Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Indefatigable Spirit
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1960s protest songs made her the subject of FBI attention. Fifty years on, she wouldn’t change a thing.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a world-famous singer and songwriter, known for her anti-war ballad “Universal Soldier,” the 1982 Oscar-winning record “Up Where We Belong,” and the much-covered feminist tune “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” among other popular songs.
Born in 1941 in Saskatchewan, Canada, to parents from the Cree nation, Sainte-Marie was raised in Massachusetts by a couple of Mi’kmaq descent after her mother died in a car accident. After graduating from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she toured extensively and spent time in Greenwich Village’s burgeoning folk scene.
Her debut album, It’s My Way! (1964) contained the anti-drug song “Cod-ine,” the indigenious lament “Now the Buffalo Are Gone,” and “Universal Soldier,” which received widespread acclaim when it was covered by Scottish folk singer Donovan. “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” from her 1965 follow-up Many A Mile, was covered by Cher, Neil Diamond, Shirley Bassey, Françoise Hardy, and Elvis Presley, among others.
She starred on the PBS children’s show Sesame Street from 1976 to 1981. In 1983, she became the first indigenous person to win an Academy Award with her song “Up Where We Belong” recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the film An Officer and a Gentleman.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has had a more than half century long career as a performer and songwriter. Her latest album, 2015’s Power in the Blood uses signature elements of her earlier recordings, Native American influences, she’s Canadian Cree, and politically poignant lyrics with hard hitting rock and electronic grooves that place her sound firmly in the present day. Yet, her original ambition wasn’t to be front and center herself. She wanted to write for other artists, and indeed she achieved many great successes in this area. Among them “Until It’s Time For You To Go”, a proto-feminist anthem that was covered by major stars including Barbra Streisand, Glen Campbell, and Elvis Presley.
AJC: It always seemed a little odd to me given the times and this was a woman asserting her right to be intimate with somebody on her terms, did it ever sound odd to you in the mouths of men singing it?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: A little bit, you know? A little bit. It doesn’t
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Yeah, but it didn’t bother them, and I was just so flattered that they liked the song enough to take it into their lives and do it their own way.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s career began to bloom during her early 20’s, but her artistic sensibility appeared much earlier.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: When I was about three I discovered the piano and that was it. I still write the same way, songs still come to me in the same way, I paint the same way, I draw the same way, I dance the same way just like a kid.
AJC: But, it comes to you easily?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Very easily.
AJC: You say you find songs in the piano.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No, that’s how it is. I’ll pick up a guitar. Even if I’m gonna go and buy a guitar I’ll listen to the guitar and some of them I don’t know what it is. Some I find are really inspirational, and I never know about writing. For me it’s like dreaming. You know how it is if you go to bed at night you don’t know if you’re gonna have a dream or if you do what it’s gonna be about? That’s always been the way songs have come to me. They appear in my head, and some I can identify as what I ate for dinner or what I’ve been thinking about, but others are just brand new.
Though many of her more ephemeral songs came naturally, others such as the powerful antiwar song, “Universal Soldier”, made famous in the US and UK by the British folk singer, Donovan, required a more studied approach.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I mean “Universal Soldier” I wrote not as a dream or an inspirational thing, but I worked on it real hard like I work for doing a thesis for a professor who didn’t like me and didn’t like the subject I had chosen, and I wanted an A, so I write that way. I’m a good journalist in song. If it’s of a difficult or unusual subject matter I want it to give to people in a way that they can understand it and that hopefully they’ll want to listen to again and that they’ll like. You don’t want to give them the good news in an enema. You don’t want to do that, you don’t have to do that. “Universal Soldier” is not an expression of anger. It’s a song about justice, and it’s about the person who is listening. It’s about individual responsibility.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The content of the songs I thought people would like. It was different. It turned out to be way ahead of its time, and other people were writing eventually about drug addiction or were writing antiwar songs. Eventually people started to know about Native American people, but for some reason the things that appeal to me to share with other people at the time were quite new, and the first place I wanted to give audiences is uniqueness. That was tolerated in the 60’s. Uniqueness was welcomed.
Sainte-Marie was an early pioneer of the socially conscious songs that are now a hallmark of 1960’s folk music, but not everyone was quite so tolerant, and just as her career was taking off Sainte-Marie’s songs stopped being played on the radio. Years later, she would find out that the Johnson administration has targeted her after “Universal Soldier” became an anthem for antiwar activists.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: When all of a sudden I was on magazine covers and Life magazine and all the big magazines and the Tonight Show, et cetera, the morning shows all of a sudden I disappeared, and I didn’t know for a very long time that I had been blacklisted. I never considered that I would have been important enough to be under surveillance.
AJC: Never committed any crime?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No, I’d never broken laws, no.
AJC: And, then when you did find out most of it was redacted, right? So, you never really find out what the reason was.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Correct, yes.
AJC: You just seem to roll with the punches, so you’re not getting radio air play and you don’t know why, you don’t know why your musical career is stalled, so you go out and you spend five years on Sesame Street.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Yeah.
AJC: And, that’s a great period of your life as well.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Well, it’s not all I was doing, though. I was living in Hawaii back and forth, so I did have that organic loveliness of nature. I lived way in the middle of nowhere. Also I was still touring. I would play at reservations. I’d play in other countries. I traveled with the United Nations for the High Commission on Refugees and UNICEF, so I was having quite a career in spite of being gagged in the US, and what ticked me off about being gagged in the US when I finally knew about it and thought about it, it wasn’t that my career had been denied because I already had three meals a day for the rest of my life. It was that the people who needed support and encouragement and people who needed and wanted information, particularly about Indian issues, were being denied that.
AJC: You seem remarkably un-cynical by all that life has thrown at you.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I am. I’m real happy. I’ve taken care of my health all my life. I’ve enjoyed every year. I never went for that stuff about the big 30 and then it’s over, none of that. No, every year is better. They just don’t tell you that. I never got into alcohol. I’ve been a teetotaler all my life, and I take real good care of myself. I do ballet and flamenco. I mean, that’s like being in the Army. It keeps your body real healthy. It keeps you lifted, and it keeps you strong. I got so fortunate in my early career. I made a lot of money, and I bought a farm in Hawaii.
AJC: Where you still live?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: And, I still live there. I’ve been there for 50 years. I live with a bunch of goats, a whole bunch of chickens, and wild pigs, and a kitty cat, and a horse, and a sweetheart.
AJC: And, your son is a neighbor?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: My son is my neighbor, yes. My son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild.
AJC: What did Big Bird say about him, it was a snobby name?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Big Bird said, “And, I think Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild “is a stuck up name!” Sesame Street was just the best.
Now in her mid-70’s, Buffy Sainte-Marie shows no signs of slowing down thanks in large part to her childlike approach to life.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: If I have a religion I would say it’s creativity and just the easiest most playful use of that word. I mean, the Bible says that we’re made in the image of the creator, and when I used to hear that I’d say, “Oh, that’s obviously true everywhere even in the Bible.” That’s the green light for creativity. We create our worlds, our families, our cultures. We create our music. We create our future every moment. It’s really the gift.