“In 1792 John Evans, a 22 year old weaver from Waunfawr in the mountains of Snowdonia, Wales, responded to a plea from the great Welsh cultural mischief maker Iolo Morganwg to settle, once and for all, the quandry of whether there was indeed a tribe of Welsh-speaking native Americans still walking the Great Plains, descendants of Prince Madog, who was widely believed (especially by Welsh historical revisionists) to have discovered America in 1170.” So begins Gruff Rhys’ first book, ‘American Interior‘ and, needless to say, this second-generation Welsh history nut loved every equally quirky, energetic and revealing paragraph that followed.
Gruff’s band, the Super Furry Animals, remain on a prolonged hiatus, and so the front-man seems to need a new project with each dormant year that passes. We have already been treated to concept albums about luxury car designer, De Lorean (Neon Neon), and the socialist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (Praxis Makes Perfect). The latter was also performed as a superb play by the National Theatre of Wales, while Rhys added further to his personl list of art forms conquered by making a film about the Welsh in South America (Patagonia).
With ‘American Interior’ the bar has been raised further as the project comprises book, album and a film to come in the autumn. I can see how all mediums will be needed, as there are at least there core narratives: the life of John Evans and the truth about the Madogwgs; Gruff’s own road-trip tracing Evans’ (his distant relative) route through north America – cunningly disguised as a solo US tour by virtue of the odd gig along the way; and a muse on colonial conquer and subjugation.
‘American Interior’ also serves as a pretty good introduction to the pre-modern history of Wales, which Rhys summarises in one glorious sentence:
“Wales, a rocky peninsular outcrop sticking out of the west of England into the Irish Sea, was the last refuge of the Brythonic ‘Welsh’ people, who had once roamed throughout the British Isles but by the sixteenth century had been pummelled remorselessly by the emerging English crown ever since the Romans had left.”
The sixteenth century is the book’s starting point, because it was then that the myth of Prince Madog was first promoted in earnest, courtesy of another figure who has been the subject of a rock star side project, Dr John Dee*.
A mystic of Welsh descent, Dee served as a sort of spin-doctor to Queen Elizabeth I in a period when England was the poor man of Europe, reduced to state sponsored piracy to try get in on the flow of gold that Spain and Portugal were shipping back from the New World. Dee’s boss desperately wanted a way to get in on the imperial act, but with stakes already apparently claimed for most of the American land mass, she needed an angle.
Dee’s ruse was to resurrect a fable he recalled from his youth, that the Welsh Prince Madog had been the first to find America, arriving three hundred years before Columbus, making England (united with Wales since 1536) the rightful owner of the New World.
Fast forward two hundred and fifty years and Britain had won and lost a big chunk of easten north America and was now engaged in a four-way scrap to retain a grip on Canada and its valuable sugar islands in the West Indies, pitted against a newly created Republic of the United States as well as the old imperial foes of Spain and France.
By now, the Madog myth had served its purpose for the British crown, but was acquiring new meaning for the still oppressed Welsh. Iolo Morganwg, a man who created an entire fake language to support the Welsh bardic myth he successfully propogated, had helped convince a credulous Cymru that Madog’s descendants still survived in the States, in the form of a Welsh-speaking native tribe.
Thanks to a significant Welsh presence among the new American settlers (apparently 18 of the 56 signatories to the Declaration of Independence were Welsh)**, various sightings were documented and the fantasty acquired a significant following in Snowdonia and the valleys.
Enter John Evans, a north Walian weaver, chief protagonist of ‘American Interior’, and the man who took up Iolo Morganwyg’s challenge to cross the Atlantic, search out the Madogwgs, and raise a subjugated nations’ spirits in the process.
Clearly he didn’t succeed and I don’t want to ruin the book by detailing exactly how he failed, but suffice to say he managed a pretty extraordinary set of escapades along the way. From an artisan upbringing in a rural European backwater, John Ifans ended his life as Don Juan Evans, surveyor extrordinaire, advisor to the Spanish crown, and the first person to map the Missourri. He befriended Native American tribes and Spanish Generals alike, and single-handedly sparked a territorial war in North Dakota.
Much like his distant ancestor, it is Gruff Rhys’ sheer lust for life that propels him onwards to follow in Evans’ footsteps. Everywhere he goes he makes new friends, usually through music, and doors open that keep the quest moving forward.
I particularly enjoyed his discovery of “the best second hand record shop on Earth” in Cincinatti (the shop in question is called ‘Another Part of the Forest’, although I don’t think Gruff has been to Henry’s Records in Burton on Trent to make the comparison, so this is perhaps not the most reliably awarded accolade).
The author clearly develops great affection for his great-great-something uncle along the way, to the extent of commissioning a John Evans mannequin to accompany him as tour bus companion, navigator and occasional conscience. But he also notes the contradictions:
“John Evans was involved in class struggle as much as anything else. An anti-royalist supporter of the French and American revolutions he came from a background of poverty and was extremely unsentimental towards the British crown.”
And yet he ended his life in the service of the equally imperialist, anti-democratic, Spanish crown – an allegiance which he took seriously to risk his life on many occaisions in defence of his office.
Researching Evans also leads Rhys spend much pleasurable time with members of the modern Mandan tribe and so to think more carefully about the impact of European colonisation on the American Indian population, the remnants of which continue to lead a second class, reservation-based, existence. Another quirky alternative singer whom Rhys meets along the way, Conor Oberst, sums up the situation best:
“This country [the USA] has a lot of beautiful attributes but it was founded on two of the biggest sins that were ever committed by humankind: the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of the African Americans.”
Ultimately, though, what shines through ‘American Interior’ is the fun Gruff Rhys had in researching and writing the book/album/film. Indeed, you have to read fast to keep pace with the energy which jumps out of every page. And, unlike many successful musicians who indulge in vanity projects of dubious artistic merit, it is impossible to resent Rhys’ attempt to pursue his muse not least because of the typically self-effacing way in which he describes the endeavour:
“As a Welsh pop musician I have been given a ticket to a lifestyle once afforded only to soldiers, Miss Universe contestants and long-distance truck drivers.”
I couldn’t put ‘American Interior’ down until I had raced to the end, just as the accompanying album has been ever-present on my headphones for months, and Gruff’s bizarre appearances in the Crows Nest were a highlight of Glastonbury. Glory to the Madogwg and bring on American Interior the film!
* Dr Dee was the subject of a bizarre musical play by Damon Albarn.
** Of these 18 only one was actually born in the old country, but as someone who also claims the honour of Welshness and yet was born on the wrong side of Offa’s Dyke, I am not going to quibble