Music Interviews
4:05 am
Sat July 21, 2012

A Tribal Anthem's Author — And A Cult Rock Hero

Originally published on Sun July 22, 2012 6:39 am

In the 1960s, the late Lumbee Indian singer, composer and activist Willie Lowery led a band called Plant and See — as in, plant the seed in the ground and see what comes up.

The band recorded only one album, Plant and See, which went out of print shortly after it was released in 1969, but psychedelic rock fans have always held it in high esteem.

Plant and See's music was very much of its moment: a hazy, Southern blend of rock, soul and blues. And yet in some ways, the band was ahead of its time — especially in its diversity. The drummer was black, the bass player was Latino, the back-up singer was white and the frontman was American Indian — Lowery.

Malinda Maynor Lowery, Willie Lowery's widow and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says some of the band's vocal harmonies have roots in the Lumbee church.

"Singing in harmony has been something we've done for hundreds of years, in churches without instruments — the richness was provided by voices singing in harmony," she says. "That's what he heard from babyhood. And Willie was an incredible perfectionist when it came to making sure his band members, and making sure he himself, were doing the right things."

Humble Beginnings

Willie Lowery was born in Robeson County, in eastern North Carolina. His parents were sharecroppers. Lowery himself worked in the fields picking cotton as a young man, as he told a UNC folklorist in 2008.

"We grew up a very poor family," Lowery said. "We didn't have guitars and stuff like that. But I could always hear music in my head as I was plowing the old mule."

Lowery played a guitar for the first time when his sister married a man who owned one. His new brother-in-law taught him how to play a few blues riffs.

"The problem was, he didn't like for anybody to play his guitar, but every so often he'd let me pick it up and deal with it," Lowery said.

Lowery left Robeson County for Baltimore, then moved on to New York and Los Angeles, where Plant and See was recorded. But the band's label promptly folded, and Plant and See fell apart. So Lowery started another band called Lumbee, which scored a regional hit with the song "Streets of Gold."

Lumbee opened for the The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s, and Willie Lowery was invited to play with the Oak Ridge Boys. But he declined and moved back to North Carolina to raise a family. Gradually, Lowery built a second career — one focused on making music for and about his fellow Lumbee Indians.

Music For The Community

Jefferson Currie is a folklorist and a member of the Lumbee tribe. He says that in the 1970s, Lowery wrote songs for a musical about Lumbee history, as well as a children's album called Proud to be a Lumbee.

"He was telling the community, here's your history," Currie says. "The title track, 'Proud to be a Lumbee,' is considered by many — myself included — the Lumbee national anthem."

"Literally everybody in the Lumbee community knew who Willie was," says Malinda Lowery. "He never met a stranger, because everybody already knew him. And when he did meet somebody he didn't know, he treated them like an old friend."

Willie Lowery used that approach to support causes he believed in — including a campaign to preserve a historic building on the University of North Carolina campus in Robeson County that was originally a school for Indians. Malinda Lowery says her husband never regretted his decision to come home.

"He understood the vagaries of music business, and had let the bitterness of that really go," she says. "He would be very glad to see this level of interest in his own music, but really what he would be proudest of is what his children are doing."

A Family Man

Lowery's three sons all followed their father into the music business. His son Clint is the lead guitarist in the heavy metal band Sevendust. And while it might not have been Willie Lowery's favorite kind of music, Clint says his father was generous with his support and advice.

"He was always wanting us to find our own voice," Clint Lowery says. "At the same time, he was wanting us to stick to the fundamentals that are important, which is simplicity, and making it where people can understand what you're doing."

Willie Lowery died in May after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, at the age of 68. He didn't live to see his cult-classic album Plant and See reissued by the North Carolina indie label Paradise of Bachelors. But Jefferson Currie — who wrote liner notes for the reissue — hopes it will help expand Lowery's reputation, both in Robeson County and beyond.

"Those people who just know his psychedelic stuff — because there's a lot of collectors out there — maybe it'll give them a sense into his life," Currie says, "and [bring] them back to the Lumbee community to understand a little more what his influences were, and where he came from and how this music really came about."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Lumbee Indian tribe of North Carolina has lost one of its greatest voices. Willie Lowery was a singer, a composer, and activist. He died in May before seeing the reissue of an album that he made in the late 1960s which has become an underground classic. That record is out now and NPR's Joel Rose has this appreciation.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Willie Lowery called his band Plant and See, as in plant the seed in the ground and see what comes up. The band recorded only one album that went out of print shortly after it was released in 1969. But psychedelic rock fans have always held it in high esteem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WILLIE LOWERY: (Singing) Underneath the lamp light smoking my weed when I heard the footsteps in the leaves.

