Buffy Sainte-Marie became renowned in the 1960s as a folk musician, but today her musical path keeps evolving.
On Thursday (June 30) in Toronto’s Roy Thompson Hall, Sainte-Marie will perform her songs with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and she says her most recent album, 2015’s Power in the Blood, is “a pretty rocking roller coaster.”
Power in the Blood — her first album since 2008 —was released last year and contains new songs, new versions of old songs, and cover songs. It goes all over the map: folk, rock, R&B, trip-hop, and — true to her heritage (she was born in Canada on the Cree First Nation Reserve) — Cree chants.
“The passion and variety of experiences encapsulated from song to song is knocking people out,” says Sainte-Marie, who was adopted by a Massachusetts family and released her first album, It’s My Way!, on a U.S. label, Vanguard, in 1964. “For Power in the Blood, I flew around auditioning producers and settled on three: Jon Levine (Nelly Furtado, K'naan, Serena Ryder), Chris Birkett (Sinéad O'Connor, Talking Heads), and Michael Philip Wojewoda (Barenaked Ladies, Rheostatics). Each chose the songs he liked best from my home demos. The result is synergy — more than the sum of its parts — and very exciting.”
Sainte-Marie’s life outside of music has also been very exciting. She was a regular on Sesame Street in the mid-1970s through the early 1980s and has long been a political activist. Her website may best explain the activism.
“Buffy Sainte-Marie virtually invented the role of Native American international activist pop star. Her concern for protecting indigenous intellectual property and her distaste for the exploitation of Native American artists and performers has kept her in the forefront of activism in the arts for 40 years.
“Since 1969, she has operated the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education, whose Cradleboard Teaching Project serves children and teachers worldwide, free and online. Funding over the years has largely been through partnerships combining her own singing monies with support from like-minded donors including the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Herb Alpert Foundation, and the Global Fund for Children.
“From 1996 to 2009, Buffy Sainte-Marie focused her time mostly on the Cradleboard Teaching Project, using her multimedia skills to create accurate, enriching core curriculum based in Native American cultural perspectives. She presently works with teacher education departments in several universities, teaching them how to create their own localized indigenous interactive multimedia curriculum in science and other core subjects. The American Indian College Fund presented Buffy with their Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Other coveted awards she has received are an Oscar, a Grammy, and a Golden Globe award for "Up Where We Belong,” written with her late husband, producer Jack Nitzsche, and Will Jennings. The song, a duet by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, was part of the soundtrack for the 1982 hit movie An Officer and a Gentleman.
Sainte-Marie’s other well-known song, “Universal Soldier,” was on her first album. It was recorded by, among others, Donovan, Glen Campbell, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and First Aid Kit.
Both songs will undoubtedly be played Thursday with the Toronto Symphony and at many, if not all, shows this summer. Sainte-Marie has a busy live schedule with 15 dates in Canada and the USA June 28-Aug. 20, including an appearance at the heralded Philadelphia Folk Festival.
The best concert she ever attended as a spectator may be somewhat of a surprise. It was ZZ Top at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, on June 15, 2010.
“Besides being musically thrilling, Billy Gibbons — dressed in some kinda gorgeous, silky, drapey gear way beyond farmer jeans — looked light years ahead of everybody else. Visually and sonically, they just rocked,” she said.
Sainte-Marie points to another concert in Val D'Or, Quebec, as the one that most influenced her.
“Randy Bachman's History of Rock Guitars featured a stage full of vintage electric guitars and amps, and he played them on the song that made them famous,” she says. “Randy's easy-going way with his audience — in contrast with his fiery virtuoso playing of some of the best songs ever to rock the charts — is an education and an inspiration. It made me want to go home and practice.”