Buffy Sainte-Marie: Power in the Songs

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Power in the Songs

By Michael Raine

"Oh, fantastic!” Buffy Sainte-Marie exclaims, exuding her characteristic enthusiasm. “I’ve been on the road for 50 years. I took 16 years o to raise my son, but basically even then I was touring. So, to have a legitimate excuse to stay home is something that I’ve always looked forward to. Plus, I live on a farm and there’s nobody around, so the isolation is easy for me.”

Even over Zoom from her rural home in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie radiates positivity, often punctuating sentences with a laugh. But her positivity is hard-earned. It’s not positivity born of naivety or innocence. It’s the outlook she’s earned from a full life of experiences, explorations, and learning.

Throughout our conversation, which stretched well beyond the scheduled 45 minutes, Sainte-Marie will go off on excited tangents (“Do you have time for a funny story? I don’t think anybody’s going to be interested, but…”); talk openly about childhood trauma with appropriate sensitively but not a bit of self-pity; shoot down any question’s premise she doesn’t agree with, especially any attempt at armchair psychology (“I wouldn’t call [music] escape and therapy! Hell no. It was fun! Guys who play hockey, what is that – escape and therapy?”); readily
take credit where it’s due, but also not pass up any joke about her own shortcomings (“I wasn’t self-managed – I just didn’t have a manager!”); and chat honestly and warmly on all manner of topics from throughout her remarkable career.

“I’m told I was about three-years-old because that’s when I first saw a piano. I never played with Barbies. I never played sports. But when I saw a piano, I wanted to get up on it. I just had an ear for it immediately,” Sainte-Marie, who will turn 80 in February, says to me about when music took over her life. “But, you know, there’s 360 ways to be in music. People approach music in all kinds of ways. I mean, you approach music through journalism. Somebody else like me just hears an instrument and loves it and that’s what they do for the rest of their life.”

A Cree woman born (she thinks) on the Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, Sainte-Marie was adopted by a white family and grew up in Maine and Massachusetts. She has spoken openly and frankly – including in Andrea Warner’s excellent biography – about the sexual abuse she was subjected to for years by both her older brother and a much older relative, as well as bullying in school, and the lasting effect it has. She rejects, though, any notion that she used music to cope. For her, music has always been about having fun and the appeal was that simple.

“For me, it’s the same as sports or other kids playing Barbies. I’m saying that although there were predators around and I was bullied – I was the littlest one and the youngest one in my class and couldn’t get a break – I was happy because I could go home and play fake Beethoven. They wouldn’t let me in band or choir or any of that kind of stuff, but I’d go home and I play fake Mozart or, you know, eventually I played Fats Domino. So, I was happy. I don’t look at it as escaping and therapy at all. No, it was my number one choice and I got it.”

Growing up, the idea of a “career” as a musician was a foreign concept. Sainte-Marie says she had never met anyone who worked in show business, let alone a professional musician. She banged away at the piano and wrote songs because she loved it, but never had anyone to play with. But getting her first guitar at 14 or 15 years old changed how she experienced music. With a portable instrument, music suddenly became a more communal experience.

“That changed everything. I was living in Maine in a trailer and I could take the guitar to the woods, or I could take the guitar to a camp re and play with other people. So that’s when it started to open up for me,” she recalls.

When rock and roll hit the radio – Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and the other innovators – “it just changed my life,” she adds. “Here was this kid who couldn’t read music but played like a son of a gun, who would write songs that nobody was ever going to hear, and all of a sudden I got a train to Boston and New York to see the Alan Freed rock and roll shows.”

Even then, though, while making musical pilgrimages, Sainte-Marie says that back home she was a “a social nothing” in her high school, and treated as odd for being into this new music. Academia, in fact, was her calling until a guidance counsellor at the University of Massachusetts informed her she wouldn’t be graduating on time because of one missing credit she had previously been told she didn’t need. At the university – where blues great Taj Mahal was a classmate and remains a close friend – she’d played music in her dorm and at off-campus coffee houses.

“Although I had straight A's and was one of the 10 most outstanding students in my graduating class, they wouldn’t let me graduate,” she says, still marvelling at the fateful stupidity of it all.

“I had never considered becoming a professional musician. I thought I was going to take my oriental philosophy degree and go to India and become a saint,” she laughs. The actual plan was to attend an arts-focused university in Santiniketan, India. “I couldn’t graduate and that’s how I got into show business. I just had nothing to do, so I went to Greenwich Village to try my luck and I was lucky. It was just the right time – it was okay for somebody like me to be there. It was a little too early for songwriters but I had some fake folk songs.”

But while New York’s ‘60s folk scene, which drew international attention because of Bob Dylan and the like, is still widely viewed as an almost mythic haven of liberalism, Sainte-Marie says the “folkies” were far from open.

