Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Buffy Sainte-Marie and That "Human-Being Magic"

Sainte-Marie is a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds,
and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics.
She believes in magic — but the practical kind,
nurtured through centuries of rituals
and shaped into songs meant to wake up the world.

Legendary singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has a new album coming out, Power in the Blood, her first in seven years, and all this week it's being featured on National Public Radio's First Listen program. (You can listen to album here.)

I've long admired Buffy Sainte-Marie and so have decided to celebrate the release of Power in the Blood with a special series of posts leading up to its May 12 official release date. In this first post, along with sharing the NPR link to the entire album, I share NPR correspondent Ann Powers' insightful review of the album. But first we'll hear from Buffy herself on that special kind of magic that Powers says Buffy "believes in" and which, I have to say, she practices in an inspiringly positive and proactive way.

So what does Buffy say about this particular type of magic? Well, in introducing her song "Starwalker" during her televised "Up Where We Belong" concert in 1996, Buffy shared the following.

Some information can be really hard to deal with, including the treatment of indigenous people throughout the world. You can get paralyzed with guilt if you're White; you can can get paralyzed with bitterness if you're Native. Now, there are some people who will tell you to just throw all that away. But me, I think that guilt and bitterness are two sides of the same coin, and I don't think you should through it away at all.

I think about those ancient people walking out on the prairie and picking up dried buffalo chips. You know, that's manure. Now modern people, they might think of that as negativity. But our ancestors knew what to do with that stuff, you know. They knew how to use that stuff for fuel, for the magic that only human creatures can do: turn it into fuel and make fire!

Now, what do we do when we make fire? We create light; we create heat. You can fall in love across a fire. You can read a book beside a fire, you can write a book beside a fire! You can build a community around a fire. You can cook up something really good. Or instead you can take that negativity, that manure – that guilt, that bitterness – and use it like fertilizer and grow something brand new.

But don't spread it on your face like make-up; don't use it like a badge of identity – "I'm the bitterest thing in the whole world," "I'm so guilty I can't function." Don't eat it! Burn it like fuel. Do the human-being magic!

I've mentioned previously that I've twice seen Buffy in concert, and on one of these occasions had the honor of briefly meeting and speaking with her. I snapped the photo at left during her May 15, 1999 concert at Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota. And, yes, even Buffy remarked on the incongruous of this plush setting to the venues she was used to playing, many of which were on reservations. If I recall correctly, the casino, which is owned and operated by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, was hosting a Native American music festival, one which Buffy was headlining.

Right: Another photograph of Buffy Sainte-Marie in concert that I took in 1999.

At that time I was very much involved in the local justice and peace community. In fact, part of the reason my friend Mary Ellen and I were whisked backstage to met with Buffy was to invite her to be part of the "Committing to Peace: Generation to Generation" conference that we and others were planning. As it turned out, Buffy wasn't able to be part of this event due to her touring schedule. But I remember how interested she was in what we were doing and how friendly and gracious she was to us.

My introduction to Buffy and her music actually predates my relocation to the U.S. in 1994 and my later involvement in the Twin Cities justice and peace community. I was still living in Australia when I read in a British music magazine (probably Q or Mojo) a review of Buffy's 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories. I soon secured a CD copy of the album through a local record store. Almost twenty-five years later, it remains one of my all-time favorite albums.

At the time of its release, one reviewer remarked on Coincidence and Likely Stories' "classy and discreet treatments [and] bitter lyrics," a reference to songs such as "The Big Ones Get Away," "Fallen Angels," "Priests of the Golden Bull," and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Yet the album also contains lyrics of hope — as evidenced on one of my favorite tracks, "Getting Started." For along with acknowledging the loneliness and isolation experienced by those forced to the edges of society, Buffy also sings of the possibility of something "wild and unique" – a journey of human consciousness where "love's the magic number," and where, together, "we're only getting started." I have to say that hearing those lyrics for the first time as a young closeted gay man gave me both courage and hope.

Years later, when I assumed leadership of the Twins Cities-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I again found hope and empowerment in the life and music of Buffy Sainte-Marie. I well remember how during the summer of 2003, as I worked to steer CPCSM in a more activist direction, primarily through our challenging of the Courage conference, held that year in St. Paul, I would listen to and be inspired by Buffy's music. And not only by the tracks of Coincidence and Likely Stories, but also by songs from earlier in Buffy's career, songs that I discovered were both prophetic and mystic . . . "Keeper of the Fire," "It's My Way," "Suffer the Little Children," "Sweet September Morning," "Jeremiah," "Lay It Down," and "God is Alive, Magic is Afoot" (which inspired this 2007 Wild Reed post.)

And it wasn't just Buffy's music that I found (and continue to find) inspiring but also her willingness to be, as Ann Powers astutely observes, "a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds, and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics."

