The Rez Blues

This summer I have had the pleasure to research and listen to music by hundreds of Aboriginal musicians from across Ontario and the rest of Canada. I have come across music from a myriad of different genres – spoken word to classical and electronic to sidestep. However, one genre in which I continue to discover a wealth of talented and passionate Aboriginal musicians is that of the blues.

While this is an interesting discovery, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Blues music has been one of the most popular forms of expression for marginalized groups in North America since its origins in the Deep South of the U.S. amongst Black slaves singing spirituals and work songs. Slavery has arguably cemented itself as the darkest and most shameful part of America’s history. Alternatively, Aboriginal Peoples’ experiences with residential schools, relocations, assimilation, and genocide have left a similar glaring scar upon Canada’s past.

As a result, folk music began to flourish in Aboriginal communities during the early years of colonization. The 19th and 20th centuries in Canada saw the emergence of Aboriginal musicians playing a variety of Western-influenced music; Indigenous people in Canada began to pickup instruments introduced by European settlers such as the guitar, harmonica, and fiddle. As the popularity of blues music in exploded in the United States, a wide range of subgenres and regional scenes with their own style of music began to emerge (delta blues, Chicago blues, swamp blues, piano blues, etc.). Blues inevitably began to creep into Canada and has become such a force amongst Aboriginal communities (particularly in the First Nations of Southern Ontario) that its own subgenre was established – aptly named “Rez Blues” (i.e. Reservation Blues).

Rez Blues is not limited by any strict definitions, and has thus produced an impressively eclectic canon of music. There is the wicked and inventive slide guitar playing of Billy Joe Green. A residential school survivor, Billy Joe has toured for over three decades and has been nominated for numerous music awards (including three Juno nods). He was first introduced to guitar music by his father and uncles who would play a range of country blues standards. Billy Joe was only in his teens when he first joined The Feathermen and began to master blues guitar. The title of his newest album, “Swingin’ Tomahawk”, is a reference to Alex Parenteau & his Swingin’ Tomahawks, a band that inspired Billy Joe to pick up the guitar, and who once played at the residential school he was forced to attend. 

On another side of the blues spectrum we have the soulful ‘Native blues piano’ of Murray Porter (who's also a founding member of the legendary Canadian blues group The Pappy Johns Band). Self-described as a “red man, singing the black man's blues, living in a white man's world” (from his song “Colours” off his 1994 album 1492 Who Found Who). Now based in North Vancouver, Murray originally hails from Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation in Southern Ontario (a hotbed of musical talent which includes Derek Miller, Joel Johnson, and Robbie Robertson).  While Murray clearly loves and has fun with music, he’s never shied away from touching on issues of colonization, racism, and residential schools in his songs (see the tracks “500 Years”, “Heart of the Eagle”, and “Is Sorry Enough?”, which he wrote with his life and musical partner Elaine Bomberry). His hard-work and dedication paid off in 2012 when Murray won a Juno for Aboriginal Album of the year.

Aboriginal blues musicians in Canada continue to gain popularity and gain new fans in Canada. While much of this is due to their talent, it’s also due to supporters in different communities. In order to help support and promote Aboriginal musicians, Elaine Bomberry created the “Real Rez Bluez” showcase in 1993; it was later adapted into a show on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in 2004 and subsequently won an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award for Best Television Program in 2008. The Kitchener Blues Festival, Canada’s largest free blues festival, has also been supportive of Aboriginal musicians over the years, with the most recent edition of it dedicating a whole afternoon to Indigenous musicians. The Red Jam Slam Society is another organization which continues to put on festivals and concerts to support Aboriginal artists across Canada (Murray performed at one in Vancouver in February of 2013).

While music by Aboriginal artists in Canada is often marginalized (e.g. Murray and Billy Joe being nominated for Aboriginal Juno awards, but not blues Juno awards), it continues to reach new heights. Veteran musicians like Murray and Billy Joe continue to work hard and produce quality music, while at the same time there is a new generation of Aboriginal musicians emerging. The blues continues to resonate among Aboriginal communities, and have often companied the rise of social movements like Idle No More making waves in mainstream Canadian society. As we reflect on the 5th anniversary of the government's apology to residential school survicors, it becomes clear that Aboriginal muscians are singing the blues for a reason, and will continue to sing for years to come.


Well, it has been of great help to me in understanding a lot about the aboriginal music culture that existed in an era. And it has been so well explained over here that even a person with least knowledge in this field could actually understand about it. Museum Glass