Freed at Last …

June 16, 2018 | Grace Notes

The tension between one’s art and success is as old as humans; I suppose … this is a story about a fine musician and that tension …

Have you ever, by mistake, tuned into an AM commercial radio station and in doing so, set off a toxic flare in your brain upon hearing a Justin Bieber song? You then go tell a grandkid that you knew Canadian musicians who were ten times better, but they never, ever made it to radio. In fact, you recall, you have ridden in cars with them.

Well, not sure about you but it has happened to me a few times …

When I think back on all the fabulous musicians I heard in the little bars, clubs and coffee houses over the years, I still get upset trying to figure out how the call gets made as to whom the gods will bless. One such big miss in my humble opinion was a big talent from Saskatchewan named Don Freed. I believe Don was as close as we got in Canada to having our very own John Prine. Oh sure we had the Tysons, the Lightfoots and Cockburn, but the edginess, the storytelling and that wicked sense of humour was all Don Freed, he was the whole package.

His song, When this Valley, is like the Metis national anthem. His Mr. Ford and the Petty Thieves is the high craft of the storyteller. His tune, All Night Long, will crack you up just like In Spite of Ourselves by Mr. Prine. And don’t even get me started on the sheer genius of Don’s Pirate Song.

I first came across his work in the late Sixties in Saskatoon where the local band heros were Humphrey and the Dumptrucks and Don was the resident songwriter star. I believe I first saw him in that little coffee house in the basement of the Farnum Block on Broadway Ave. I met him later in the early seventies when I was asked to chauffeur of couple of musicians out to a concert being held on the James Smith First Nation. I was a poor chauffeur choice indeed, as my car was an old Dodge beater and there were violent thunderstorms forecast for that night and, oh yeah, the roads were not exactly paved.

The two musicians were Don Freed and Murray Mclauchlin. Oh boy, I was thrilled to say the least. The trip was from hell. It was a back roads desperation scene and it all started to fall apart as the heavy rain got us stuck a couple of times and my car seemed to be hitting on far less than the six cylinders it started out on. Murray and Don were huddled in the back seat like a pair of gun-shy gophers in a thunderstorm. Neither were big talkers in the car but later, on stage, they lit up the place. I am not sure if Don had, as yet, connected with his Metis roots but he was right at home on the stage that night, in indigenous country.

The next time I ran into him was in northern Sask. I was up there working and he was test-driving his newest adventure… teaching the kids how to write and sing their own songs. He was really busy and I only got the Cole’s Notes of this part of his new musical journey, but there was a ton of energy in that school and Don was the one who set it off.

Don was an interesting cat. He seemed in no way, a man looking for his own celebrity but there were a couple of one act plays in his life, where other’s celebrity took him for a little spin.

The Promise …

When he was really young and really promising, some music heavies took him to Nashville where he met and sang a couple of tunes for Johnny Cash. Cash loves him and gets him an audition with a big label and it looks like the Promised Land is calling. Two years later he is living in New York, nothing is happening and the prairies and real life call him home from the big lights and a sweet promise burning out.

The Girl from Home …

Later in life, it turns out that Joni Mitchell’s mom in Saskatoon always loved Don. Both Don and Joni were not getting any younger and to her mind, I suppose, not getting any loving…so she set them up. Her matchmaking actually worked and for seven years as the 20th century wound down, Don and Joni hooked up and as the new century took hold… unhooked. For seven years Don has said, he tried to live in that world with “that girl” and yet while his body was in Bel-Air his heart was in Beaval. Even maintaining separate spaces, the relationship crashed after seven years and he said he had to work his way back to his own “sense of self.”

These days, his impact on Metis culture is now firmly rooted in both his writing and work. As mentioned, his song, When this Valley, the Metis anthem, is already legacy material. However, I really believe it will, more so, be those hundreds of aboriginal kids who found their own voice writing and singing with Don that will make up his real lasting gift. They will remember him in much the same way as Peter Mansbridge did with his comment that Freed is a “real life Pied Piper.”

I will remember him as a guy who had no reason at all to be open and warm with an acquaintance like me, but he was.

The last time I saw him; we were on a plane heading east. He remembered me, invited be back to his seat and we had a fine conversation for a long time about music, education, politics, Joni and other big mysteries.

That was a fine gift for me and I have often reflected on it…here was a man who could look back on his artistic life, not with bitterness about success or celebrity, but with deep gratitude that he had found a way to use his artistic gifts for good.

We should all be so aware that success does not always come in the package it was wrapped in …

Johnny Cash would have still liked him a lot …