SIMON: Plant and See's music was very much of its moment: a hazy, Southern blend of rock, soul and blues. And yet in some ways, the band was ahead of its time - especially in its diversity. The drummer was black, the bass player was Latino, the back-up singer was white and the frontman was American Indian.

MALINDA MAYNOR LOWERY: What I hear in it is Lumbee harmony. It's rich and it's tight but it's also open.

ROSE: Malinda Maynor Lowery is Willie Lowery's widow and a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says some of the vocal harmonies on Plant and See have roots in the Lumbee church.

LOWERY: Singing in harmony has been something we've done for hundreds of years, in churches without instruments, so the richness was provided by human voices singing in harmony. And that's what he heard from babyhood. And Willie was an incredible perfectionist when it came to making sure his band members, and making sure he himself, were doing the right things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOWERY: (Singing) We came to our knees. Something is wrong. The time and the place, live where we belong.

ROSE: Willie Lowery was born in Robeson County, in eastern North Carolina. His parents were sharecroppers. Lowery himself worked in the fields picking cotton as a young man, as he told a UNC folklorist in 2008.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

LOWERY: We were grew up a very poor family. We didn't have guitars and stuff like that. But I always had - I could hear music in my head as I was plowing the old mule.

ROSE: Lowery played a guitar for the first time when his sister married a man who owned one. His new brother-in-law taught him how to play a few blues riffs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

LOWERY: The problem was, he didn't like for anybody to play his guitar, but every so often he'd let me pick it up and deal with it. He told me to go and play the guitar. You've got to learn this.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

ROSE: Lowery left Robeson County for Baltimore, then moved on to New York and Los Angeles, where Plant and See was recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LOWERY: (Singing) What can it be?

SIMON: But the band's label promptly folded, and Plant and See fell apart. So Lowery started another band called Lumbee, which scored a regional hit with the song "Streets of Gold."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREETS OF GOLD")

LOWERY: (Singing) Oh no, go, oh, oh. I sit cold in the streets of gold in a heaven. The angels here where you (unintelligible) in heaven. Oh, there'll never be a better place...

ROSE: Lumbee opened for the The Allman Brothers Band in the early 1970s, and Willie Lowery was invited to play with the Oak Ridge Boys. But he declined and moved back to North Carolina to raise a family. Gradually, Lowery built a second career, one focused on making music for and about his fellow Lumbee Indians.

JEFFERSON CURRIE: He was telling the community, here's your history.

ROSE: Jefferson Currie is a folklorist and a member of the Lumbee tribe. He says that in the 1970s, Lowery wrote songs for a musical about Lumbee history and a children's album called "Proud to be a Lumbee."

CURRIE: The title track is considered by many - myself included - as the Lumbee national anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PROUD TO BE A LUMBEE")

LOWERY: (Singing) I can be a doctor, a lawyer, an Indian chief. Yes, I can. When I grow up into this world I will be just what I am.

ROSE: Malinda Lowery says her husband never regretted his decision to come home.

LOWERY: He understood the vagaries of music business, and had let the bitterness of that really go. So he would be very glad, I think, to see this level of interest in his own music, but really what he would be proudest of is what his children are doing.

ROSE: Lowery's three sons all followed their father into the music business. His son Clint plays guitar in the heavy metal band Sevendust. And while it might not have been Willie Lowery's favorite kind of music, Clint says his father was generous with his support and advice.

CLINE LOWERY: He was always wanting us to find our own voice but at the same time he was wanting us to stick to the fundamentals that are important, which is simplicity, and making it where people can understand what you're doing.

ROSE: Willie Lowery died in May after a long battle with Parkinson's disease, at the age of 68. He didn't live to see his cult-classic album Plant and See reissued by the North Carolina indie label. But Jefferson Currie, who wrote liner notes for the reissue, hopes it will help expand Lowery's reputation, both in Robeson County and beyond.

CURRIE: Those people who just know his psychedelic stuff - because there's a lot of collectors out there - maybe it'll give them a sense into his life and bring them back to the Lumbee community to understand a little more what his influences were, and where he came from and, you know, how this music really came about.

ROSE: In oral history interviews, Willie Lowery looked back fondly on his days in Plant and See but he said they weren't the highlight of his career.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED INTERVIEW)

LOWERY: Probably the greatest time in my life was spent doing music for my own people.

ROSE: It didn't happen overnight, but the seeds that Willie Lowery planted are finally bearing fruit. Joel Rose, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOWERY: (Singing) Love and affection, baby, is all I need.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

LOWERY: (Singing) I've got a lot of loving inside. Love that I just can't hide. But baby, guess what? Give all your heart to me. (unintelligible) Hold on, oh, I need you so. Hold on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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