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Songs We Love: Buffy Sainte-Marie, 'It's My Way'

Matt Barnes
Courtesy of the artist

Sometimes the simplest declarations echo most forcefully through time. Repeated, growing and shifting to fit different contexts, phrases like I am somebody or give peace a chance or fight the power define and support the core experience of being human. So much can be communicated in just three or four words: self-respect; the connection between individual freedom and communal well-being; the determination to survive even in hard times; undying hope. If it's not there already, add this phrase from Buffy Sainte-Marie to your own list of such mantras: It's my way.

Sainte-Marie first recorded the song she built around that statement in 1964, when she was a rising star of the folk revival and one of the most incendiary voices in popular music as a whole. "It's My Way" is a kind of template for the practice of self-expression and thoughtful dissent that has served as the foundation of Sainte-Marie's remarkable career since that time. Based in native rhythms that, as in so much of her music, invoke her Cree heritage, this foot-stomping incantation is at once an account of radical independence and a reminder of how crucial such assertions can be, especially for women and people of color, whose ways are so often obscured and erased. In the 1964 version of "It's My Way" that served as the title track to her Grammy-winning debut album, Sainte-Marie strums her acoustic guitar furiously and wails, making a sound as powerful as anything some guy named Dylan did that year.

Sainte-Marie returns to "It's My Way" to anchor her eighteenth album, Power In the Blood, which will be released in May. The whole recording is both popwise and adventurous, showing every side of this remarkable septuagenarian: the sense of melody that led her to write classic ballads like "Up Where We Belong"; the experimental streak that made her an early proponent of electronic music; the passionate political convictions that led to a quiet blacklist of her music in America in the 1970s and the sense of hope, of blood coursing and spirits rising, that has helped her survive and do so much.

Renewing the statement of purpose that set her on such a remarkable path, in this version, Sainte-Marie lifts "It's My Way" from the box of folk balladry and makes it both more experimental and more pop. She's found an ideal partner in the producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, known for exquisitely atmospheric tracks like the Jane Siberry/k.d. lang classic, "Calling All Angels." Together, he and Sainte-Marie use subtle effects to create a new environment for the song, making its truly timeless lyrics immediate again.

A drone of strings welcomes the listener into the round dance of the verses; the squeak of what sounds like birds pushes the arrangement toward the horizon. Sainte-Marie's voice comes in, at first seeming more subdued than the declamatory wail of fifty years ago. But as the track builds toward full, rich rock and roll, Sainte-Marie's presence expands, too. "I've got my own peace/I've got my own wrath," she snarls, defiant and joyful." To every being listening, she grants authority that supports her own: "Your day will come/your day alone." The song is a blessing, ever renewing itself — as relevant as the voice of the glorious elder who offers it.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.