Shattering the Myth: Gruff Rhys on his American adventure

Gruff Rhys talks about setting the story straight on John Evans, a legendary 18th-century Welsh explorer and political radical, in his new multimedia project American Interior. He'll speak about his own adventures at Edinburgh Book Festival this month

Feature by Chris McCall | 06 Aug 2014

There’s an episode of The Sopranos in which a gang of Italian-American street toughs clash violently with Native American protesters. The root cause is not a Mafia shakedown gone wrong, or a bent construction project come unstuck, but their polarised views on Christopher Columbus and his legacy. The mafiosos view him as an Italian folk hero, and anyone who fails to celebrate Columbus Day as unpatriotic at best and a traitor at worst. The Native Americans’ take is rather different.

Creation myths are potent, perhaps none more so than how the Americas first came to the attention of Europeans. The story of Columbus’s adventure across the Atlantic is taught in schools the world over, but rather less well-known is the legend of Prince Madoc, a medieval Welsh nobleman said to have reached America in 1170, more than 300 years before Columbus. According to folklore, Madoc married a native woman and a mythical tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians was born.

What Madoc’s story lacks in hard facts it makes up for in timeless allure, prompting future Cymru generations to make their own voyages of discovery across the Atlantic. Just ask Gruff Rhys. The musician, searching for suitable subject matter for his fourth solo album, began to research the story of a distant 18th-century relative called John Evans, a farmhand from Snowdonia who set off to find Madoc’s lost tribe himself.

"I think John Evans would have been very excited by the independence referendum. It’s something that’s causing a lot of interest here in Wales" – Gruff Rhys

It’s an unlikely yet entirely captivating story that Rhys tells via his American Interior project, which comprises an album, a documentary film and book. He’ll be reading selected passages from the latter and answering questions at an Edinburgh International Book Festival event, sponsored by The Skinny, on Friday, 22 August.

Evans, unlike Madoc, was a very real character, born in 1770. Despite not reaching his 30th birthday, and large tracts of his adventures going unrecorded, what is known is gripping stuff, and provides Rhys with the perfect platform to question the nature of myth-making and vain pursuits of glory.

“I was familiar with a very exaggerated version of Evans’ story, but with the book I had to verify the facts,” he explains. “It was fascinating getting to grips with it. A lot of the basic facts are set in stone, but in Wales he has been written about in the context of Prince Madoc, who I don’t think existed, and in America he was kind of a footnote to the explorers Lewis and Clark, who used an early map of the Missouri that he produced. So I was taking him out of the footnote and into his own volume. I had to go to Seville, as most of his correspondence is kept in the colonial archive, from when he worked for the Spanish in Louisiana and became Don Juan Evans. It was very strange looking at Welsh language correspondence in Spain.”

In a time before telephones, when international travel was the preserve of the wealthy, Evans worked his way across the Atlantic, arriving in Baltimore in October 1792. He then travelled on to St Louis, then in Spanish-controlled Louisiana, and after being briefly imprisoned under suspicion of being a spy, was eventually paid to explore the Missouri River. Fast forward 200 years to the summer of 2012 and Rhys retraced the explorer’s route through the Great Plains of America by means of what he dubbed an ‘Investigative Concert Tour’ – a series of solo gigs.

The results are chronicled in the American Interior book, which is part psychedelic travelogue, part examination of modern America and the nature of our individual desire for glory. Rhys will talk about his first book when he visits Edinburgh later this month, and maybe a few other topics of interest. Like anyone with a public profile, questions on the fast-approaching independence referendum are certain.

“It’s quite relevant to John. He was part of a community of Welsh radicals, who were very literate, largely educated through the chapels. They were openly against the monarchy, and very excited by the American and French revolutions. Maybe, unfortunately for us, a lot of those radicals chose to go to America. It was a class struggle; at that time, you couldn’t own a piece of land. It was very much in the hands of the elite. Sounds very much like today! I can’t speak for him, but I think John would have been very excited by the independence referendum. It’s something that’s causing a lot of interest here in Wales, something that’s being viewed favourably.”

Gruff Rhys' Super Furry Odyssey takes place at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 Aug at 8.30-9.30pm, £10 (£8 concessions)

He also plays Summercamp festival, Camp + Furnace, Liverpool, 15 Aug; Glasgow O2 ABC, 5 Sep; and Royal Northern Colage of Music, Manchester, 10 Sep