The pioneering Canadian Cree musician and social activist Buffy Sainte-Marie first gained prominence as part of Greenwich Village’s early- to mid-’60s folk scene alongside Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Folk music traditionally contains populist social critiques, but even by those standards, Buffy was radical: she wrote about drug addiction (“Co’dine”), imperialist propaganda (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”) and the genocidal violence of settler colonialism (“Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” among many others). Although the daring and incendiary folk singer never became a household name like some of her contemporaries–likely due to persistent anti-Native racism and government-directed blacklisting–her impact reverberated throughout popular music. Donovan and Glen Campbell both landed on the charts with covers of her iconic antiwar rallying cry “Universal Soldier;” Janis Joplin created shockwaves with her take on “Co’dine”; and Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and the Monkees were among many notable artists who covered “Until It’s Time for You to Go.”
In 1969, Buffy continued her career-long tradition of trailblazing with Illuminations. It was the first-ever album with vocals processed through a Buchla 100 synthesizer as well as the first recorded using quadraphonic technology, an early precursor to surround-sound. With the exception of a lead guitar on one track and a rhythm section employed on three of the last four selections, the music is entirely synthesized from Buffy’s voice and guitar, producing a wholly unique sound that incorporates folk, rock, pop, European avant-garde, gothic and indigenous styles. A commercial failure at the time, derided for straying from her usual folk sound, Illuminations is now recognized as a pivotal entry in the history of electronic music. Critics have cited its disorienting, spectral soundscapes as a forerunner of gothic music as well as an influence on the later freak folk movement (Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart, etc.). The album is best remembered for its opening track, “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot,” an incantatory, extemporized musical setting of a Leonard Cohen poem. Although virtually every sound on the album was electronically processed in some way, this song receives one of the most extreme treatments, with Buffy’s voice so fragmented by distortion that she sounds like an elemental force. Album closer “Poppies,” perfectly described by AllMusic as “the most tripped-out, operatic, druggily beautiful medieval ballad ever psychedelically sung,” has also become a cult classic.
Pitchfork revisits Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “cosmic, groundbreaking 1969 album, an ecstatic invocation of pain, pleasure, and divinity.”
Buffy looks back at her long career as an artist and activist in this fascinating candid interview.
📰 Buffy Sainte-Marie reflects on Illuminations by MusicWorks
Buffy shares little-known information about the making of Illuminations.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE…
“Adam" - Buffy’s throws her quivering voice all over the mix on this propulsive, slow-burning Richie Havens cover accented by an eerie, electronically distorted bassline. She imbues the tale of Adam's fall with all the chilling, wondrous mystery it deserves.
“The Angel” - One of many songs on the album to invoke Biblical imagery, Buffy’s mesmerizing cover of the Ed Freeman ballad mimics a soul’s ascension to Heaven. High, trilling vocals soar over swelling strings, and towards the end, a ghostly chorus can be heard faintly singing over tinkling bells. It’s haunting and deeply tender at the same time.
“He's a Keeper Of The Fire” - This blazing groove is the album’s most raucous cut as well as one of the most overtly sensual songs Buffy ever recorded–she even howls at the moon! Banshees wail in the background as Buffy belts out a passionate tribute to a lover who’s “got a heavy kinda hoodoo, baby.” Fans of this song include Oasis’ Noel Gallagher, who selected it for his MOJO Magazine compilation, Well… All Right! A 15-Track Musical Journey.
DID YOU KNOW?
- Starting in the mid-Seventies, Buffy spent five years as a recurring cast member of Sesame Street, where she became the first person to breastfeed on national television.
- Buffy taught herself to play piano at age three and began setting her poems to music at the age of four.
- At 16, she taught herself guitar and ultimately invented 32 different ways of tuning her instrument, creating sounds completely unique to her music.
- In 1982, Buffy became the first indigenous person to win an Oscar. Her song "Up Where We Belong," co-written for the film An Officer and a Gentleman, won both the Academy Award for Best Original Song and the Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
- Buffy helped Joni Mitchell get her big break, playing Joni’s tape for talent scout Elliot Roberts, who became Joni's manager. (Roberts went on to become a legend in the music industry, managing Neil Young, Bob Dylan and the Cars, among other megastars.)
Listen to Illuminations in its entirety on your preferred streaming platform or purchase on wax below.
Words: Katherine McCollough