Published Jul 16, 2010At 68, Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie could be considered a musical elder statesman. She is showing no sign of slowing down, however, continuing to tour internationally and churn out new material. Last year's Running for the Drum, her 18th album, earned Sainte-Marie a second Juno Award for Aboriginal Album, as well as an Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Award for Best Folk/Acoustic CD.
This month, Sainte-Marie released not one but two albums of earlier material, The Pathfinder: Buried Treasures and Up Where We Belong, on the Gypsy Boy Music label (distributed through Paquin/EMI).
In a recent interview with Exclaim!, Sainte-Marie describes Up Where We Belong, a reissue of a 1996 compilation, as "a collection of songs most people associate with me and always want to hear at my concerts."
Included on the album are such early Sainte-Marie classics as the oft-covered "Universal Soldier," "Cripple Creek" and "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," as well as one of her biggest ever hits, the title track ballad (a Joe Cocker hit) featured in the movie An Officer and a Gentleman (co-writing it earned her an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1982).
But it is The Pathfinder that will likely be of most interest to fans. The double-CD set comprises material from her three mid-'70s albums, 1974's Buffy, 1975's Changing Woman and 1976's Sweet America. In North America, this was something of a lost in the wilderness period for Sainte-Marie, for a fascinating reason. The outspoken activist and advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples was, in effect, blacklisted for her views. She learned in 2006 that the FBI had kept her under surveillance during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and there are well-founded suspicions that her music's virtual disappearance from radio airwaves then was for political reasons.
"These are songs that were released but never got any airplay as I was going through a whole blacklisting thing. They've never been heard," she says. "They did very well in Europe and Asia, but in North America they were not allowed to be played on radio stations. The only reason for that was political motivation, so we are giving people a chance to hear them again. There are 33 songs on those three albums. There is all kinds of stuff - rock'n'roll, big love songs, country music, things that sound like folk songs. A great mix of songs."
With disarming honesty, Sainte-Marie states "some of the songs are dated, but others really stand up."
The original albums were recorded in Nashville, with Norbert Putnam producing most of the tracks. Sainte-Marie looks back on those sessions with real fondness.
"I loved the band I was working with," she say. "Holy smokes, just amazing. Norbert Putnam, David Briggs [who produced Neil Young], Charlie McCoy, Billy Sanford. Wonderful players who happened to live in Nashville, but a lot came out of Muscle Shoals. That's a lot funkier, more Ray Charles and a Southern kind of soul. I was always a rockabilly fan, and I also always loved that Delta and New Orleans, West Texas, southern Alabama style, like Leon Russell, Jerry Lee Lewis, early Elvis."
Sainte-Marie laughingly recalls an early passion for Elvis. "I had such a crush on him when I was 13. He's one of the reasons I decided to go into music. He had a very natural style at the time, and he was very easy on the eye then."
She singles out Elvis as her favourite of the wide range of artists who have covered her songs (he did "Until It Is Time for You to Go"). "It is such an honour to have other people cover your music. There were instrumentalists like Chet Atkins, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra, people you'd never think. Barbra Streisand, Cher and, more recently, people like Neko Case. Serena Ryder is a fan. Courtney Love does 'Codeine' on Youtube. A whole lot of artists, including Cam'ron. It's such a thrill to think another artist would like a song well enough to learn it, share it with their musicians, and record it for their audiences, who I may never meet. It's good all round."
The longevity of her '60s material also pleases her. "I had the honour of growing up at a time when folk songs were popular. And folk songs, these last 400 or 500 years. The ones that last usually have striking melodies, and also thematically they are about the human condition. Wars and oppression and loss and love, the beauty of nature. These are international themes that last forever. That was an incredible example for a young songwriter coming up in the '60s."
She is also nostalgic for the musical open-mindedness of the '60s. "The music came from all around the world. It used to be that in North America on the radio you could hear flamenco next to Delta blues to some contemporary songwriters to British folk songs. Music was out of the hands of the genre police. It was a while before the record companies and business folk smelled money and locked it down into genres again. But music lovers at times - and this is one of those times - we can find anything we want."
Helping the genre-hopping Sainte-Marie find new music these days is her touring band. "My present band are three aboriginal guys from Winnipeg, all young rockers. Just riding around in the back of a van with lots of music, we're always showing each other different kinds of music we didn't know existed."
Recent concerts on the East coast found Sainte-Marie playing to crowds of up to 20,000 people, and she's set for more summer concert dates across Canada. This touring is reigniting the love this longtime Hawaiian resident has for Canada.
"I fall in love with Canada more every day," she explains. "I know that, like the rest of the world, we have our politicians, but we have Canada. We do a lot of things right here."
7/17 Yellowknife, NWT - Long Lake Shore
7/23 Bengough, SK - Gateway Festival
7/24-26 Brandon, MB - Brandon Folk Festival
7/31 Canmore, AB - Centennial Park
8/6-8 Regina, SK - Regina Folk Festival