Buffy Sainte-Marie’s first new release in six years, Power in the Blood, defies simple categorization. The songs come in a variety of styles, from old time folk to modern electronica, and combine rock, blues, country, and jazz tropes into a rousing expression of intelligence and sensitivity. Sainte-Marie takes the world personally and demands attention be paid to her concerns. While her musical influences come from all over the place, she filters them through her creativity to express deep thoughts and feelings. What’s more, she’s fun! Romantic music becomes more than simple songs of passion, and even serious songs on important topics have a sense of play to them.
Consider the powerful diatribe “The Uranium War”, the story of a Native American activist hunted because of her revelations about Uranium on Indian land. The concerns about corporate greed and government corruption are serious, but she sings the chorus in Cree and then croons “Keep the Indians under your thumb / pray like hell when your bad times come / Hey rip em up Strip em up Get em with a gun” as if she’s reciting a nursery rhyme. The lightheartedness of the tune amplifies the wickedness of the situation. When confronted by evil, laughter is the best medicine.
And there is the sultry “Ke Sakihitin Awasis (I Love You, Baby)”. The combination of Native American and English lyrics and the mix of quiet guitar strumming with thumping percussion suggests the pleasures of physical love among two people. The song transforms the love of one into the love of many as the lyrics flow into myth and history. If one can love another, one can love many. The lesson is the same. We should love each other all the way. While she sings specifically about an indigenous tribe, she leaves it undefined to represent all the different peoples; or more simply, all people.
And we should love with a smile on our face! Life is serious enough. Love doesn’t need to be. Sainte-Marie understands the problems of the world. She offers a compelling version of Britain’s Alabama 3’s tirade “Power in the Blood” that includes samples of the original recording with Sainte-Marie offering additional protest lyrics over a throbbing bass, drums, and synth lines. Sainte-Marie confronts the ugliness of agricultural and industrial pollution, racketeering and gluttony, war and militarism, etc., evoked here with the importance of family, unity, celebration on the song that follows (“We Are Circling”). Hope outweighs despair. She knows the artist’s job is to inspire. She changes the words to “Power in the Blood” to proclaim that war is not the only answer.
Sainte-Marie’s first album, ”It’s My Way, came out over 50 years ago and deliberately announced her individuality. She redoes the folk-style song here, with the addition of synthesizers, electric guitar distortion, and pounding drums. She’s used electronics in her music for decades. This is nothing new, but they are especially effective on this clarion call for the right of self-expression. The background noises reveal the importance of the singular voice at the front that declares she will not be silent. Sainte-Marie may be defiant but she’s not strident. She makes it clear that it would be stupid to try and be what you are not and she’s not daft. This common sense attitude prevents allows her to experiment with her delivery and tease the lyrics. She is the performer performing. She also sees that as her role.
There are many angles one could take to write about Sainte-Marie. She has been a noted performer and social activist for Native American rights and other issues for more than six decades, an Academy Award winning composer and a star of television’s Sesame Street, the writer of songs recorded by legends such as Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand, Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash, and an early adopter of computer technology in her music. Power in the Blood deserves strong praise on its own merits. The backstories about the musician do not matter as much as the new aural evidence presented.