A victim of the horror that was Canada’s residential schools, Willie Thrasher turned to music to cope with the pain and suffering of being taken from his family and culture.
As a teenager, Willie Thrasher became anti-social. He avoided getting in fights with the other kids by spending his time in the gym, pounding away on a set of drums, listening to rock n’ roll and trying to emulate it.
“The drums took a lot of frustrations away,” he said. “I didn’t like to be around hundreds of kids so I just went . . . and started hitting on the drums.”
Thrasher soon met some other musicians, formed a band called the Cordells and began playing shows around the Northwest Territories.
At one of those shows, a man approached the band and asked them why they didn’t play songs about their traditions, culture and history. Thrasher wasn’t entirely sure what he meant. The man sat down at their table and told the band all about Indigenous culture, something the residential school system had tried to take out of the children, often by brute force.
“He studied the hunters, trappers, the medicine man, how we lived a long time ago. He knew a lot about our culture, more than our whole band put together,” Thrasher said. “I started realizing how my traditional culture was taken away; how my mother, my dad, my grandmother, my grandfather went through a really difficult life.”
Thrasher says this encounter woke him up and put him on a journey to discover his Inuit heritage. He put down his drumsticks – but kept the kick drum – picked up a guitar and began writing songs.
Thrasher says he is still on that journey today, and still learning as much about his culture as he can, almost 50 years later.
Native North America compilation to Sappy Fest to Newfoundland
Until 2014, Thrasher was still mostly unknown. However, a compilation called Native North America Vol. 1 featuring three of his songs recorded in the ’70s and ’80s changed that.
The compilation album made a big impression on Newfoundland musician and music promoter Chris Scott.
A couple of years after Scott first heard that compilation, he finally had the opportunity to see Thrasher live.
Scott was at Sappy Fest, a music festival held every year in Sackville, N.B. The Golden Bus, a mobile arts venue made from a re-purposed transit bus, pulled up in front of an event Scott was attending.
“A friend of mine had gone out to see who was playing outside in the bus,” Scott said. “She came back in . . . and she had taken a picture and I was like, ‘Oh my god! It’s Willie Thrasher!'”
Scott caught the official show on the main stage the next day and met both Thrasher and his singing partner, Linda Saddleback. He got to know them over the course of the festival. At one point, a friend suggested he help Thrasher, who had never played in Newfoundland, to book a show in St. John’s.
And that’s exactly what he did.
Scott and his friends from the Shed Island Music Festival booked Thrasher for shows in Montreal and St. John’s.
Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback will play at the Ship on March 24 with local musicians Peter Willie Youngtree and Pepa Chan. It will also be the debut of a new band called ‘john.’
Thrasher says he’s incredibly excited and anxious to meet the people, see the sights and smell of the air of Newfoundland.
As he often does when he visits a new place, Thrasher plans to write a song about his time on the island.