Buffy Sainte-Marie – Medicine Songs
True North Records – 26 January 2018 (UK)
Ever since the 1964 release of her debut album, the Canadian-born Cree singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has been a tireless advocate of and campaigner for, not just Native American but civil and human rights as well as an anti-war activist. Perhaps best known for her theme to the 1970 film Soldier Blue, in 1969 she made one of the world’s first electronic vocals albums and in 1982 became the first indigenous person to win an Oscar for co-writing Up Where We Belong. Today, at 76, she remains a potent voice and striking creative force, her 2015 album, Power In The Blood winning Canada’s Polaris Music Prize. Her new album is a mix of new material and revisitation of old classics, woven together as songs about unity and resistance and looking, as the title suggests, to bring some healing to today’s troubled world.
It opens with two new numbers. You’ve Got To Run (Spirit of the Wind), a collaboration with fellow indigenous Polaris winner Tanya Tagaq about overcoming the odds. It’s driven by a surging thumping tribal drum beat with backing vocal chants and Sainte-Marie on mouthbow. Built around another tribal, circling rhythm, War Racket is pretty self-explanatory, a caustic swipe at those who make a profit from conflict, the Bushes, the Saddams and the Bin Ladens alike in the name of patriotism or religion.
The first of the new recordings comes with Starwalker, another yowling thumper, faithfully recreated from her 1990 album, Coincidence and Likely Stories, that is, essentially, a list of indigenous healers, activists and wisdom keepers, some real, some emblematic.
The same album also yields The Priests of the Golden Bull, a spoken lyric to an electronic backdrop linked to the presence of uranium in Indian territories, serving as a magnet to the greed of energy companies. From the same source, it’s duly followed by the powerful Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, a protest named for the 1890 massacre and written about the theft of uranium from the Pine Ridge reservation during the Nixon administration. She namechecks two of the activists involved, Annie Mae Aquash, who was murdered in an execution-style shooting, and Leonard Peltier, convicted for the alleged killing of two FBI agents. Playing the piano and Mayan flute as well as guitar, Sainte-Marie’s vocals sound more seasoned than on the original, and the number has more of a reggae rhythm.
Harking back to her It’s My Way debut, though probably better known for Donovan’s hit version, Universal Soldier is a seminal anti-war protest, written in 1961 in response to seeing wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam and, again just voice and acoustic guitar, remains as pertinent today as it was then.
Written in the 60s and originally featured on the Little Wheel Spin and Spin album, she describes My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying as an Indian 101. It’s a powerful account of how Native Americans wound up in the predicaments they’re in today, the rework taking on a more aggressive and forceful delivery. Set to a hypnotic circling rhythm, the title track from that 1966 work, a blame apportioning, what goes around comes around number, is also revisited in a striking new urgent arrangement.
The song also appeared on 2008’s album Running For The Drum, the album also yielding both the aboriginal influenced No No Keshagesh, another number attacking corporate greed. Here it retains the original’s opening crowd effects designed to sound like a rally, and, conversely doing away with similar effects, her revision of the unofficial national anthem America The Beautiful with two additional verses embracing the country’s indigenous people into the vision.
The final two reworks both come from the award-winning Power In The Blood, these being the steamrollering title track, slightly toning down the electronica, and, Max Kennedy Roach’s drums driving it along, her self-declared favourite, the defiant, upliftingly anthemic Carry It On.
With the digital version adding a further seven reworked tracks, including Now That The Buffalo’s Gone and Disinformation as well as an acoustic blues version of War Racket, this isn’t some reworking of the songbook by an artist whose creative powers have dimmed, but a dynamic, full-blooded reminder that, after 54 years, Buffy Sainte-Marie remains a voice that demands and needs to be heard.
Press Image Photo credit: Brian Campbell