Origin: Piapot Cree First Nation Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada
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Buffy Sainte-Marie has enjoyed a long career that has seen her rise to stardom on the folk circuit and try her hand at country, rock, soundtrack themes, acting, activism, and children’s television. For most listeners, she remains identified with the material she wrote and sang for Vanguard in the mid-’60s. Many of her songs addressed the plight of the Native American, particularly “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” which generated the most controversy. Yet she was also skilled at addressing broader themes of war and justice (“Universal Soldier”) and romance (“Until It’s Time for You to Go”). She was also a capable interpreter of outside material, although her idiosyncratic vibrato made large-scale commercial success out of the question.
Sainte-Marie was born to Cree Indian parents on Feb. 20, 1941 and later adopted by a white family in Massachusetts. She attended the University of Massachusetts Amherst, earning degrees in teaching and Oriental philosophy and graduating in the top ten of her class. She went on to earn a Ph.D in Fine Art from the University of Massachusetts in 1983.
In 1964 on a return trip to the Piapot Cree reserve in Canada for a Powwow, she was welcomed and (in a Cree Nation context) adopted by the youngest son of Chief Piapot, Emile Piapot and his wife, who added to Sainte-Marie’s cultural value of, and place in, native culture.
Signed to Vanguard in 1964, she was one of the folk scene’s more prominent rising stars in the ’60s, and certainly the only widely heard performer articulating Native American viewpoints in song. Much of her best material from this era, however, gained its greatest commercial inroads via cover versions. “Universal Soldier” was one of Donovan’s first hits. “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” perhaps her best composition, was covered by numerous pop singers, and became a big British hit for Elvis Presley in the early ’70s. “Cod’ine,” one of the few ’60s songs to explicitly address the dangers of drugs, was covered by California rock bands Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Charlatans.
Sainte-Marie didn’t pigeonhole herself as a folkie, though, recording in Nashville in the late ’60s in attempts to break into the country market. In the ’70s, she would make some rock records, including one (1971’s She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina) with contributions from Ry Cooder and Crazy Horse. These country and rock outings were far less successful, both commercially and artistically, than her early folk efforts. But Sainte-Marie was never as reliant on selling units as most musicians. She kept busy with a long-running stint on Sesame Street, performing benefits for and organizing on behalf of Native Americans, and composing for movies (she won an Oscar for the theme to An Officer and a Gentleman, co-written with her husband, producer Jack Nitzsche). She hadn’t made an album for 15 years before issuing Coincidence and Likely Stories in 1992. It was another 17 years before her next, the wonderful Running for the Drum, appeared in 2009. Sainte-Marie did some limited touring to support the album while continuing her work as an activist and educator. True North licensed Running for the Drum and re-released it in 2014. They also signed her to a new album deal. Power in the Blood appeared in the spring of 2015. Recorded in Toronto with producers Michael Phillip Wojewoda, Jon Levine, and Chris Birkett, it contained two covers — the title tune by Alabama 3 and UB40’s “Sing Our Own Song” — surrounded by reworked tunes from her catalog and new material.
In October, she was awarded The 2015 Polaris Music Prize for her new album. She opened the Polaris Music Prize Gala in Toronto with stunning versions of “Power in the Blood” and “Carry It On”, and was later awarded the grand prize of $50,000. The Polaris Music Prize goes to the best Canadian album of the year based on “artistic merit without regard to genre, sales history or label affiliation” and was determined by a Grand Jury of 11 music media professionals drawn from the greater Polaris jury pool of roughly 200 writers, editors, broadcasters, DJs and personalities from across the country.