[27 August 2009]
As you start listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie’s first new album in 13 years, the pow-wow vocal backing on the opening tracks “No No Keshagesh” and “Cho Cho Fire” remind you that she’s the famous Native American activist folk singer from the ‘60s who wrote such eloquent tribal songs as “Where the Buffalo Roam”. By the time you get to the third cut, “Working for the Government”, you listen to the cutting lyrics about the abuses of power by our political entities and remember, oh yeah, she’s the person who also wrote that timeless anti-war protest tune “Universal Soldier”, made famous by the British pop star Donovan.
But then she covers an old song she penned back in the day, “Little Wheel Spin and Spin”, and the delicate wordplay stirs up memories that she was one of the early singer-songwriters who knew how to weave poetic and literate verses into a beautiful tapestry. Before you can catch your breath, Sainte-Marie starts laying down tracks that combine inspired pop with anthemic melodies, and you recall that she’s the Oscar-winning co-writer of “Up Where We Belong”, the theme song from the movie An Officer and A Gentleman, sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.
Then Sainte-Marie starts to get jazzy, in a slow urban-fire sense, with “When I Had You”, and you recollect her classic composition “Until It’s Time for You to Go”, which has been covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Janis Joplin. That’s right, lots of people have sung Saint-Marie’s songs, from country rockers like Gram Parsons and Quicksilver Messenger Service to singer’s singers Roberta Flack and Barbara Streisand, and even more contemporary artists like Courtney Love and Neko Case. Her compositions are legendary.
So when she starts to rock out with “Blue Sunday”, you remember that Sainte-Marie’s truly a multi-talented artist who has done a lot of everything, from appearing for several years as a guest member on television’s Sesame Street to being an early practitioner of electronic music and digital art to working in a variety of media in a number of different ways. And if you are too young to have ever heard of Sainte-Marie before and hearing this disc is your first exposure, that’s all right. Not only do the quality and diversity of the music on this album provide a fine initial introduction, it also includes a bonus DVD documentary about her life, appropriately called A Multimedia Life, directed by Joan Prowse.
The documentary includes interviews with many of the musicians she has inspired, including Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, and Randy Bachman. Although Sainte-Marie was raised in Maine and Massachusetts, she was born in Canada. Her influence on our neighbors to the north is made clear in this film.
As a Native American, she finds the political distinctions between the different nations of North America ephemeral. That does not mean she ignores politics. Sainte-Marie claims she was blacklisted by the White House during President Lyndon Johnson’s heyday, because of her calls for “Indian Power”. One of the most compelling tracks on her new album is “America the Beautiful”, where she combines new, empowering lyrics with the traditional ones to create a fantasy, inclusive national anthem.
Running for the Drum may confuse people, the way Sainte-Marie always does, because her music goes all over the place. She’s not content to be a Native American artist, protest singer, sensitive songwriter, jazz chanteuse, rock and roller, etc. She wants to do it all, and she does.