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Legends Reborn: Mavis Staples, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and the Indians Who Rocked The World

by Denise Sullivan

Mavis Staples (Chris Strong Photography)

Mavis Staples (Chris Strong Photography)


Both singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie and gospel/folk singer Mavis Staples have consistently sung out for freedom and justice causes since the ’60s. Performing professionally since their teens, they were on the scene during the Civil Rights Movement and remain engaged in the present fights for environmental healing and human rights. Thanks to their ageless beauty, their contemporary recordings continue to find conscious audiences across generations. During this 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love, both singers are out on the road performing their respective works with an emphasis on peace and harmony, whether it’s Sainte-Marie’s “The Universal Soldier,” or the Staples classic, “I’ll Take You There.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie (photo: Trevor Brady)

Buffy Sainte-Marie (photo: Trevor Brady)

Back in 1964, both artists appeared on the same bill at the Newport Folk Festival, alongside their peers Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Staples remembers the day as a watershed in her career: The gathering of young people was a message to her and her family gospel band, the Staple Singers, that there was a growing audience for topical songs with a spiritual soul. The 1950s Staple Singers recording of “Uncloudy Day” was an inspirational tune for the young Dylan. Both he and Staples would work side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his campaign for jobs and freedom and as they grew together, as people and performers, Dylan, by his own admission fell in love with Staples. In his book, Chronicles, he recounts asking her Pops, Roebuck Staples, for her hand in marriage.  Though they didn’t tie the knot, the pair remained friends and have played dates together.

By ’67, Dylan had famously gone electric, moving away from folk protest and more toward poetic forms, while the Staple Singers and their repertoire moved toward the folk-rock mainstream (their For What It’s Worth album was named for the Stephen Stills song). Mavis was also preparing to make her solo debut. Releasing solo albums while working with her family band, their greatest success came in the early ’70s, culminating with the number one records “Respect Yourself” and “Let’s Do It Again.”  Here’s a clip of Mavis singing lead after her dad takes his verse:

Her 1977 solo album,  A Piece of the Action was produced and released by fellow Chicagoan and conscious songwriter, Curtis Mayfield.  Following memorable appearances in the concert film Wattstax and in the Band’s epic The Last Waltz, by the late ’80s, Staples was lured back into studio work by Prince for two Paisley Park albums before continuing toward the next peak in her career. Now signed to ANTI Records, she’s made records produced by Ry Cooder, Jeff Tweedy, and most recently, M. Ward. The secret to her longevity is of course attitude, embodied in the title of her latest album, Living On A High Note. It’s an intimate, bare bones set of songs written especially for her by Nick Cave, Tune-Yards, Aloe Blacc and Ben Harper, among others. Here’s Mavis performing “Dedicated” by Bon Iver.

Among Canada’s most revered musicians, Buffy Sainte-Marie is a truly original voice. Debuting in 1964 with It’s My Way, Sainte-Marie has alternately penned Top 40 gold like “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” recorded by Elvis and so many more, and “Up Where We Belong,” the Oscar-winning theme to An Officer And A Gentleman. She also retains her activist role and is a musical alchemist. Her 1969 album Illuminations was a breakthrough in electronic recording and remains a touchstone for fans of experimental music.

In the ’80s, Sainte-Marie belonged to the very first wave of musicians to record with computers and invested heavily in passing on tech knowledge to First Nations people. She also pursued acting (some readers might remember her from her recurring role on Sesame Street), though she never set aside music. Power in the Blood is Sainte-Marie’s latest recording; it features a new version of “It’s My Way” from her 1964 debut and blends rock, folk, and pow wow sound into songs that concern the healing of the earth and its people.

By that fabled Summer of Love, and long before there was a formalized American Indian Movement in place, Sainte-Marie, born on a Cree reserve in Canada, had been speaking out against the genocide of indigenous people. A forerunner in the teachings of decolonization, she would ultimately pay a price for her songs:  In recent years, Sainte-Marie found out her advocacy for the rights of Native Americans landed her on a US government surveillance list. It served as an explanation for why her recordings became scarce and her bookings lightened.

