Lauded Lumbee songwriter, artist, husband and father Willie French Lowery passed away May 3 at the age of 68. Lowery’s legacy includes more than 40 years worth of music, shaped by Indian, African, and European American traditions alike. His prolific career spanned psychedelic rock and children’s music, painting and stagecraft. Arguably, his most important career role, though, was as a cultural figurehead in the Lumbee tribe. An assistant curator at the North Carolina Museum of History and member of the Lumbee community, Jefferson Currie III calls Lowery a hero: “His entire career makes [us] proud. In some ways, he helped to nurture a stronger identity and sense of being among Lumbees. I think his legacy will continue for a long time.”
For some time now, Brendan Greaves and Jason Perlmutter of the Paradise of Bachelors label have been trying to ensure exactly that. Working with Lowery and his wife, Malinda Maynor Lowery, the label has pursued reissues of his older releases. Their first is the eponymous record by Plant and See, Lowery’s short-lived ‘70s psych rock band; it will be released this July. “What’s really fascinating about him,” says Greaves, “is that he put out these two LPs that are classic to the canon of psychedelic music, if little known beyond that, but then turned his career into a vehicle for articulating American Indian identity and politics.”
Born in 1944 in Robeson County, N.C., Lowery took a unique path. As a young man, he played in a traveling carnival, served as the bandleader for former Drifter Clyde McPhatter, wrote commercial jingles, and fronted both Plant and See and Lumbee. In those psychedelic rock bands, Lowery honed a southern swamp-psych sound. The latter group’s only recording, Overdose, drew the attention of The Allman Bros, who took the group on the road as an opening act. Though Lumbee swiftly disbanded, their recording has since become a highly collectible psychedelic classic.
After brushes with success, Lowery decided to trade the prospect of rock ’n’ roll fame for more community-focused work. He spent much of the rest of his career making music and art that exalted the traditions of Lumbee culture. With an acoustic guitar and a gritty tenor, Lowery wrote more than 500 songs that range from blues to country to gospel. Notably, in 1976, he recorded a children’s folk album, Proud to be a Lumbee, which solidified his place as an icon in the Lumbee tribe. He also penned Strike at the Wind!, a popular, long-running outdoor drama about his ancestor, Henry Berry Lowery, a Robin Hood figure within the Lumbee community.
“He was an exceptionally gifted guitar player and singer. His music is an anthem for the Lumbee people,” says Dr. William Ferris, the Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South. He often featured Lowery as a guest lecturer in his course on Southern Music. “He and his ancestors are forever associated with their voice in North Carolina.”