Is Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood the defining record of our time?
At 74, the legendary songwriter released one of the best albums of her award-winning, 50-year career
Originally published on Dec. 3, 2015
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood has had an incredible year. It won the 2015 Polaris Music Prize and has received massive amounts of critical acclaim, from NPR to, well, right here at CBC Music. But Power in the Blood also continues a conversation that Sainte-Marie started more than 50 years ago about Indigenous identity and rights, decolonization, stopping war, love and protecting the Earth. These themes and topics have informed her entire discography and are as familiar now as they were on Sainte-Marie's first record, 1964's It's My Way!.
Power in the Blood features new and old material, as well as some thoroughly modified covers, but it's not a vanity project by a legacy act. Sainte-Marie is not interested in navel gazing or coasting on her Canadian icon status. She is still an inspiration, a spiky provocateur and leader. She revisits several of her own songs written over the past five decades and this deja vu is exactly why Power in the Blood is so vital and timely. The world is kind of terrible right now: there's racism about refugees and rampant Islamophobia; systemic racial violence against people of colour, gendered violence and misogyny; the continued suppression and oppression of Indigenous people. Fear wins in the monetization of panic and the weaponization of ignorance.
As always, though, we come back to the power of the people, the power in the blood. Sainte-Marie's record has a radical heart and a revolutionary mind. It vibrates with curiosity and conviction, and tears down the conventional architectures of privilege. It pulses under powwow beats and digitized samples, proudly and powerfully assertive in its Indigenous roots. It is the very spirit of the brilliant, beating heart of hope and humanity that's willfully fighting against all the bad in the world. It's all about the power of the people, those who are rising up, empowered and emboldened by community, the mobilization of protesters and messages of solidarity from like-minded allies around the world, those who choose momentum and evolution over stagnation.
Power in the Blood opens with Sainte-Marie's searing reinvention of her folk classic "It's My Way." The emphasis is on her voice, all stark thunder tunneling through a stomping backbeat and bluesy, steel twang. "I got my own world, I got own life/ I got my own strife, and it's my way," she declares, as defiant in her role as respected elder as she was when she first sang the track in her 20s. She revises an old hippy campfire song, as well. "We are Circling" is an anthem of togetherness that names community, family and ripening as sacred.
"Generation" also receives a lyrical update and more angular, hard-rock makeover. The frustration that filled up every word of the song in its original incarnation boils over as Sainte-Marie bites out each line:
I talked to seven congressmen, their ears were filled with gold
That their grandfathers had stolen out of the Black Hills
And round and round the dance goes on
And the children are Idle No More
And they will dream the dream my Mother sends to them.
Everything old gets treated as new again when we don't learn from the past. It's an exhausting cycle, but a galvanizing one, too. She modifies and subsequently makes UB40's anti-apartheid number "Sing Our Own Song" an inspiring anthem about uprising. Using a powwow sample from traditional drum group Northern Cree, Sainte-Marie demands decolonization and calls for Indigenous autonomy, as well as the "right to rejoice in our own cultures." She vows "the voice of our forefathers sings/ the will to live will beat on, we will no longer be pawns/ to greed and to war/ we will be Idle No More."
But perhaps the most critically important song on the record, and the main reason the album is not just one of the most important records of the year, but arguably the defining Canadian album of our time, is the title track, "Power in the Blood."
The club-banger treatment of the song likely turned off some of the more staid folkies — those who are still vexed about Dylan going electric likely started shaking their heads right about here — but there's wild subversiveness at work, and not just in upending conventional expectations of what 74 years old looks like. But in fusing elements of powwow, electronic dance, dub, rock, country-noir, spoken word and vocal distortion, Sainte-Marie creates a truly unique mash-up. The arrangement isn't just for shock value, it's actually the perfect platform for Sainte-Marie's modified lyrics to the Alabama3 classic: "I don't mind dying/ when that call it comes, I will say no no no to war/ there is power in the blood, justice in the soul/ when that call it comes, I will say no no no to war."
The dynamic energy and propulsive beat actually sound like power in the blood. Its momentum — equal parts military march, protester chant and heartbeat — is no accident.
The album ends with "Carry it On," a vibrant, uplifting sing-along that speaks to Sainte-Marie's unwavering spirit, her belief that goodness can and will triumph.
It ain't money that makes the world go 'round
That's only temporary confusion
It ain't governments that make the people strong
It's the opposite illusion
Look right now and you will see
They're only here by the skin of our teeth as it is
So take heart and take care of your link with Life.
This is not naiveté, but rather divine inspiration, and it's that balance that makes this album so definitive, so meaningful. Our world demands so much, and often so cruelly, of its least privileged inhabitants. This album never shies from calling out the hypocrisy and the damages inflicted by corrupt institutions and individuals, but it also conveys hope. We are galvanized by Sainte-Marie's candor and energy, her anger and her heart.
Power in the Blood is a declaration, a call to action and a kickass record. It's also a testament to the times we live in, a love letter to the activists and minorities, the disenfranchised and the colonized, and a condemnation of the profiteers and the privileged. It is a time capsule, a newspaper and a crystal ball. In other words, it is history in the making.
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