Social activism has fueled songs for many generations. During the previous century folk songs fueled the international Republican fighters during the Spanish Civil War, ignited a movement for social justice during the Great Depression and onward through the volatile 1960’s. Folk singers Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez for instance have become legends in their own rights. Today this tradition includes several Native American musicians such as
Mirabal, Joanne Shenandoah and Makoche recording artist Annie Humphrey. And while the aforementioned Native American musicians have bridged the gap between native and non-native American musicians, by performing rock, folk and other genres, Annie Humphrey’s name could be mentioned in the same breath with folk singer-social activists Michelle Shocked, Michael Franti and Ani DiFranco.
Humphrey might have grown up on an Indian reservation and struggled with various problems, such as alcoholism, domestic abuse, hopelessness, the welfare system and other experiences associated with American Indians, yet her songs reflect on universal experiences. All races experience poverty, injustice and substance abuse. And so people from many origins would be able to relate to her songs.
Born and raised on the Ojibwe Indian reservation in Northern Minnesota, Humphrey’s life might be called dualistic. On one hand, she was introduced to words and music at a young age (her father taught her guitar and her mother, Ojibwe author, Anne M. Dunn influenced Humphrey’s poetic gift). But on the other hand, Humphrey also witnessed domestic violence, a topic that appears on the song Mother’s Rain on Humphrey’s second Makoche CD, Edge of America (read the CD review). Although the song falls into dark territory, Humphrey ends the song on a hopeful note,
“I live in a town on the Rez in a house that I built where dreams shine and my children
However when I asked Annie if those words meant that she healed from wounds caused by witnessing her father battering her mother, she explained that she might have not healed.
“I haven’t forgiven my father. Thoughts of him piss me off. I have come far enough to know that I don’t ever want my children to see me degraded and hurt and in
Humphrey had also felt stifled by life on the reservation and enlisted in the Marine Corp. This gave her a chance to see other parts of the US and Japan where she was stationed. Humphrey found strength by testing her limits of endurance and she developed a confidence in her abilities.
“I remember telling someone once that a 25 mile hump (forced march) with a full pack in the heat and humidity of Japan on a steep terrain was more painful than giving birth (laughter). But we are strong and that which doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. That’s an old saying from the Corp that I hold near and dear to my heart
Humphrey who writes songs from her own experiences, knows the pain of childbirth because she gave birth to two children, now 7 and 9 years of age. She credits the birth of her son and meeting Native American spoken word performer John Trudell (a dear friend and mentor) for changing her life.
“My own personal evolution started me on this path was having children and hearing John Trudell speak. My son saved my life. I had been a heavy drinker during my years in the Marine Corp and I drank when I got out. I was drinking when I found out that I was pregnant with my son, but the day that I found out that I was going to have a baby, I quit drinking. I’ve been sober for 9 years. I tell my son that he saved my life. When I tell him about my life before him, he says, ‘Mommy, I’m glad that you’re a good mommy and you don’t smoke or drink anymore.”…My children are my healing. They inspire and teach me. And John Trudell has taught me so
Despite Humphrey’s current success as a recording artist, her first CD, The Heron Smiled garnered two NAMMY’s in 2001 and her second album, Edge of America also promises to win accolades, her children are her number one priority. She relocated to Wisconsin where she now lives with her mother and children. Humphrey didn’t want to raise her children among the hopelessness found on the Ojibwe Indian reservation.
“I left the reservation to raise my children away from it. The reservation I am from could be described as a buffalo pen. Our ancestors are like buffalo that were born to the land. Then the people were penned up on reservations like buffalo. Now we have people being born into captivity and they can’t survive outside the pen without being fed or watered by someone. This is the way it is for many people. I chose to leave. I don’t have to stay there and try to make it better. There’s plenty of trouble everywhere and my first obligation is to my children and not to the reservation.”
Humphrey goes onto describe a sense of powerlessness that affects people of all races.
“John Trudell speaks of the system that mines us of our spirit and leaves toxins like fear and insecurity. This is where intelligence comes in–use
Humphrey mentions themes of powerlessness in several of her songs. And whether she’s singing about incarceration (Doin’ Time, Lakin’s Flame), domestic violence (Mother’s Rain), homelessness (Precious Moon Daughter) or the atrocities of war (Nightmares And The American Dream), she is able to shed some light on these topics, some of which she is all too familiar.
“It’s funny I do sing about very dark things, sad things and they make me sad to sing them. Sometimes I can feel this energy coming from people when I am singing too and I am overwhelmed and come close to crying. I sing, but I can’t, I gotta finish this song! I’ve been asked, “why don’t you sing happy songs? You sing such sad songs dear. Are you happy?’ I am serious. I say something like, you can’t sing blues in an air conditioned
Humphrey sings mostly about her own experiences. For instance the love song Doin’ Time which speaks of a lover locked away in prison is based on her own life. Lakin’ Flame which also speaks of the prison experience, features lyrics written by author James Starkey. However, Humphrey sings the song with so much passion, you might think she’s singing about her own experiences. I ask Annie about the origins of Doin’ Time.