I also appreciate what Maynard Solomon once wrote of Buffy and her music:

There are roads visible and invisible. We have our orators of the open road, our hitch-hikers on Route 66, balladeers of the box-car, singers of the city streets, explorers of the dusty dirt-roads and hot pavements of American life. But there are highways not charted on our roadmaps – though they may twist and writhe like the blue and red lines – for they are located not in space but within, located in silence and conscience, in the often lonely atlas of a single human mind. Buffy Sainte-Marie's accomplishment is that she has travelled these roads, without benefit of compass, and returned to tell us what she found.

I have to say that a big inspiration for how I try to live my life – including why I began and continue to maintain the creative endeavor that is The Wild Reed – is the desire and hope to embody in my own way that type of accomplishment that Maynard Solomon sees in the life and creative endeavors of Buffy Sainte-Marie. And I guess related to this is my aspiration to live a life that can be described as a reviewer once described Buffy's groundbreaking 1969 album Illuminations – as "genuinely mysterious . . . subversive and strange."

Such lives bear witness to the transforming power of the sacred. And I think they're always worth aspiring to, don't you? I know that's how I want to live my life. And I'm so thankful that there are people like Buffy Sainte-Marie who so resolutely, creatively and beautifully embody the sacred in and through their "human-being magic."

And on that note I'll conclude this first post in my special Power in the Blood series by sharing (with added links) NPR music writer Ann Powers' full review of Buffy's latest album. Enjoy!

It's tempting to mythologize Buffy Sainte-Marie — to call her a folk-music mother of dragons, or at least a shaman calling up lost spirits in her music. It's easy, after all, to exoticize individualistic women, especially women of color; doing so can even feel like offering a compliment. But on Power In The Blood, her first studio album since 2008, the 74-year-old firebrand defies categorization, as she has throughout a half-century of recording. Those who know her mostly by reputation as a standout of the early-'60s folk revival will be delighted to discover an artist who's more Bjork than Baez, more Kate Bush than Laurel Canyon. Sainte-Marie is a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds, and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics. She believes in magic — but the practical kind, nurtured through centuries of rituals and shaped into songs meant to wake up the world.

Power In The Blood serves as an introduction to Sainte-Marie's extensive catalog and a powerful statement in its own right. Recorded in Toronto with three of Canada's top producers — Michael Wojewoda, Chris Birkett and Jon Levine, all known for pop hits as well as more esoteric material — the album features adventurous reworkings of classic Sainte-Marie songs alongside two surprising covers and new material. Still a fiery singer with a touch that can be as strong as a street protester's or as playful as a rock 'n' roller's, Sainte-Marie gives her collaborators room to play with samples, beats and arrangements that range from classic rock to delicate electronic music, all the while keeping her attention-grabbing, yarn-spinning voice at the center.

The first notes of Sainte-Marie's new version of her signature song, "It's My Way," which features acoustic guitar lines blended with striking synthesizer sounds, remind listeners that this woman so versed in folkways has long experimented with electronics, too. The title track, originally by English folktronica band Alabama 3, loops in elements of the original as Sainte-Marie claims it with a fierce, Dylan-esque vocal. A Cree chant, sampled from a traditional drum group, repurposes the reggae beat of UB40's anti-apartheid "Sing A New Song," turning it into a cry of the heart from all colonized peoples. Two songs from Sainte-Marie's long "blacklist" period, when her activism led to a near-silencing of her work on American radio, stick fairly closely to the originals, with the singer conjuring the spirit of one too long repressed.

The new works, however, are Power In The Blood's biggest treat. The countrified love song "Farm In The Middle Of Nowhere" and the sensual lullaby "Ke Sakihitin Awasis" exude sexiness that doesn't need to be limited by the label "mature." "Uranium War" extends the story Sainte-Marie began telling in her 1996 broadside "Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee," demonstrating that such jeremiads are still relevant. The delicate "Orion" transforms music by the late composer Jack Nitzsche into a dreamy elegy. And "Carry On" is an anthem that, in its classic joyfulness, suits these troubled times.

Too often, elders like Sainte-Marie are venerated without actually earning a serious listen from people not of their generation. But this woman's spirit isn't sitting down yet. Her voice remains relevant, full of spit and vinegar and fun. It could even renew the spirit of some whose blood has grown weak.

– Ann Powers
"First Listen: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Power in the Blood"
National Public Radio
May 3, 2015

Related Off-site Links:
Buffy Sainte-Marie Returns with Power in the Blood – Alex Hudson (Exclaim, March 17, 2015).
Buffy Sainte-Marie Still Finds Joy in the Struggle – Alexander Varty (The Georgia Straight, April 29, 2015).
Activist and Musician Buffy Sainte-Marie on Her New Album and Reading Her FBI File – Alex Heigl (People, May 4, 2015).
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Official Website

For more of Buffy Sainte-Marie at The Wild Reed, see:
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Still Singing with Spirit, Joy, and Passion
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "The Big Ones Get Away"

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