Link Wray

Link Wray

“I don’t think very many people, even today, understand how much blacklisting has gone on of artists in the record business,” she told me when I interviewed her. Sainte-Marie’s story and those of other Native Americans who broke musical ground are told in-depth in the new film Rumble:  The Indians Who Rocked The World.  Directed by Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana, the documentary is a comprehensive revelation of the ways in which Native Americans contributed to the development of not only rock ‘n’ roll, but jazz and even metal. From the earliest period of rock, when a member of the Shawnee tribe, Link Wray, launched a generation of guitarists, the secret history of Indians involved in American popular music has remained largely hidden and held back from us, much like Sainte-Marie’s own story. The film is crisscrossing the country this summer and if you’re like me, it will forever change the way you listen to American music and accept the creation stories of its origin.

Mavis Staples and Buffy Sainte-Marie hold over 100 years of experience between them; there is a deep well of courage, hope, and righteous indignation in their songs and that well is far from dry. Time and history will tell which of today’s contemporary musicians aligning themselves with resistance movement will still be singing 50 years from now. Though until that torch is officially passed, it’s with great admiration and gratitude that we may still enjoy the resilient voices of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Mavis Staples, saying the things that can and must, and sometimes only can be said with a song.


Mavis Staples on Tour

Aug 19
Guild Hall
East Hampton, NY Tickets

Aug 25
Trois-Rivieres en Blues
Quebec, Canada Tickets

Aug 27
Stern Grove Festival
San Francisco, CA Tickets (Free)

Sep 01
Strawberry Music Festival
Tuolumne, CA Tickets

Sep 08
Plaza Hotel & Casino
Las Vegas, NV Tickets

Sep 09
San Diego Blues Fest
San Diego, CA Tickets

Sep 11
Live at Lagunitas
Petaluma, CA Tickets

Sep 13
Hollywood Bowl
w/ Steve Winwood
Los Angeles, CA Tickets

Sep 22-23
The Park at Harlinsdale Farm
Franklin, TN Tickets


Buffy Sainte-Marie On Tour

Aug 17
A rare solo performance at the Summerfolk Music & Crafts Festival
Owen Sound, Canada Tickets

Aug 18
A rare solo performance at Peterborough Folk Festival
Sept 8 Celebration of Nations
St. Catherine, Canada Tickets

Sept 9
Speaking Event  Celebration of Nations  St. Catherine, Canada Tickets

Sept 22
Stanford Live
Stanford, California Tickets


“Rumble: Indians Who Rocked The World” now playing

AUG 16, 2017
Jacob Burns Film Center
1:00PM and 7:00PM
Pleasantville, NY, USA

AUG 18, 2017
Summerfolk Music and Crafts Festival
9:00PM at Down by the River
Owen Sound, ON, CANADA

AUG 18, 2017 – AUG 24, 2017
Santa Fe
at the Violet Crown Cinemas
Santa Fe, NM, USA

AUG 19, 2017 – AUG 31, 2017
at the Winnipeg Film Group
Winnipeg, MB, CANADA

AUG 21, 2017
The Belcourt Theatre
7:30PM at the Belcourt
Nashville, TN, USA

AUG 21, 2017 – AUG 24, 2017
The Guild Cinema
Albuquerque, NM, USA

AUG 25, 2017 – AUG 31, 2017
at the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse
Philadelphia, PA, USA

AUG 25, 2017 – AUG 31, 2017
at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema
Atlanta, GA,USA

AUG 25, 2017 – AUG 31, 2017
at the Landmark E Street Cinema
Washington, DC, USA

AUG 25, 2017 – AUG 31, 2017
Los Angeles
at the Landmark Nuart Theatre
Los Angeles, CA, USA

AUG 27, 2017
Films Streams
at the Ruth Sokolof Theater
Omaha, NE, USA

SEP 01, 2017 – SEP 07, 2017
at the Landmark Lagoon Cinema
Minneapolis, MN, USA

SEP 01, 2017 – SEP 07, 2017
at the Landmark Chez Artiste
Denver, CO, USA

Denise_Sullivan_70Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip HopThe White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.

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