Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The wonders humble people own

Buffy Sainte-Marie
Live at Wulfrun Hall, Wolverhampton, 31 January, 2010

What's a 68-year-old North American Indian doing in Wolverhampton on a cold Sunday night in January? Buffy Sainte-Marie has travelled all the way from her home in Hawaii to raise awareness of the plight of indigenous people - (she was born on a Cree Indian reservation in Saskatchewan). Perhaps this half-forgotten singer-songwriter has also come just to remind us who she is and to have a thoroughly enjoyable evening declaiming her songs to this seated, well-behaved English audience.

I became aware of Buffy Sainte-Marie when, fancying myself as a singer-songwriter at the age of 11, I first heard her song 'Soldier Blue' on the radio. It got to number 7 in the UK charts in 1971 but I was too young to see the film for which it was the title song - a graphic portrayal of the treatment of native North American Indians. I owned one Buffy record - the 1972 single – 'Mister, Can’t You See' but much preferred the B-side 'Moonshot', a remarkably original song about space travel and mythology that contains the lines:

See all the wonders that you leave behind
the wonders humble people own
I know a boy from a tribe so primitive
he can call me up without no telephone


An anthropologist he wrote a book
he called it ‘Myths of Heaven’
he's disappeared, his wife is all distraught
an angel came and got him

It's intriguing to wonder why Buffy's status as a singer-songwriter is so much lower than those fellow Canadian contemporaries Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. She herself has suggested she was the victim of censorship and suppression and it's true that the film Soldier Blue was not shown in American cinemas and the record failed to chart there.

Her best-known songs were hits for other artists -'Up Where We Belong' (for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes), 'Until It’s Time for You To Go' (most famously Elvis) and 'Universal Soldier' (Donovan). Perhaps the reason she is less well-known in her own right is due partly to her relatively meagre output compared with other singer-songwriters and partly to her distinctive singing voice with its insistent sustained vibrato which can be an acquired taste.

At 68, though, Buffy's energy levels are impressive. Her singing and playing seemed to struggle to keep pace with her enthusiasm at times, but she seemed at her most confident with her never material. Songs like 'Cho Cho Fire' and 'No No Keshagesh' from the 2009 album 'Running From The Drum' fuse folk, rock and Native American chanting and rhythms in an exhilarating stomp that makes the spirit soar.

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About me

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Tony Gillam is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health Nursing at the University of Wolverhampton, a freelance writer, trainer and musician. He is the author of 'Reflections on Community Psychiatric Nursing' (2002) and 'Creativity, Wellbeing and Mental Health Practice' (2018).