“I can tell you things I’ve done,
and I can sing you songs I’ve sung,
But there’s one thing I can’t give
for I and I alone can live
the years I’ve known,
the life I’ve grown.
Got a way I’m going,
and it’s my way…”
– Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “It’s My Way”
“It’s My Way” is the title track of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1964 debut album, and was certainly a bold statement for a young up-and-coming folk artist. Now, more than 50 years later, she revisited the anthem as the lead-off track on her new album, Power in the Blood, and as the opening volley at her recent concert at the Eighth Step at Proctors in Schenectady.
And as a statement of purpose, it’s as apropos and as potent as ever for the Canadian Cree singer-songwriter. At age 74, she remains defiantly outspoken and staunchly independent songwriter and performer.
Her set list veered from the powerfully personal to the pointedly political. Her protest songs both old (“Universal Soldier” and a reggae-tinged rendition of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”) and newer (“Priests of the Golden Bull”) were deftly balanced with love songs (“Until It’s Time for You to Go” and the encore of her Academy Award-winning “Up Where We Belong”) and sing-along anthems (the hypnotic “We Are Circling” and the show-closing “Carry It On”).
With Sainte-Marie switching back and forth between guitar and keyboards, her music ran the stylistic gamut from loping country (“Farm in the Middle of Nowhere”) to the slinky soul of “Love Charms (Mojo Bijoux),” from the straight-up rockabilly of “Blue Sunday” to the rip-roaring pow-wow rock of “Cho Cho Fire” to the psychedelic swirl of “Little Wheel Spin and Spin.”
Best known as a protest singer from the long-ago golden age of folk music, Buffy Sainte-Marie remains as outspoken as ever. And just as potent. She certainly hasn’t lost her outrage or her righteous indignation over a wide variety of ongoing social and political injustices. And it is indeed a sad state of affairs that her vintage protest songs still sound as relevant and powerful as they did nearly five decades ago.
Backed by a versatile, three-piece Manitoba rock band decked out in black leather and tattoos, Sainte-Marie – a Canadian Cree – roared into the Eighth Step at Proctors in Schenectady last weekend for what was surely the rockingest show that the Step has hosted in its 44-year history. She was at her most powerful when she was spitting out defiant songs about the plight of Native Americans on “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and Floyd Red Crow Westerman’s potent “Relocation Blues,” which she sang a cappella, accompanying herself only by tapping drum patterns out on her microphone.
Along the way she also railed against corporate greed (“No No Keshagesh”), the destruction of the environment (“The Priests of the Golden Bull”), the abuse of drugs (“Cod’ine”) and war (her classic “Universal Soldier,” which she pointedly introduced as a song about “individual responsibility for the world we live in”).
Smithsonian Magazine called “folksinger” Buffy Sainte-Marie a few years ago to apologize. Apologize for what, she couldn’t imagine. “They did a story about Vietnam servicemen who had peace slogans and comments carved onto their rifle butts and into their bunks, and one of them had carved a verse of ‘Universal Soldier’ that the Smithsonian Magazine did not recognize (as one of my songs), and they attributed it to this soldier writing this brilliant lyric.”
“And they said, ‘Would you like me to send you the letters?’ And they sent me all these packages of wonderful letters of people who had written in, servicemen who were there clarifying the fact that I had written the song. They [Smithsonian Magazine] printed a retraction, and they told me they had more mail on that story than on any story they’d ever had before.”
“Universal Soldier,” written in the early ’60s, ran totally counter to the prevailing style of folk music of the time. First of all, it was a contemporary commentary on the importance of every man and every woman taking responsibility for society’s war-like nature.
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