Buffy Sainte-Marie has never heard of Sleater-Kinney. She should. I tell the veteran songwriter and activist to look them up; I think they’d have a lot in common. When singing in their upper registers, S-K’s Corin Tucker and Sainte-Marie share a piercing, divisive voice that the uncharitable would call shrill. In actual fact, they are voices that sound as dangerous as a weapon; voices that demand our attention; voices that speak truths. Tucker, of course, recently reunited with her bandmates to make a kick-ass record that, we’re all ashamed to admit, was better than we ever expected it to be. Why wouldn’t forty-somethings sound so fierce? And now, four months later, we have Power in the Blood – the 18th album by the 74-year-old Sainte-Marie. It’s a recording that sounds a lot louder and more vital than anything made in the last, oh, 30 years by such contemporaries as Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, or Joni Mitchell (who left her home in Saskatchewan for the first time in 1965 to see Sainte-Marie play in Toronto).
Most people who write protest songs in their youth mellow out with age. Not Buffy Sainte-Marie. The woman who wrote the oft-covered “Universal Soldier” during the Vietnam War is still railing against military and corporate interests: the chorus of the new album’s title track – “When the call-up comes, I will say no, no, no to war” – could easily have been written 50 years ago.
“‘Power in the Blood’ does express a lot of emotion, but not necessarily anger,” says the incredibly warm and upbeat legend, speaking on the phone from her home in Hawaii. “Anger might be the fuel in the old tank, but it’s not the destination. After I wrote ‘Universal Soldier,’ I think a lot of songwriters wrote angry songs – just being mad at somebody because it’s hip to be angry. That’s childish. There’s nothing wrong with an emotion, but the whole point is: what do you do with that emotion? How do you use that as fuel? It could be that what we have ahead is a whole new fuel—I mean, I have an electric car!”
So what makes a good political song? Something ripped from the headlines? Or something more general and adaptable to various situations? “I think songs of social justice have to make sense,” says the woman with degrees in philosophy and education. “’Universal Soldier’ makes sense to me, all these years later. It was very intentional when I wrote it. I came up during the real folk music days, when people were singing songs that had lasted 500 years. I wanted to write a song that would not only last, but make sense in other languages and from different perspectives. Any kind of social action—or even personal action—you shouldn’t think about whether it’s going to be loud or angry enough; think about if it’s going to be effective. You could shoot yourself right in the foot just by going too fast emotionally, not taking a minute. Some songs may be good at the moment. Others have to last forever. It’s all good. It’s only music.”
“I’ve been to Fort McMurray—I’ve seen that horror and I do know what’s coming,” says the singer, who still spends a lot of time in Canada and recorded her new album in Toronto. “It’s great to write a song. But it’s really not enough for me. You have to keep on thinking and be ready to ripen into the next thing. I make discoveries all the time, in music and in other areas of my life. I don’t take credit for ripening. It’s just what we have.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie has always walked the walk. Amongst her close friends were many in the American Indian Movement of the 1970s, some of whom ended up dead in mysterious circumstances—like her friend Anna Mae Aquash, name-checked in the new song “Uranium War.” The singer is also is more than happy to reference the more recent Idle No More movement multiple times on her new album—including on a slightly modified version of UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song.” It begs the question: how does someone who’s witnessed various struggles and resistance over the last 50 years feel about the actual term ‘Idle No More?’ Were past generations somehow idle at Wounded Knee, Oka and everywhere else injustices committed against Aboriginal peoples were challenged? “Oh, I know,” she sighs. “I don’t think it was well thought out. You’re doing something wonderful and someone comes up with a name and suddenly it’s off and running. I’ve heard people say, ‘Yeah, it’s not exactly the best name.’ But it is what it is and people know what it is. It’s about communication, not perfection. When it comes to grassroots, real people, they’re not going to sit around quibbling like an advertising agency trying to sell something.”
But maybe it also speaks to the fact that the history of Aboriginal resistance is not one that’s taught: it’s a hidden, profoundly uncomfortable history not in our textbooks. “Don’t forget, I was on Sesame Street,” says the woman who was a regular on the children’s program in the late 1970s and made history by breastfeeding her infant son on the air. “There’s always a new generation of five-year-olds who haven’t heard the things you mentioned. That’s something a lot of us don’t think about very much.”
Just like there’s always a new generation who don’t think of Buffy Sainte-Marie in the same way they think of Neil Young or Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen. Even though they should.