by Laura Stanley
Buffy Sainte-Marie is 74 years old. I don’t state this irrelevant fact – I’m sure none of my peers will mention the age of the artist that they are backing – to elicit shock or pity. To make Polaris fans or jury members shrug and forego the prize like they might their seat on the bus. I say it because in a historic career that spans over 50 years, Sainte-Marie has become one of the greatest songwriters of all time but apparently is not ready to make herself comfortable sitting atop that throne just yet. I say it because after 74 years Sainte-Marie bursts with knowledge, has carved out a legacy for herself, and a path for others. She is an inspiration for younger generations and is a Canadian icon who uses the same politicized voice of reason from decades earlier and makes us see the truth once again. For her role in the past, present, and future, and her treatment of all three in Power in the Blood, she deserves the Polaris Music Prize.
Over the last five decades, Sainte-Marie has earned a PhD, an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song (“Up Where We Belong”), countless other awards, is part of the Order of Canada, and various Halls of Fame. From a career perspective there was no reason for Sainte-Marie to release her 15th studio album Power in the Blood. She, like many of her contemporaries who grew out of the smoke-filled cafes in Toronto’s Yorkville or New York City’s Greenwich Village, could have released live albums, remastered classics, or even a Christmas album but Sainte-Marie decided to pick up her powerful weapon, her voice, once again and fight a new era of entangled social, political, and environmental injustices. In July, Sainte-Marie told the Toronto Star, “I only record when I feel I have something to say.” In a time of Idle No More and vehement movements for justice and Indigenous self-determination, what Sainte-Marie has to say feels more powerful than ever.
Power in the Blood is a collection of new songs, covers, and three older songs revitalized to join these most recent movements. Instrumentally and lyrically Power in the Blood reaches cavernous depths – it takes on the complex effects of colonization (“Ke Sakihitin Awasis”), it experiments with electronic music (“Power in the Blood”), it spits on corporate greed (“The Uranium War”), it straight up rocks (“Not The Lovin’ Kind”), it questions your role as a citizen of the planet (“Carry It On”), it’s anthemic (“We Are Circling”).
In “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” the opening track to her debut album It’s My Way!, Sainte-Marie writes of the cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples by Europeans, singing, “Oh, it’s all in the past you can say but it’s still going on here today.” Power in the Blood is a declaration, from one of the pioneering voices in popular music, of colonial resistance that shakes the still dozing Canadian public. It brings the past to the present and shouts, “pay attention – too little has changed!” Surely making it worthy of a Polaris Prize.
Power in the Blood begins the way Sainte-Marie ended her debut album in 1964, with “It’s My Way.” Where the original is a product of its times, an acoustic affair and a bold statement for a twenty-something female artist, her reinterpretation is a boisterous, foot-stomping, hard-rocking marvel that take these same sentiments – “I’ve got my own sword in my own hand, I’ve got my own plan that only I can know” – and twists them into an uplifting track that once again celebrates autonomy in a time when it is most needed.
Her takes on other earlier songs “Not The Lovin’ Kind” and “Generation” also amp up their original rock feel and her fierceness. The latter written with new lyrics that mirror the contemporary with history, including, “And round and round the dance goes on and the children are Idle No More.”
New song “The Uranium War,” which Sainte-Marie has called a prequel to “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” about Anna Mae Aquash, begins under a cleverly playful piano and vocal melody combination before launching into a determined drum-filled number. Lyrically Sainte-Marie references Anna Mae Aquash tragic story while again, mixing present day issues like the erasure and ignorance of Indigenous laws and values in the face of resource extraction – “And me I watched it grow: corporate greed and a lust for gold and coal and oil and hey, now uranium.”
Power in the Blood finds Buffy Sainte-Marie calling out for change with a voice that is weighted down in pride, experience, and clarity. She’s fighting for Canada, she’s fighting for America, she’s fighting for the future.