Buffy Sainte-Marie, Cornbury Festival, Oxfordshire

The Cornbury Festival is an English summer fete writ large. Primary schools fundraise by baking cakes, mini-Boden-clad children scamper with candyfloss. A nice military type is entertaining the crowds with songs on the piano: it’s James Blunt. Off-duty Morris dancers break into a frenzy of hanky-waving to Bellowhead’s brassy bawdry. A woman is singing “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” but she is the real Cindi Lauper. The Dire Straits tribute band boasts multiple former Straits members. The Madness tribute act is Olly Murs – theX-Factor also-ran, as a button and a festival headliner in embryo.

Less often seen at summer fetes is a 70-year-old Red Indian (her term) in a heavily studded leather jacket, tearing at ear-splitting volume through five decades of music. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s band of much younger Manitoban musicians revelled in the changes. A headdress was tipped to Elvis in the breakneck rockabilly of “Blue Sunday”, all “Since My Baby Left Me” and “Saturday Night Ain’t Nothing to Me”. And Broadway collided head-on with country and western on “He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo”.

Although Sainte-Marie was a smiling presence, the songs burned with anger. Once she dispatched the schmaltzy “Up Where We Belong”, her Oscar-winning song, in a reading pitched halfway between Jennifer Warnes and Joe Cocker, the material darkened into punk aggression. On “No No Keshagesh” she scolded rapacious corporations. “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” was an account of miscarriages of justice and the persecution of the American Indian Movement, the reggae rumble of the verses kicking up into a defiant chorus.

In the early 1960s Sainte-Marie was a habituée of the Greenwich Village coffee houses, along with her compatriots Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Her “Universal Soldier” draws on early Dylan, with its limited chords and righteous pacifism. Here she performed it unaccompanied, noting that “some songs you wish didn’t make sense after all these years but this one does”.

Fifty scant minutes culminating in a danced pow-wow, and she was gone, a wonderfully un-English eruption into a very English evening.


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