“The two love songs Doin’ Time and Storm I wrote for my husband who is in prison. I married him there. He is still there and he is the love of my life. He is awesome and he has a huge crush on me
Although Humphrey wrote a bulk of the songs on Edge of America, she also includes songs based on her mother Anne M. Dunn’s (author of When Beaver was Very Great and Grandmother’s Gift) literary work. Precious Moon Daughter and They Found Her (a song about spirit possession) are both based on Dunn’s words. John Trudell penned the lyrics to Edge of America and Jim Boyd who co-wrote the song, Falling Down and Falling Apart with author/ filmmaker Sherman Alexie on Humphrey’s The Heron Smiles CD, returns here with the uplifting, I’ll Be There.
Jim Boyd’s song follows the dark Mother’s Rain and adds a ray of hope. “I wanted to include Jim Boyd’s song on this record because Jim is a kind and gentle man. I also placed the song I’ll Be There right after Mother Rain to give people, women a little lift. Mother’s Rain is triumphant at the end, but it is a sad song. And then comes Jim’s beautiful song. It comes in and lifts us up again. The fact that the man’s voice says these good words is also very, very powerful and important on this
It’s hard to imagine that a musician that crafts such thoughtful albums and colors her songs with heart-felt emotions embarked on a music career out of necessity. Her grim fate led Humphrey to add her voice to a cacophony of songs about social justice, but also poetic songs that exists for the sake of sheer beauty.
“I never meant to be a recording artist. I was motivated to start performing and trying to make some money because of welfare reform. That’s another area that bugs me. I am so fortunate that I can do what I do and support my family. How can a woman be expected to work and pay childcare for her children on a minimum wage job? Even if there is help, there are bills, rent, lights, groceries, car, gas, detergent and it’s
Humphrey wouldn’t be the first struggling mother to rely on her creative gifts to support herself and I am sure she won’t be the last one. Filmmaker Alison Anders comes to mind. And perhaps Humprey’s resourcefulness will inspire other women to find similar opportunities to support their families. Although a career in the arts is usually the last place anyone would expect to draw an income to support a family.
“I am so lucky and blessed that I can be at home with my kids. I can take them on the road or I can fly out, do a gig and be home the next day with money for
Of course, Humphrey’s talent goes deeper than just being able to pay the bills. I personally see her a messenger to others who are lost in the struggle of the daily grind. Her songs have the ability to inspire and to herald in social change.
“The songs just came to me. It’s my job to get them out to the vibratory world. See, it’s my kids again, I had to make a living and all I could do was play a guitar and sing. And so I took my guitar in one hand and my daughter in her infant carrier and my little son walking by my side to coffeehouses to audition…On my new CD I chose to have a photo of me and my children. I carry the guitar and we all hold hands. That’s us. That’s always
Humphrey takes more pride in raising her children than in the songs she’s composed. Motherhood is important to her and she believes that mothers on welfare need to be acknowledged for raising their children against the odds. Humphrey recalls an event that took place when she was collecting AFDC. She was standing in the layaway line at a local K-Mart and her astute son struck up a conversation with an elderly lady.
“When I finished my business and turned to leave, the woman put her hand on my shoulder and she looked me in the eye, smiled and said, ‘well done.’ I will never forget the feeling it gave me. I was so proud of the mother I had become. She didn’t see an Indian welfare mother. She saw a good mother and it was
I sense a spiritual element in Humphrey’s songs. Her love song, Storm exudes super natural power and Justice Hunters, a song in which Humphrey plays piano speaks of a connection to the earth. The singer songwriters debut CD, The Heron Smiled features songs that reflect on Native American spirituality, but some of that is lost among social issues that appear on Edge of America. So I ask Annie, about her spiritual connection.
“Our spirituality, our relationship with Creator is real. It is everything. My kids and I pray together every day and they attend ceremonies. Both my children are named (a traditional Native American custom) and I know that prayers keep us safe on the road. Lots of people pray for me and for my family. I know that it is those prayers that have kept us safe all this time and after all these miles. The earth connection is also very real. It’s personal and hard to explain to other people. We are supposed to live in a good way. Creator wants us to have a good journey. I think that we are responsible for everything that we
Humphrey is a woman that walks her talk and she has championed environmental and social causes, often crisscrossing the country with activists such as Winona LaDuke. And even her kids have carried signs at anti-war rallies. But what would happen if all this hard work paid off and the world changed overnight for the better. Would she still write and sing songs?
“If I woke up tomorrow and everything was just great, well, what would I sing about? It’s like I said earlier, you can’t sing the blues in an air conditioned
Of course, I could answer that I never heard about Muddy Waters complaining about singing the blues in air-conditioned rooms. And as long as humans walk the earth, there will always be a need for musical expression.