on his journey, even if his firsthand manuscripts have been lost and we must rely on those who met with him, corresponded, and copied his discoveries into their own reports. In turn, Rhys largely follows Gwyn A. "Alf" Williams' similarly lively Madoc: The Making of a Myth (1979). Williams, a Marxist historian and Welsh republican, proved a masterful interpreter in print and on film of this controversial topic, debunking persistent claims by a few Celtic romantics convinced of Madoc's existence, but Rhys appears in two places I spot-checked to repeat Williams' minor errors. For example, neither the self-styled Muskogee chief, William Bowles, nor the flamboyant double- or triple-agent Brigadier General James Wilkinson were Irishmen. Both were born in colonial Maryland.
In his own account, Rhys discusses his musical interpretation of Evans' undertaking sporadically. Although Rhys is on the road as not only an adventurer and interviewer but as a working musician, a reader needs a wider sense of how this "investigative concert tour" succeeded. Mentions of appearances, scattered lyrics, and a few comments from fans gain transcription. Rhys sees the sights and relates folksy or impassioned chats. The best of these happen on the prairies with native activists, and in Louisiana among voudou haunts. But many other places blur. Some characters barely register.
Therefore, the film (to be released on DVD April 18, 2015, in the U.S.) and the album fill in what the book may allude to or skim past. Rhys' PowerPoint presentation for American audiences, his rock songs worked out on the road, and his interviews (some with English subtitles, as the documentary aired on SC/4, the Welsh-language BBC channel) enrich the experience as he retraces Evans' steps.
The concept album, appropriately homespun and often acoustic-based, but also cinematic in scope, compliments the print version. "100 Unread Messages" lists Evans' itinerary in jaunty verse. "His mind was baked just like a cake as trouble gathered 'round." It's impressive to merge Evans' accomplishments into a skiffle song, in far less than five minutes, too. The melodic "The Weather (Or Not)", "Liberty," the title track, and the spacier "The Last Conquistador" and "Lost Tribes" mix the moods familiar to Super Furry Animals' fans, spiced by varied sonic textures, sprinkled with electronics and smooth vocals. Rhys always stands out singing in his first language. "Allweddellau Allweddol" (roughly "Keyboard Key") emits childlike native, tribal chants, wrapped into an experimental tune. "The Swamp" layers keyboards and processed beats, akin to his SFA and his three past solo albums. While some of this album floats along into its plush surroundings and threatens to drift away, the storyline manages to transfer Evans' vision into digital files through Rhys' skill in multimedia. These sixteen tracks can stand apart from the book or film, but Rhys' triple telling deserves full exposure.
(The film's trailer typifies the visual presentation; so does the array of platforms on the project site and, from the album itself, the title track video.)
"Iolo" gallops along as if a string-sweetened, synthesizer-warbling soundtrack for Evans' wild flight, when he was chased away by the Lakota. An anthemic "Walk into the Wilderness" precedes the pedal-steel, country-tinged musings on "Year of the Dog" and "Tiger's Tail". These demonstrate Rhys' knack for converting pop tropes into lush arrangements that try to evade predictability or repetition. "That's Why" picks up the pace, helped by guest drummer from The Flaming Lips, Kliph Scurlock. "Sugar Insides" resembles the Lips' congenial eclecticism, in fact. "Cylchdro Amser" (roughly "Circle Time") appropriately spins beyond temporal limits Rhys measures, as Evans' life orbits away.
Nobody knows what Evans looked like. So, Rhys in typically sly fashion commissions a three-foot "John the Avatar" as a felt doll. Rhys carries it with him as he traces Evans' five-year quest into the northwest as it was known, or not known yet, to Europeans. Intriguing vignettes parallel Evans' separation from his society, as Rhys encounters contemporary folks, native and other Americans, who warn of global warming and corporate control. A few still seek solace on the river, or in a simpler existence lived off of the grid, away from the urban gridlock. At one point, so far removed in places a map had yet to fill in, Evans was the most isolated white man on the entire continent, Rhys reckons it.
Throughout, as Rhys shows in genial but earnest manner, Evans faced challenges as he tried to prove what reality showed as false. Madoc was verified as only myth, when the Mandan failed to chatter in Evans' first language of Welsh. The dream ended, Evans returned on a sixty-eight day voyage down the Missouri River, 1800 miles to St. Louis. He tried working as a surveyor, but the fractious territory bristled with Frenchmen abandoned by their nation's loss to Britain. The Spanish tried to keep their hold on a region where the Americans and the British infiltrated to assert their own imperial claims. This left Evans no opportunity for an easy occupation. Rhys tries to track down Evans' ultimate fate.
In New Orleans, where Evans was monitored by a suspicious Spanish governor uneasy to let such a skilled frontiersmen loose in dangerous times to spill his secrets to a rival power, he succumbed to delirium by 1799. Whether due to depression after his long adventure's denouement, malaria, alcohol, or more than one cause, Evans met a humble and early end. No grave remains. Most documents in his own hand probably were thrown overboard by pirates looting the ship on which the Spanish, departing after the Louisiana Purchase, had loaded up treasures to safeguard in their Florida redoubt. While Evans' tale has been scrutinized by previous scholars, Rhys admits he has found a bit to add to Evans' saga, given their common language, and thanks to Rhys' recent archival research in Seville.
Out of his thin family tie, on a search for origins, Rhys connects with Evans poignantly. It's in an eerie, prescient form left for the reader, listener, or viewer to witness. (Here, I prefer the book to the film, as it evokes more sensitively Rhys' epiphany as he seeks Evans' final destination, if he rests near the site of New Orleans' notorious Storyville.) Beforehand, in a meeting conveyed well on both page and screen, Rhys visits Keith Bear, a Mandan flute player. Bear envisions the fabled dragon of the Welsh flag as combining mythic with real, out of a creature half-earth and half-air. Truths conjured from fables create their own power, spurring Evans and Rhys on to cross paths with native tribes, once hoped for as evidence of a utopian, hybrid heritage. The Welsh imagined a few natives in America had forged a congenial community and that they had lived as inheritors of Welsh customs, for hundreds of years. Out of such suppositions, the true and the imaginary create a kind of "common" sense, even if this conceit fails as commonsense. This expresses an elusive awareness beyond mere fact. In American Interior's multimedia endeavor, as innovative as an app, as venerable as an old map inspiring an epic, Gruff Rhys honors his ancestor, Ieuan ab Ifan (renamed John Evans by the English), as natives do. Rhys and Evans share, two centuries apart, a tribal Welsh vision quest.
(This appeared on PopMatters 12-18-14 as "A Multimedia Tale of a Welsh Vision Quest")