Buffy Sainte-Marie talks protest, empowerment
Canadian icon in Burlington
Buffy Sainte-Marie remains very much a protest singer, although she’s a bit uncomfortable with the word “protest.” She prefers to call her work “activist” songs.
At 76, she’s still railing against the injustices of the world — war, poverty, greed and racism.
All those themes can be found on her latest album “Medicine Songs,” a mix of new compositions with some updated and re-recorded versions of old favourites, like “Universal Soldier” and “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
But perhaps the most interesting track on the album is the opener “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind).” It’s definitely not a protest song, not really an activist song either. If anything it’s a song about empowerment.
“You Got to Run” was inspired by legendary dog sledder George Attla, an Alaskan musher who won 10 world championships during 54 years of racing.
Attla, who died in 2016, contracted tuberculosis as a child and spent many years in and out of hospitals. The disease left him with a stiff leg and a fused knee, but he was able to overcome his disability to become one of the sport’s greatest competitors.
Sainte-Marie said she first encountered Attla’s story when she was asked to score a 1979 film about him called “Spirit of the Wind” and eventually wrote the song to help people believe in themselves.
“‘You Got to Run’ can be about running for office because of what you believe, or running in a marathon or getting to run your own life,” Sainte-Marie says from a Toronto hotel where she is preparing for an Ontario tour that stops at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre Friday.
“It’s really about being yourself, growing into yourself and what it means to be a champion, not only a champion in sport, but someone who is fulfilling their own life. There is a kind of champion in the everyday person and that’s really what it’s about — trying to encourage someone.”
Sainte-Marie, an Indigenous Cree originally from Saskatchewan, recorded the song earlier this year with acclaimed Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq. The two singers had been encouraged to collaborate after they had won back-toback awards for Canadian album of the year, Tagaq in 2014 and Sainte-Marie in 2015.
“We had met the first time years ago in Yellowknife and then many times over the years,” Sainte-Marie said about Tagaq. “I respect her, she respects me. It was (Polaris Prize founder) Steve Jordan who suggested it. He said we would like Polaris winners to work with other Polaris winners, is there anybody you’d like to work with?
“Immediately, I said Tanya. And Tanya wanted to make it happen. We were both really thrilled. It was a great day, the day we recorded the song.”
That type of collaboration is increasing for Sainte-Marie as a new generation of Indigenous artists look up to the veteran songwriter as a mentor. She has also recently recorded with Ottawa electro-powwow sensation A Tribe Called Red and performed on the same stage several times with Hamilton-based R&B powerhouse Iskwé.
Saint-Marie, who won an academy award for cowriting “Up Where We Belong” for “An Officer and a Gentleman,” acknowledges that her career is enjoying a remarkable rejuvenation after many years of being unable to get radio play.
After winning the Polaris Prize for her “Power in the Blood” album, Sainte-Marie was honoured at the 2016 Junos with Aboriginal album of the year and contemporary roots album of the year. This year, the Junos continued the accolades by presenting her with the prestigious Allan Waters Humanitarian Award.
Sainte-Marie, who lives on a goat farm in Hawaii, attributed her career resurgence to her Waterdown-based label Truth North Records.
“I’ve been doing the same thing all along,” Sainte-Marie says. “Yet it was True North Records who really brought my work to the public. You can’t do this by yourself as an artist. True North Records was the one that brought the work that I was doing all along to the larger public.
“They got the music heard and I hand them bouquets for that.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie says she owes renewed interest in her work to Waterdown-based True North Records.