Photo by Matt Barnes
Photo by Matt Barnes

There’s Power in Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Blood: First Album in 7 Years Released Today

Jason Morgan Edwards

Even at age 74, Buffy Sainte-Marie is still as vibrant and energetic as ever.  Her charismatic, soulful melodies are on full display in her latest release, Power In The Blood (available through her official site, Amazon and iTunes). If you were expecting her to lose a step, or a note, over time, you can just get that notion right out of your head.  “I write at the same degree of excellence that I wrote in the 60s,” Sainte-Marie says. “Songwriting is a gift.  It really surprised people in the ’60s.  They asked ‘How can you be so young and write with such wisdom?’  Now, they ask ‘How can you be the age you are and write with such freshness?'”

“Dreams and poems and ideas come into your head,” she continues. “It’s all fresh and new.  Just because something’s been around for a while, doesn’t mean that it’s no good anymore.  Great art keeps on being great.  Some of the greatest songs ever written have already been written.  And they’ll still be great no matter what else comes along.  The heart of my songs is the same.  I still write the same way.  I think my singing is different.  I thought my first couple of albums were awful.  The only reason I sang the songs is because I couldn’t get anybody else to sing them.  So, I sang them myself as kind of demos on stage.  The songs were fantastic, but I wasn’t much of a singer.  I don’t know … I may have been a better guitar player in the 60s.”

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Sainte-Marie has been performing for nearly 50 years.  But oddly enough, much of her earlier success was not among her own Native people.  “Charlie Hill and me were actually kept out of Indian country,” she recalls. “I came up in the ’60s, when I wrote folk songs, protest songs.  And songs about Native America.  Some of us were actually blacklisted by two back-to-back Presidential administrations.  We couldn’t get airplay.  I had huge records, and I was doing the late night talk shows, and big magazine stories.   But, there weren’t any concerts in Indian country.  So, I never really toured in the Plains states or the Southwest.  And Charlie, too.  Most Natives were kept out of the caliber of theater we were playing in New York and LA and internationally.  In the Southwest, we were kept small, deliberately.  That’s something that people really ought to know.  We were not really welcome in the show-business climate of Indian country, at the time.  London or New York or Paris, I’m a regular.  Media, and the people who owned media at the time, were quite deliberate in making sure that American Indian Movement (AIM) message, and the things I was writing before AIM…I was writing about genocide and land theft, oil exploitation in a way that nobody else was.  It was a really, really big deal in places where there were no Indians.  But it wasn’t allowed to take root in other places.”

Buffy’s latest album is a “collection of very diverse kinds of songs.  Some of them are love songs, some are rockabilly songs.  Some have a huge Native presence.  Others are about universal themes.  There are a lot of rockers.  There are a lot good dance songs.  I challenge you not to.  A Tribe Called Red just did my song, ‘Working For The Government,’ as a dance tune.  All of the songs are really personal.  But, none of them are like anything else.  ‘Generation’ is an interesting song.  It’s a song I wrote in the ’70s.  I was out in the streets of Regina with my dad.  They were sending a guy to the moon.  And, I remember my dad said to me ‘Daughter, they ought to leave that moon alone.’  And, I never forgot it.  It shows up in a line of the song.  ‘Generation’ sounds like it’s very contemporary.  Several albums it was on were just plain blacklisted.  This album has a couple of songs that are very contemporary, even though I wrote them a long time ago; when politicians were not ready to have those things heard.  It mentions Idle No More, it’s a movement song.  ‘Power In The Blood’ is a song that I re-wrote.  It was originally written as kind of a violence song by Alabama Three.  I [thought] it would make a great anti-war song.  So, I changed their lyrics and I made it about GMO and fracking and military take-over.  ‘We Are Circling’ has an Aboriginal theme to it.  The whole idea of spiraling together…’onward, upward creature to creation.’  I mean, you don’t hear that in Christianity.  ‘Holy mystery, Mother Earth, child-birth, this is celebration. This is sacred.’ ‘Ke Sakihitin Awasis’ in Cree means ‘I Love You, Baby.’  It starts out as a lullaby, turns into a love song, and then becomes a love song for Aboriginal culture and the Movement.  ‘Carry It On’ is total positivity.” 

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She is a rare and enduring creative force, and she has remained true to her art.  “I write almost all of my own songs, with an occasional co-writer.  If I do somebody else’s song, like Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, I do it very much in my own way.  Or, I’ll do somebody else’s song because the song isn’t available anywhere else, and I’m trying to get them heard.  I like to give an audience originality.  On this album, I wrote all of the songs except three.  ‘Power In The Blood’ was written by Alabama Three; ‘Sing Our Own Song’ was written by UB40; and ‘Orion’ is a co-write.”  Her songwriting process can only be described as ‘inspired.’  “I don’t ever sit down and write an album.  Since I was about three years old, songs just pop into my head.  And I either like them and remember, or I don’t remember them at all.  They pop into my head like dreams.  I’m always writing.  I’m writing when I’m asleep and it wakes me up, and I have to talk into my iPhone.  I’ve always written songs naturally.  There’s a second process to some, which I call journalistic.  My challenge with songs like ‘The Uranium War’ or ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’ is to create something that only lasts three and a half minutes, but that has the content and information of a 400-page book.  I’ve been making up songs since I was really, really little.  And, that’s effortless.  I’m trying to give people information that they can’t get anywhere else.  And that they might not want to hear.” 

Sainte-Marie is also a very deep thinker, with a poetic heart.  “I have degree in philosophy,” she says. “I had to study a lot of European philosophers.  I didn’t get anything out of any of them.  On the other hand, Native American philosophy is so direct.  We’re connected directly to the Creator.  That feeling has been in a lot of my music from the very beginning.  It still seems like it was when I was three years old.  It’s just a recognition of that connection with the Creator that comes every day to me.  It comes in the form of creativity.  It comes in the form of loving the Creation.  I just have a much more Western-hemisphere approach than most songwriters.  Because most songwriters, their educational and family heritage is filled with the feudal system, the British educational system, the American educational system and whatever the fuck is on television that day.  Charlie was comedy, John Trudell as an orator, all of our fellow singer-songwriters who have something to say—we really do have something that is uniquely Native American.  There are lot of people who appropriate our culture. There are some people selling some kind of ‘Indian art’, you know, some kind of purple coyote with a few feathers hung on it, and say it’s Native American.  That’s not what we do.  There is a reality to Native American people and Native American art.  And, it shines through us.  It’s a part of us.  It’s not something that we learn in school.”

The new album is slated for release on May 12, 2015 through True North Records—and her fans will not be disappointed.  Sainte-Marie stays true to her art and true to herself.  “I just got lucky,” she says. “I came along at the right time.  Forget the music business for a minute.  Aboriginal music is really big in Canada.  In Canada, we have three major, televised Native music awards shows.  We have some great advantages.  I wish we had more profile in the US, more help from the record companies.  There are so many great artists.  If you build your own audience, the record companies will sniff you out.  I advise new artists to play a lot, play everywhere.”

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