John L Murphy
At twenty-one, John Evans left his Welsh farm. Arriving in Baltimore in 1792, he set off from the Alleghany Mountains into uncharted heartland. He sought a lost tribe of Welsh Indians.
His distant descendant by a maternal uncle, Welsh musician Gruff Rhys, is best known for his singing and songwriting as a founder of Super Furry Animals, and currently as a solo artist and a member of Neon Neon. Long intrigued by his forebear, Rhys pursues Evans' path on an ambitious 2012 "investigative concert tour" up the great rivers of Mid-America into the Great Plains. It's all documented in a "psychedelic historic travelogue", an album, a film directed by Dylan Goch, and a bilingual app mingling these media from Penguin (the last I have not seen; I recommend the whole triple experience of record and film alongside the book; I reviewed the music under its own heading here...).
"It sounds like a joke: here were a Scotsman and a Welshman employed by a Spanish king, leading a boat full of French speakers into the precarious tribal waters of the Mississippi." Furthermore, John Evans sought to rid the West of the British, reach the Pacific, capture a unicorn, grab a seashell or two as proof, and then return for a two-thousand peso reward from Spanish Louisiana's governor, at a time when British Canada threatened to sweep south into Mexico, after French Canada succumbed to the British Empire, and as the American expansion under Thomas Jefferson eyed territory which the Spanish feared losing.
Into this geopolitical arena, young Evans entered. For five years, he mapped many blank spots and tried to verify what Rhys rightly calls the "most useful invention" of Prince Madoc. Supposed to have arrived from Wales in 1170 and rumored to have spawned a clan of Welsh-speaking natives who mingled with, or were, the Mandan of the present-day Dakota states, Madoc's reputation endured. In colonial America, a few Welsh emigrants swore they had met tribesmen who answered them in their common language. Rhys labels these as "ear-witness accounts". He explains how these settlers made Madoc "a tangible hero" among those pioneers who confused, for example, Kentucky's "Padoucas" with the supposedly Welsh "Magodwys" who had perpetuated their customs in Native America. This legend had persisted from Elizabethan times. Madoc's landfall (purported at Mobile Bay, Alabama) was appropriated by the English Crown, in a concerted effort to concoct noble lineage and irrefutable prior proof that the British could lay claim to the continent their forays now forced open to conquest.
As a Welsh speaker, Rhys brings the advantage of judging not only the discredited claims for Madoc, but providing comparisons between Welsh and Native American predicaments. The details of his expedition I will leave for you to discover in Rhys' presentations in multimedia.
Rhys tracks Evans on his journey, even if his firsthand manuscripts have been lost and we must rely on those who met with him, corresponded, and copied his discoveries into their own reports. There are a couple of minor errors I caught in spot-checking; these appear to be tracked to Rhys' source, Gwyn A. Williams' 1979 book on the myth of Madoc. In his own account, Rhys discusses his musical interpretation of Evans' undertaking sporadically. Although Rhys is on the road as not only an adventurer and interviewer but as a working musician, a reader needs a wider sense of how this "investigative concert tour" succeeded. Mentions of appearances, scattered lyrics, and a few comments from fans gain transcription. Rhys sees the sights and relates folksy or impassioned chats. The best of these happen on the prairies with native activists, and in Louisiana among voudou haunts. But many other places blur. Some characters barely register.
Therefore, the film (to be released on DVD April 2015, in the U.S.) and the album fill in what the book may allude to or skim past. Rhys' PowerPoint presentation for American audiences, his rock songs worked out on the road, and his interviews (some with English subtitles, as the documentary aired on SC/4, the Welsh-language BBC channel) enrich the experience as he retraces Evans' steps. While Evans' tale has been scrutinized by previous scholars, Rhys admits he has found a bit to add to Evans' saga, given their common language, and thanks to Rhys' recent archival research in Seville.
Out of his thin family tie, on a search for origins, Rhys connects with Evans poignantly. It's in an eerie, prescient form left for the reader, listener, or viewer to witness. The Welsh imagined a few natives in America had forged a congenial community and that they had lived as inheritors of Welsh customs, for hundreds of years. Out of such suppositions, the true and the imaginary create a kind of "common" sense, even if this conceit fails as commonsense. This expresses an elusive awareness beyond mere fact. In American Interior's multimedia endeavor, as innovative as an app, as venerable as an old map inspiring an epic, Gruff Rhys honors his ancestor, Ieuan ab Ifan (renamed John Evans by the English), as natives do. Rhys and Evans share, two centuries apart, a tribal Welsh vision quest.