I know everybody hates pop quizzes, but here's one for you anyway. Who is the only Native American/Canadian to win an Academy Award?
Give up? I'll give you some clues (if the title of the review hasn't given it away yet), she's a Cree Indian from Saskatchewan Canada originally who had a very successful career as a folk/country artist in the sixties and early seventies.
She was an Indian before it became fashionable to be one and sang about Native issues when nobody else was. She also wrote and performed songs about the state of the world, and people's emotions. She's also never recorded her award winning song, "Up Where We Belong," leaving that to Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warrens.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has been singing her songs of peace and respect for years now, although her lyrics and her voice have never been the type that would send her up the pop charts. The fact that she sounds like she's always on the verge of picking up a gun and heading off on the war-path to exact some revenge for all the indignities visited upon her people never made her the flavor of the month among record executives either.
It's people like her that make you give thanks for a label like Vanguard Records. Back in the sixties and seventies they were the only ones who would release music by performers who sang the overtly politically music that wouldn't be touched with a ten foot pole by the more conservative labels. Now some forty years after some of these original recordings were made they've put together a series of compilations for a lot of those same performers under the name of "Vanguard Visionaries"
If you've forgotten about Buffy and don't really recall what could make her entitled to be called a visionary then that makes this disc all the more important. Not only is it a wonderful greatest hits package of the music she did while she was with Vanguard records – it serves to remind us all of her unique voice and unwavering strength of character.
But it's not just vocally and lyrically that she was so distinctive. Think about other single female folk acts that you know of from that era and what comes to mind? Simple melodies plucked out on a guitar and basic arrangements about as threatening as the flowers they wore in their hair. At the same time, Buffy was using electronics and overdubs to stretch and distort her voice in the harmonies on songs like "God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot," and "The Vampire."
Still, what she was then and remains today, was a fierce advocate for the rights of Native Americans. She was the lone public voice singing about the centuries of mistreatment incurred by the first peoples of North America and probably the first person to use the "G" word, genocide, publicly regarding government policies toward the American and Canadian Indian populations.
Most people's first knowledge about the horrors of Residential schools and blankets infested with small pox, all part of the war that continues to this day against Indians across the continent, came from her songs. (A war that is world wide: Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia, Columbia, Indonesia, Viet-Nam, Japan, Siberia, and anywhere else where there is an indigenous population the story is simply a variation of what happened here.) Instead of on the battle field, the war today is conducted by people behind desks in the offices of multinational corporations and government bureaucracies.
Songs like "Now That The Buffalo's Gone" and "My Country 'Tis Of Thy People You're Dying" spelled out in detail for those willing to listen to the atrocities committed in the name of civilization and progress. She even gives answer to those who would say, "Well they lost the war, what do they expect" by asking why Germany and Japan were left with their land and dignity intact when the Indians of North America weren't when they were defeated?
She didn't just talk about what was wrong in her songs, she also made sure to sing about being proud to be who she was, and for others to take pride in their heritage. "Native North American Child" is a great example of that with it's tongue in cheek chorus of "Sing about your Ebony African Queen, Sing about your lily white Lili Marlene. Beauty by the bushel, but the girl of the hour is a Native North American Child."
In the days when nobody was saying anything positive about Indians, and the only images people had of them originated in either Hollywood or Madison Avenue, positive reinforcement in a song was just as important as protesting wrongs. While folk like James Brown, Isaac Hayes, and others were extolling the virtues of Black Power, the only voice at all singing about Indians was Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Of course she didn't only sing about Indians, she sang other music as well, and included on this new Vanguard Visionaries disc is her cover of Neil Young's classic "Helpless." It must be something about the song, but it really only sounds right when sung by a person with a voice up in the near falsetto range. Her version is every bit as evocative and chilling as Mr. Young's original.
You might not know very much about Buffy Sainte-Marie anymore, she semi retired from music a while back to start work on an arts program for young Native Americans across North America. I think her last studio album was back in the early '90s, and it was just as powerful and potent as ever. Listening to this disc will make you wonder how you ever missed hearing such a distinctive and passionate voice.
Some music when you listen to it thirty years after it was originally released loses its impact and power. That's not the case here with the music of Buffy Sainte-Marie; it's just as potent and powerful as it was when first released. If you missed it then, make sure you don't miss this second opportunity to experience one of the most original female pop vocalists of the past forty years.