Before Dee Brown’s “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” Kevin Costner’s “Dances with Wolves” and Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” mourned, exalted and explained Native Americans, Buffy Sainte-Marie sang about them — and about everything, in the heart or in newspapers — in piercing songs in a piercing voice.
At the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theater on Saturday, she proved that neither has lost its edge, after 40 years in a spotlight she has occupied with singular grace, moral force and musical curiosity.
It was all folk music — of many kinds.
Those in the large crowd who came expecting only her acoustic guitar-powered 1960s troubadour hits got those, but they also got rock, hip-hop, reggae and pow-wow pop.
She started with “Piney Wood Hills,” playing acoustic but pushing her voice to its most vibrato-laden intensity.
Next, she lay a double-time synthesizer pulse under the rocking “Fallen Angels” celebrating whistle-blowers, a recurring theme.
“Cho Cho Fire” from her new “Running for the Drum” album rocked even harder.
But then she stepped out from behind the keyboard to play mouth-bow — the first stringed instrument, she said, a musical weapon — in the ribald “Cripple Creek,” inquiring of herself, “How’s she do that?”
Good question, and broader than just how she changed pitch with the mouth-bow while also singing.
How’s she kept her anti-war, anti-greed indignation fresh but not bitter from “Universal Soldier” 40 years ago to the newer “No No Keshagesh,” “The Big Ones Get Away” and “Priests of the Golden Bull”?
How’s she maintain the same mix of anguished moral message and spiritual serenity in mourning the wrongs done to Native Americans (and Canadians) in “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Indian Cowboy” and “Relocation Blues”?
Musical innovation and a stubborn avoidance of stridency seemed to come easy to her, natural and unforced.
“Keshagesh” is a Cree word for a thieving dog, but she made it a metaphor about greed in all forms.
In “Priests,” on the same theme, she used the Algonquin word “wendigo” (vampire) to indict money-addicts who dispose of uranium, “which burns a hole in forever” on Indian reservations.
Introducing the song, which she spoke more than sang, she said, “Lies vary from place to place, but the truth is all the same,” and many of her lyrics bore this simple, aphoristic strength.
Much less simple was her music, projected subtly or loudly as the songs demanded by three players and two singers.
All hip-hop is tribal, but “Working For the Government” had fierce, wordless chants as well as insistent rhythms.
She appropriated reggae beats (second most common protest music syntax after rap) to blast “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” as big as a billboard, complete with a blazing electric guitar solo.
These outbursts made the playful wit of “That’s What Little Kids Do,” the tenderness of her love songs and “Until It’s Time for You To Go” and the Oscar-winning “Up Where We Belong” all the sweeter.
Her encore of “Goodnight” was sweetest of all.
Her best songs seemed to burn a hole in forever, letting truth and love shine through.