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Buffy Sainte-Marie

Born Beverly Sainte-Marie, February 20, 1941, Piapot Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada, Buffy has done more for her Native American community through music than any other recording artist (probably put together). Most pundits will recall her unique vibrato vox on at least one song, the theme song to `Soldier Blue’; many others will know she was also the songwriter behind another movie hit, `Up Where We Belong’ (from `An Officer And A Gentleman’), a chart-topper for croaker JOE COCKER & JENNIFER WARNES.
Although adopted by a white family at a very early age, Cree Indian SAINTE-MARIE never strayed far from her roots, incorporating Native American styles into her musical approach and actively campaigning for her beleaguered brethren. Moving to the American east coast during the mid-60s, she was discovered at Gerde’s Folk City by Vanguard Records producer Maynard Solomon, and subsequently signed to the label, a hub of the burgeoning folk-protest movement.
With PATRICK SKY (also a solo artist for the same label) and Art Davis accompanying her, the singer-songwriter made her recording debut in 1964 with IT’S MY WAY! {*8}, a more than promising set which included some of her most enduring tracks. While her distinctive vocal style took a bit of getting used to, there was no disputing the quality of her songs; DONOVAN took protest anthem `The Universal Soldier’ into the Top 20 the following year, while `Cod’ine’ was memorably covered by QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE and The CHARLATANS (US) among others. Never frightened to take on disturbing subject matter (e.g. `The Incest Song’), Buffy sang with heart, soul and spirit on the likes of other “pale-face” injustices such as `Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’, while there was trad flav by way of `Cripple Creek’ and ROBERT JOHNSON’s `You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond’.
Borrowing a song and album title from fellow American Indian PATRICK SKY, MANY A MILE (1965) {*6} stood out for the introduction of one of her most famous songs, `Until It’s Time For You To Go’, a Top 40 hit for ELVIS several years later. Strewn with folk (and blues) ballads such as `Come All Ye Fair And Tender Ladies’, `Fixin’ To Die’, `On The Banks Of Red Roses’, `Lazarus’ (an Irish-American murder ballad), `Groundhog’ and the “Greensleeves”-like `Must I Go Round’, Buffy had further points to make through `Welcome, Welcome Emigrante’ and `Los Pescadores’.
Breaking her into the Top 100, her third album LITTLE WHEEL SPIN AND SPIN (1966) {*7} realised her potential through a handful of traditional ballads: `Waly, Waly’, `House Carpenter’, `Sir Patrick Spens’ and `Lady Margaret’. Backed by an eclectic array of supporting NY musicians like PATRICK SKY, Bruce Langhorne, Eric Weissberg and Felix Pappalardi, her own contemporary-folk compositions were headed by `My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying’, `Men Of The Fields’ and the title track.
Not quite reaching Top 100 status, FIRE & FLEET & CANDLELIGHT (1967) {*6} found Buffy stretching outwith her usual musical perimeters, while orchestral arrangements from Peter Schickele were overpowering and indeed over-produced (`Summer Boy’ and `The Carousel’ examples). The inclusion of two pre-record JONI MITCHELL songs, `The Circle Game’ and `Song To A Seagull’ were an inspiration (so too, her cover of BASCOM LAMAR LUNSFORD’s `Doggett’s Gap’), but traditional fare such as `Reynardine’, `Lord Randall’ and the goddamn awful `Lyke Wake Dirge’ (one recommends PENTANGLE’s take any day) were grandiose and unnecessary.
Though singles chart success had eluded her up to now, SAINTE-MARIE continued to make her mark on the counter-culture scene with increasingly diverse albums; 1968’s I’M GONNA BE A COUNTRY GIRL AGAIN {*4} saw her adopt a C&W/Nashville approach with mixed results, while ILLUMINATIONS (1969) {*8} dabbled with synths and electronics. Title track aside, the first of these records was a poor attempt at jumping on the country-rock bandwagon (featuring as it did two revamps of `Now That The Buffalo’s Gone’ and `The Piney Wood Hills’), aided by seasoned sessioners Floyd Cramer, Grady Martin and The Jordanaires – not her finest half-hour by any stretch of the imagination. Illuminations deserved a better fate. Taking inspiration from the avant-garde structures of NICO, TIM BUCKLEY and continental artists, her final effort of the 60s looked to the future although in a gothic, tripped-out fashion; check out her collaboration with LEONARD COHEN, `God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot’, the RICHIE HAVENS cover, `Adam’, Ed Freeman’s `The Angel’ and her own scribes, `The Vampire’, `Suffer The Little Children’ and the eerie `Poppies’.
The early 70s kicked off reasonably well with a UK Top 10 hit via the aforementioned film theme to `Soldier Blue’, while parent album SHE USED TO WANNA BE A BALLERINA (1971) {*6} just might’ve been one of the most robust sets of her career, saddled as it was with the glorious backing talents of RY COODER and CRAZY HORSE on versions of NEIL YOUNG’s `Helpless’ (appropriately enough), LEONARD COHEN’s `Bells’, Marly-Zaret’s similarly-associated `Song Of The French Partisan’, and two Gerry Goffin staples, `Smack Water Jack’ and `Rollin’ Mill Man’; a re-release of `I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again’ also gave her another Top 40 (and US Hot 100) hit later the same year.
