She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina

She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina

Following the radical dream-folk reveries of her 1969 album Illuminations, 1971’s She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina marked Buffy Saint-Marie’s return to the waking world. Despite its groundbreaking use of electronics and quadrophonic sound, Illuminations was too vanguard for her Vanguard Records boss (and longtime producer) Maynard Solomon, who demanded a more commercially viable follow-up. To that end, Solomon handed production duties over to Jack Nitzsche, who had just applied his gilded touch to Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush. “Vanguard really wanted me to make a hit,” Sainte-Marie tells Apple Music, “and they thought, ‘Oh, Jack Nitzsche makes hits.’” But while it’s an infinitely more accessible record than its predecessor, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina is by no means a return to the acoustic protest hymns that first made Sainte-Marie a folk-scene sensation and pioneering Indigenous icon in the mid-’60s. With Nitzsche rallying a Murderers’ Row of collaborators—Neil Young and Crazy Horse, guitarist Ry Cooder, and “Gimme Shelter” belter Merry Clayton among them—Ballerina reimagined Sainte-Marie as a hip-shaking rock ’n’ soul star. “Jack thought it would make me sound hip,” Sainte-Marie recalls. “I mean, Tina Turner was really happening at the time. And Jack saw a lot of potential in me as a pop singer.” An equal mix of originals and covers, Ballerina is as vivid a time capsule of the early-’70s Laurel Canyon sound as any: The opening rendition of the Gerry Goffin/Russ Titelman tune “Rollin Mill Man” and the swaggering title track split the difference between dusty country-rock groove and boisterous gospel boogie, while Sainte-Marie elevates Young’s autobiographical ballad “Helpless” into an arm-swaying universal anthem. But Nitzsche’s chart-conquering vision is most clearly realized through “Soldier Blue,” which provides a striking point of contrast to Sainte-Marie’s other military-themed character study, her 1964 signature “Universal Soldier.” Where that song was a plaintive acoustic elegy, “Soldier Blue” is all spotlight-seizing bravado and cinematic sweep (fitting, since it also served as the theme song to the namesake 1970 film about the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne Indians). Alas, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina was not the hit record its creators had anticipated (possibly because, unbeknownst to her at the time, Sainte-Marie was in the process of being blacklisted by American radio stations due to her vocal anti-war activism). And to this day, the album’s shift toward classic-rock convention doesn’t sit well with Sainte-Marie: “Somehow I feel as though I don't fit with the music,” she says. “I mean, some of the arrangements, they might've been great if they'd had a different singer.” However, the record is nonetheless a crucial entry in the Buffy Sainte-Marie canon—and not just because it’s the first chapter in a fruitful partnership between her and Nitzsche, which would culminate in the two co-writing the chart-topping Joe Cocker/Jennifer Warnes duet “Up Where We Belong” in 1982 and getting married shortly thereafter. Taken on its own terms, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina stands as a towering testament to Sainte-Marie’s singular voice and vision, despite her lingering misgivings about it. As the album’s spellbinding version of Leonard Cohen’s “Bells” attests, even when Buffy Sainte-Marie is willing to bend toward popular tastes, she still sounds like no one else.

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