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First Play: Buffy Sainte-Marie, Medicine Songs

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Holly Gordon

“I’m trying to put the songs to work.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s more than half century-long career has yielded no shortage of songs that can be “put to work,” as the trailblazing songwriter put it in an interview with q host Tom Power. And for her 18th studio album, Sainte-Marie has collected them — and written two new songs — in an effort to inspire change.

Titled Medicine Songs, the 13-track collection — 20 songs including the digital download extras — is made up of Sainte-Marie’s activist songs, as she describes them: “very positive” tracks that are meant to uplift, not only protest. With songs targetting war, oppression, climate change and inequity, this new album is proof positive that Sainte-Marie has much left to inspire.

“[Medicine Songs is] to help the people who see that cynicism, they feel that cynicism, and they just need a little bit of encouragement, enthusiasm, to keep on going anyway,” she said. “We can do this, the world is still ripening every one of us — even the bad guys, even the guys we don’t like. Babies, elders, bozos and angels — we’re all ripening, is what I think.”

Related: Buffy Sainte-Marie: 75 things you need to know about the Canadian icon

“You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind),” a Polaris Music Prize collaboration with Tanya Tagaq, is the first of the two newly written songs on the album, and “The War Racket,” a poem that Sainte-Marie originally read at the Native American Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2008, is set to music as the second, with an unplugged version of the latter fittingly closing the album as a rousing heart-to-heart.

The remaining tracklist is made up of familiar songs from Sainte-Marie's catalogue that the singer has updated with new instrumentation — and sometimes new wording, as is the case with “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” from her stunning 1964 debut album, is fuller in its 2017 recording, with an edge and experience to Sainte-Marie’s voice that sounds even more resolute than it did 50 years ago. “Universal Soldier” (1964), “Soldier Blue” (1971), “No No Keshagesh” (2008) and “Power in the Blood,” from Sainte-Marie’s 2015 Polaris Music Prize-winning album of the same name, are all included.

While made up primarily of reworked previous releases, Medicine Songs isn’t solely a collection of Sainte-Marie’s most stirring activist songs — it’s evidence that the award-winning (and previously blacklisted) songwriter has been writing timeless, relevant music since her 1964 debut. And that 50 years later, today’s generations still need her voice.

“I think that this is the time that people ought to be looking into their own hearts and minds and neighbourhoods and figuring out what they can do. Locally. While keeping an eye on things globally," Sainte-Marie said. "That hasn’t changed.”

Medicine Songs will be released via True North Records on Nov. 10. Listen to the full album — including the digital extras — in the player to the left, and pre-order it here.

More to explore:

Is Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood the defining record of our time?

5 Canadian acts inspired by Buffy Sainte-Marie

From Elvis to Barbra Streisand, a brief history of one of Buffy Sainte-Marie's most covered songs

Medicine Songs tracklist

1. “You Got to Run”
2. “The War Racket”
3. “Starwalker” (Sweet America, 1976)
4. “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” (Little Wheel Spin and Spin, 1966)
5. “America the Beautiful” (Running for the Drum, 2008)
6. “Carry it On” (Power in the Blood, 2015)
7. “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” (Little Wheel Spin and Spin, 1966)
8. “No No Keshagesh” (Running for the Drum, 2008)
9. “Soldier Blue” (She Used to Wanna be a Ballerina, 1971)
10. “The Priests of the Golden Bull” (Coincidence and Likely Stories, 1992)
11. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” (Coincidence and Likely Stories, 1992)
12. “Universal Soldier” (It’s my Way, 1964)
13. “Power in the Blood” (Power in the Blood, 2015)
14. "Disinformation" (Coincidence and Likely Stories, 1992)
15. "Fallen Angels" (Coincidence and Likely Stories, 1992)
16. "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" (It’s my Way, 1964)
17. "Generation" (Buffy, 1974)
18. "Working for the Government" (Running for the Drum, 2008)
19. "The Big Ones Get Away" (Coincidence and Likely Stories, 1992)
20. "The War Racket" (unplugged)