Coming at her worst time career-wise (two sets MOONSHOT (1972) {*3} and QUIET PLACES (1973) {*4} were dismal attempts at the mainstream), Buffy incredibly had her first US Top 40 entry, `Mister Can’t You See’ (a MICKEY NEWBURY-TOWNES VAN ZANDT number from the MOONSHOT album). While there were several SAINTE-MARIE originals on show on the first (and eclectic covers of NEWBURY’s `Sweet Memories’ and Arthur Crudup’s `My Baby Left Me’), the latter album procured covers from staid sources: JONI MITCHELL (`For Free’), NEWBURY (`Why You Been Gone So Long’), RANDY NEWMAN (`Have You Seen My Baby’), Boudleaux Bryant (`Civilization’) and Goffin-King (`Eventually’).
Her subsequent albums for M.C.A. Records, BUFFY (1974) {*4} and CHANGING WOMAN (1975) {*4}, lacked focus, and despite a return to her roots on A.B.C. Records, SWEET AMERICA (1976) {*6} – which included the original version of `Starwalker’ – SAINTE-MARIE retired from her solo career for the remainder of the 70s and the 80s. As well as her continued work for Native American causes and children’s charities, Buffy was subsequently invited to appear on US TV kids’ show, Sesame Street, remaining there for the best part of five years and helping to shape the programme’s anti-racist educational slant. In 1981, she co-wrote (along with husband JACK NITZSCHE) the aforementioned `Up Where We Belong’, a million-selling 45 for Cocker and Warnes.
Newly signed to Chrysalis/Ensign Records, SAINTE-MARIE eventually returned to the recording front in her own right with 1992’s COINCIDENCE AND LIKELY STORIES {*7}. The record proved she was far from a spent musical force, receiving encouraging reviews and even reaching the UK Top 40. Revamping `Starwalker’ and `Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’, the impressive comeback hosted some hard-hitting anti-corporate dirges such as `The Priests Of The Golden Bull’ (partly narrated like a folkie LAURIE ANDERSON), `The Big Ones Get Away’ (also a UK Top 40 hit), `Fallen Angels’ and `Disinformation’.
Having waited seventeen years for a Buffy title, little did her loyal fanbase think she’d follow the same lengthy pattern – but she did. Bringing her into line with the flashy/dance/mirrorball times (albeit with Native American chants et al), 2008’s RUNNING FOR THE DRUM {*7} saw her return to her politician-baiting, anti-establishment best via `Working For The Government’ and `No No Keshagesh’. Recalling a song from 42 years ago (`Little Wheel Spin And Spin’) was indeed a trusty formula for many of today’s folk masters, SEEGER, etc., but this also worked for Buffy, while other highlights included `I Bet My Heart On You’ (with TAJ MAHAL), the ELVIS tribute `Blue Sunday’ and her befitting part-rendition challenge of `America The Beautiful’.
Re-working several of her back catalogue (from `It’s My Way’ onwards), Buffy the septuagenarian soothsayer surfaced from musical hibernation on the True North-endorsed set, POWER IN THE BLOOD (2015) {*8}. Long-time acolytes of the Cree dancing clearwater reactivist, the conscientious Buffy turned in a political album that discarded progressive folk for a potpourri of rolling funky grooves. Augmented by three chequered producers, Jon Levine, Chris Birkett and Michael Wojewoda, her choice of covers worked well within the perimeters of her militant missives. UB40’s `Sing Our Own Song’ interpolated a Cree chant which transformed it completely, while the lesser-known ALABAMA 3-borrowed title track was foot-stomping and fist-pumping in order to turn any head of government. With a quavering voice reeling with emotion and passion, SAINTE-MARIE re-claimed lost time by way of `Generation’, `We Are Circling’, the country-fuelled `Farm In The Middle Of Nowhere’ and a totally transformed re-vamp of `Not The Lovin’ Kind’ (from 1972).
Forever and a day dipping into her substantial body of work (albeit with a few fresh tracks peppered here and there), 70-something SAINTE-MARIE’s follow-on set, MEDICINE SONGS (2017) {*8}, filled her fans’ repeat prescriptions no end. There’s no doubting the political unrest themes cropping up here post-Trump, and that was indeed a good starting point to stir up coincidental injustices, oppression and other very likely stories. Yes, there were no fake news fillers about this re-vamped “greatest hits”, and while fans had heard it all before, one can’t dismiss the prowess power of `The War Racket’, `Starwalker’, `My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying’, `Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee’ and a reverberating rendition of `Power In The Blood’.
© MC Strong 1994-2010 / rev-up MCS Aug2013-Sep2018

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