Saturday, November 7, 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie: She's Still Rocking!

Buffy Sainte-Marie's 18th album, Power in the Blood, was released in May. (Photo by David Gahr, 1960)

What can you say about Buffy Sainte-Marie? She appeared on the American game show To Tell the Truth in January 1966. Panelists Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle questioned the three contestants for ten minutes and guessed which one was the real Buffy Sainte-Marie. The questions were a bit insipid. “Do you have any musical training?” “Are there any more Indian singers?” “Where does Joan Baez live?” When they voted, Bud Collyer asked the panel to “Mark [their] wigwams.” Mr. Bean actually drew a cartoon war bonnet on his numeral 3. They were different times. I remember watching the show when it first played, and you can still watch it on YouTube. The best part is when Buffy does “Goin’ Up to Cripple Creek” accompanying herself on mouthbow, and then she picks up her guitar and sings “Until It’s Time For You To Go.”

Nearly fifty years later she has released Power In The Blood (True North Records), her eighteenth album (not counting a couple of Greatest Hits collections). Her style has changed since those early days playing a small six-string guitar, but she is every bit the force of nature she’s always been. She was never happy to sit quietly in the background, if she had something to say, Buffy Sainte-Marie came out and said it. After the tender love song that was “Time for You To Go,” she did “Universal Soldier” in response to war in general, but specifically Vietnam. Donovan had a hit with this one.

He's five feet two and he's six feet four. 
He fights with missiles and with spears. 
He's all of thirty-one and he's only seventeen. 
He's been a soldier for a thousand years.

He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an Atheist, a Jain, 
A Buddhist and a Baptist and Jew. 
And he knows he shouldn't kill and he knows he always will. 
Kill for me my friend and me for you.

And he's fighting for Canada, he's fighting for France. 
He's fighting for the USA. 
And he's fighting for the Russians and he's fighting for Japan. 
And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.

She wrote songs about the indigenous peoples of North America, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo.” She covered Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and co-wrote (with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings) “Up Where We Belong,” winning an Oscar in the process. She is now 74 years old and every bit as powerful a singer and songwriter as she’s always been.

“I love words, I love thinking, and I recognize and value the core of a universal idea simplified into a three-minute song,” she says. “What appealed to me in folk music were the songs that have lasted for generations, but I wasn’t trying to be one of those guys. I wanted to give people something original.”

She still has the same tremolo in her voice but she is backed by a band that out and out rocks. Power in the Blood won her the prestigious Polaris Prize this year. The Polaris Prize has been described as “…not about sales, genre or commercial appeal… this one’s all about the music.” And Power in the Blood is all about music. Right off the mark with an up-dated rendition of the title song from her very first album, “It’s My Way” starts with ringing chords from an electric guitar and the message takes on a new perspective when sung by a 74-year-old compared to a 20-year-old. “I’ve got my own world, I’ve got my own life… I’ve got my own road and it’s my way.” It was her own way then and she’s still on that road.

This is followed by the title song adapted by Ms. Sainte-Marie from the Alabama 3 tune. It contains a strong anti-GMO political message, over a potent beat. Buffy’s flexible vocal cords are exercised in “Not the Loving Kind” which also features some guitar solos from Dean Drouillard and Ian Burton. Other musicians involved include bassists Maury LaFoy & George Koller; drummers Mark Mariash, Max Kennedy Roach and Michael Bruyere; and keyboardists Aaron Davis, Jon Levine, Jim Birkett while Buffy plays guitar and sings.

She sings love songs, political tunes, and includes all the themes that have been found in her songs forever. Production is shared between Michael Phillip Wojewoda (six tracks), and Chris Birkett and Jon Levine (each get three). The tracks blend easily together because the genius here is Buffy Sainte-Marie. It is her vision, her talent, and her style that unites the album. The sound is gorgeous on headphones, and listening to the album over a week or so will make the songs stick in your memory, each with a melody and hook that will keep you coming back.

It rocks, and it rolls, and it has a conscience. Power in the Blood has power in virtually every track. It’s a fine comeback from someone who never really went away. Congratulations on the Polaris Prize, Buffy. You deserved it!

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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