A Tribal Anthem's Author — And A Cult Rock Hero Lumbee Indian singer and activist Willie Lowery died in May — just two months before the reissue of his band Plant and See's only album, a psychedelic classic.
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A Tribal Anthem's Author — And A Cult Rock Hero

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

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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."


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.


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.


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.


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

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


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.

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