One of the few bucolic numbers on Buffy Sainte-Marie’s otherwise hard-hitting Power in the Blood is called “Farm in the Middle of Nowhere” and, naturally enough, it’s a paean to the healing power of the fecund earth. But that Dobro-spiced track isn’t as good an advertisement for the rural life as the 74-year-old Sainte-Marie herself.
As the singer admits when the Straight gets her on the phone from her acreage on Kauai, she’s still dizzy from a round-the-world spin that took her “from Hawaii to Australia to Hong Kong to the U.K. to L.A. and back to Hawaii”, with a few stadium shows opening for Morrissey along the way. But she also sounds as ferociously awake and aware as ever, with more wit and energy than most performers half her age.
Two of the songs on her new disc reference the aboriginal-rights movement Idle No More, but idle she’s not—even if there was a seven-year gap between Power in the Blood and her previous effort, 2008’s Running for the Drum.
“When I made Running for the Drum, I told my band we were going to go on a three-year world tour, and that was, like, six years ago,” she says, laughing. “We’re still on that damn world tour! But when True North [Records] came and asked did I feel like recording, I said okay, because I had a lot of songs that I had never recorded, some other songs by other people that were interesting, and some songs that I had recorded during the blacklist years so nobody had ever heard of them, but people were loving them in concert.”
Anyone surprised by the electronic touches on the new record—most notable on the clubworthy title track, originally recorded by Alabama 3—hasn’t been paying attention. Back in the ’60s, Sainte-Marie was an early adopter of synthesizer and surround-sound technology, even if she now says that her still-startling Illuminations LP was “a coffin nail” in a career further diminished by radio censorship. But, as ever, it’s Sainte-Marie’s message that’s her number one priority.
That’s most poignantly—and powerfully—expressed in “The Uranium War”, which the Saskatchewan-born member of the Cree nation describes as a prequel to her famous “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”. The song starts as a piano-based parlour sing-along that depicts native activists gathering in a snowbound cabin, and then morphs into a swelling, cinematic tribute to Sainte-Marie’s friend Anna Mae Aquash, an American Indian Movement organizer murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1975.
“That song’s almost structured like a Broadway show,” the songwriter notes. “It’s kind of like a little play. I never counted how many acts there are, but there may be three.…And that song is just literally true. There’s hardly any artistry in it at all: like ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’, it’s just kind of a lot of facts.”
One of the truths Sainte-Marie wants to stress is that even if the events described in the song took place during a dark and dangerous time, she and her comrades usually managed to find joy in their struggle. “That’s kinda how it is,” she says. “I mean, people think that those of us who try to make change in the world are serious and burning out all the time, but we’re not. We have our lightness, our love, our appreciation, and our sense of humour with us all the time. And that’s what sustains us, I think, even in the face of tragedy.”
That, she adds, and play, on-stage and off.
“You’ve got to keep playing so you don’t turn into a corporate cog,” she explains. “That’s the real gift, that sense of play—and some of us are lucky enough to retain it through school and adulthood. It’s a gift.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie plays the Blueshore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts on Thursday and Friday (April 30 and May 1).