If you have a list of alternative icons you’d love to get into but don’t know where to start, get ready to cross some of them off with PRIMER, in which we guide you through the varied careers of renowned indie icons. This week Dan Berube discusses revered Canadian-Cree songstress Buffy Sainte-Marie.
I saw Buffy Sainte-Marie play for about 5 minutes at the Hillside music festival in Guelph 3 years ago. I remember expecting pretty, gentle folk music, and instead getting something weird and abrasive—inspired by powwow music, and sung in a devastating howl. My brother and I exchanged shocked looks and scurried along to whatever buzz-band of the moment we were more interested in seeing.
I have lived to regret my youthful impatience. Her performance was praised by basically everyone I saw for the rest of the weekend, including Owen Pallett, and Chad Jones of Frankie Sparo and Witchies, and since then I’ve dug back through her discography and become a devoted fan of her work as a songwriter, performer, and activist. Sainte-Marie is a Canadian icon of the class of Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and Neil Young, with the added distinction of being probably the most visible, outspoken indigenous pop artist in North America.
How was this not immediately apparent to me? Why the shocked looks?! The thing is, Buffy Sainte-Marie is not usually in the business of pretty, gentle folk music (although she’s great at that, too). Her most dynamic, enduring work is dark, highly political, and centres on her unusual voice. I just wasn’t ready, man.
On the old-style folk ballads of her early records, which include originals and expertly adapted traditionals, she assumes character voices, which are at times fragile, ethereal, and violent. Her idiosyncratic vibrato navigates stories of incest, drug abuse, and genocide with an undeniable dramatic genius. 1966's Little Wheel Spin and Spin is probably the masterpiece of that era, and here’s a completely stunning live performance that shows us how much better television must have been in the age of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest:
In an interview for a Dutch program called Wintergasten, Antony Hegarty likened Buffy Sainte-Marie to Nina Simone for her “righteous courage” and “anger and heartbreak” in addressing social ills. I think Sainte-Marie has a kinship not only with Simone, but also with Hegarty, who makes similarly beautiful, passionate, and socially conscious art and also sings with an otherwordly tremble.
It’s a testament to the strength of her songwriting that Buffy’s most famous tracks are best known for cover versions by other, more recognizable artists. But it’s a complete shame, because her original performances of them are vastly superior. Key examples of this include "Unversal Soldier", which was popularized by Donovan and has become a classic protest song, and "Until It’s Time for You to Go," which boasts renditions by Willie Nelson, Cher, and Elvis, to name a few. In 1982 she co-wrote "Up Where We Belong," which appeared on the soundtrack to An Officer and a Gentleman as a schmaltzy duet and won her an Oscar for best original song. Here are her less famous but far more interesting versions of all three:
Interestingly, Sainte-Marie was also a notable early adopter of new recording technologies. On her 1969 album lluminations she modulates her voice with a Buchla synthesizer and other electronics, creating a psychedelic sound that is more disciplined and sincerely spiritual than the day-glo kitsch of so many of her contemporaries. She was also among the first artists to use a Mac computer to create studio-quality home recordings, and in 1992 recorded the album Coincidence and Likely Stories in her house in Hawaii and sent it “via modem” to a producer in London. I imagine this was a pretty futuristic experience in 1992, back when the Internet looked like this.
I’ve chosen to end on a less serious note and completely botch the chronology of this piece even more than I already have, but bear with me, this video is pretty awesome. Between 1976 and 1981 Buffy was a regular cast member on Sesame Street and used it as a platform to promote Indigenous peoples’ issues and feminism to a younger generation. In her most famous appearance she breast-fed her newborn baby on air, which is really badass, but in this, my favourite clip, she sings a really beautiful, Jon Brion-esque song about motherhood to Big Bird. I think this highlights another of the really great things about Buffy, which is that she’s not only a righteous political activist and serious folk artist, but also the rare kind of warm, loveable personality that can pull off singing to a man-sized bird puppet with complete sincerity and tenderness.