On a windy, rainy Saturday night, Alan Neal welcomed a packed, sweaty Centretown United Church full of all ages of people to unceded, unsurrendered Algonquin territory – territory he joked belongs to “true old stock Canadians.” The crowd was giddy to begin with, and burst into raucous applause and laughter. At the front of the church, vinyl records covered every surface surrounding Neal, and a slideshow played above him, cycling through album art.
The woman we were about to see was a legend to me, but for different reasons than most other people in the church. I had heard her name numerous times, without really knowing who she was, without having ever listened to her music. Based on the standing ovation she received when Neal spoke her name for the first time, everyone else knew of Buffy Sainte-Marie.
We were all gathered to watch CBC’s All In A Day host Alan Neal discuss over five decades of Sainte-Marie’s songwriting. The timing of the event was just in advance of the announcement of the Polaris Music Prize winner on Monday, September 21 (Sainte-Marie was shortlisted for the prize earlier in the summer). However, it was hard to hold a conversation on the topic of songwriting for very long. Neal seemed to know Sainte-Marie’s music inside out; he would find patterns in her music over the years and play clips of them for her to explain the songwriting process. But, Sainte-Marie would repeatedly say, writing a song is like dreaming. You don’t plan your dreams out before you go to bed at night – you can’t even be sure if you’ll have dreams when you fall asleep. But when you do dream, you can’t control what it’s about, or when it’s going to happen. It just does.
Despite the spontaneity that goes into her songs, Sainte-Marie talked about the organization behind some of the songs that took her years to write. She writes everything down (she stresses the importance of keeping everything in a journal – even grocery lists), and completes her notebooks with tables of contents, theme organization keywords, and notes about her moods so she could revisit old writing years later and piece together her songs.
It’s hard to believe Sainte-Marie is 74 years old – her energy was contagious and she had the audience calling back their agreement at her while she bounced out of her seat talking about her songs and experiences.
Although at times I felt like an outsider for having not experienced Sainte-Marie’s influence throughout my life, I certainly felt like I was in the presence of someone unique. She emphasized how the idea of play guides her life, and stressed that we all have childlike creativity inside us, it just tends to be “shushed up from school” as we grow up and imagination isn’t valued as much.
It was clear that Sainte-Marie doesn’t write songs for anyone but herself – she writes them because she can – and she is brazen about her talent. “God, I’m good!” she exclaimed when Neal read out some of her lyrics to the crowd. Later, she said it’s not ego to be able to appreciate the things you’re capable of. Good art speaks for itself.
Sainte-Marie is incredible in her understanding of what is really important to all of us, and she has written songs that have timeless significance. She repurposed “Look at the Facts” from her 1976 album Sweet America into the song “Carry It On” from her latest album, Power In The Blood. The lyrics are still as powerful now as they were originally, especially with the current state of our climate:
If you got the sense to take care of your source of perfection
Mother Nature, She’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection
Look right now
And you will see she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is
So take heart and take care of your link with Life
Despite her ties to and respect for the earth, Sainte-Marie is no stranger to technological innovation. She was the first person to record a totally quadraphonic electronic vocal album in the 1960s, and would send her computer-recorded songs over the Internet in the 1990s. She talked about how, as a folk musician, she received backlash for creating music with computers. However, she insists computers are just tools for us to use. They don’t replace the human talent it takes to play instruments or create music; they’re simply another means for us to create art.
At the age of 74, Sainte-Marie seems like she has it all figured out. She has stood for many causes throughout her life, and she continues to provide a strong voice for Aboriginal Peoples. I’m excited to listen to Power in the Blood, and even without having listened to it, I know the music is probably worth the Polaris Prize many times over. Buffy Sainte-Marie has power in her blood. And I think she knows it.