Willie French Lowery, who died on May 3, was a towering cultural figure in the Lumbee tribe, and a musician of great skill whose professional career spanned more than four decades.
In 1969, he was in a band called Plant and See, which released a self-titled album on the White Whale label that some music experts consider a lost (or at least hard-to-find) classic of psychedelic swamp-rock. On July 3, Carrboro, NC-based record label Paradise of Bachelors will give the album its first proper re-issue, on vinyl, in a limited edition of 1000 copies. Plant and See dissolved soon after the album came out, then largely reformed as Lumbee, which also put out just one album, Overdose. Lumbee stuck around long enough to get noticed by the Allman Brothers, who took them on tour for a spell.
Interviewed for an article in Indyweek.com written soon after Lowery’s death, Brendan Greaves of Paradise of Bachelors offered his thoughts. “What’s really fascinating about him,” said Greaves, “is that he put out these two LPs that are classic to the canon of psychedelic music, if little known beyond that, but then turned his career into a vehicle for articulating American Indian identity and politics.”
After the dissolution of the band Lumbee, Lowery concentrated on being an entertainer within the Lumbee community. He wrote and performed Tribute to Old Main, an album about the historically American Indian College UNC-Pembroke, and Strike at the Wind!, a drama about the Robin Hood-like Lumbee figure Henry Berry Lowery. In 1976, he released Proud to be a Lumbee, an album of folky children’s music. Jefferson Currie II, a Lumbee folklorist, reminisces about a later performance by Lowery in the liner notes for Plant and See:
He performed the title track [“Proud to Be a Lumbee”] that afternoon at the reception at UNC—Chapel Hill. Willie Played, and we sang his song. But as Lumbee people that song is our anthem, and we sang it not just for Willie but also for a nation. The room changed as we created community through a common voice. That’s what I love about Willie’s music—I can hear community in his songs, his lyrics, his delivery. I can hear Robeson County, where he came from, where we come from: Flat, loamy fields laced with black water swamps, where disparate musical traditions, cultural identities, faith and economic hardship informed his art.