“They were all about Woody Guthrie, right? You know, ‘This land is your land, this land used to be my land…’ So, there were certain attitudes, even in folk music, that were not exactly enlightened. Everybody would show up for, like, Black Lives Matter because you got your picture in the magazine, and it was a big photo op. But any of those people show up for Indigenous stuff? No. But you know who did show up? Dick Gregory. Stevie Wonder. Mohammed Ali. There were some people who were hearing me and my message and got to know a little bit about Indigenous stuff beginning with me, because I had the entrée that none of my peers on the rez would have for a long time.”

From that time on, Sainte-Marie would make it up and figure it out as she went along. From Greenwich Village she’d go on to perform concerts and festivals around the U.S. and Canada as invites and opportunities presented themselves, including spending some time in the folk-loving coffee houses of Toronto’s famed Yorkville district (a.k.a. the Greenwich Village of the north). In 1964, she signed with Vanguard Records and released her debut LP, It’s My Way.

That debut record is now considered one of the touchstone albums of the ‘60s folk era thanks to songs like “Cod’ine” and “Universal Solider,” which would be coered by Donovan, Graham Parsons, Janis Joplin, and many others. The latter song, especially, had a radicalness not seen in other anti-war songs of the time by emphasizing soldiers’ individual responsibility for war instead of more abstract anti-war sentiments.

“Glen Campbell recorded ‘Universal Soldier’ and later took it back. He didn’t like it! It took him a few years to figure out what it was about, but he did a great job on it,” Sainte-Marie says with some amusement.

In all, she would release an incredible nine albums in as many years for Vanguard, beginning with It’s My Way and concluding with 1973’s Quiet Places before going over to MCA Records. Through that prolific decade, the reception she got was up and down, and Sainte-Marie herself feels she should’ve been more selective. As such, she laughs off any notion of being exceptionally prolific in this period. “Oh, I just didn’t know any better!” she chuckles. “Some of them aren’t very good, you know? Some have three or four dynamite songs, and the rest is just stuff because Vanguard were in a hurry. I don’t mean to put down their taste, but it costs a lot of money for a record company to actually deliver. So, my early albums had some really interesting material, and the songs are really good, but it’s so terrible to have a bunch of businessmen be the ones who edit your album. They’re the ones who choose the takes.”

To this day she dislikes the vocal takes used on It’s My Way, feeling that better versions of those songs were left in the vault. Nonetheless, the frankness of her lyrics combined with the passionate vibrato in her voice characterized early classics like “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” (1966) and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” (1968).

“I just didn’t know any better. I knew that I didn’t want to just come in and copy some other singer because that would be stupid,” she asserts about her singing style. The distinctive vibrato, though, is still present and powerful on current songs like “Not the Lovin’ Kind” from 2015’s Polaris Music Prize-winning Power in the Blood, though it feels more in control. She also points out that the vibrato is just a natural by-product of singing with emotion – the more emotion she feels while singing, the stronger the vibrato gets.

“In the first place, I wasn’t out to become a music star. I would just try to find something to do because I couldn’t go to India. So, I didn’t concentrate on singing at all,” she continues. “I think I’ve learned how to become a better singer. What I had, though, was the songs and I believed in the songs and there wasn’t anybody else who would sing them. If I could have gotten Judy Collins and Joan Baez to sing my songs, I would have, but they weren’t going to talk to me!... But when I was first recording, I wasn’t thinking like a singer, I was just thinking as the person presenting the song. I wasn’t listening to sharp, flat, fast, slow, or anything – I was just trying to get the song across and give the people that song. But when I realized that I was going to make more than one record, I thought, ‘Oh, geez, I better get it together,’ so I started listening to myself as I sang.”

When it comes to writing those songs, the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee insists that she has no process to speak of. Like many songwriters, when something interesting comes to her, she’ll sing melodies or lyrical snippets into her phone.

“I’m like other writers in that I can wake up with a Bob Dylan song in my head that somehow got addressed to me, and if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget it,” she says. “But I write songs on the airplane, I write songs walking down the street, and, you know, I just duck into a little shop and sing it into my phone, then keep going – or write down lines or whatever. I think it’s typical of many writers. I got fragments all over the place on Post-It notes and in file cabinets and books. I got a lot of stuff, so if I had to make an album tomorrow, I could.” She says it’s this scattershot style of writing and gathering ideas that explains why her songs are so stylistically diverse, often with divergent genres and vibes on the same album.

“I don’t mean to make a statement, it’s just all I got!” she laughs again. Her late-career gem, Power in the Blood, is a prime example of Sainte-Marie’s disregard for stylistic continuity. It shifts from the rave-beats of the title track (which is a cover of British electronic band Alabama 3), to the rock-meets-powwow of “We Are Circling,” to the easy-going folk of “Farm in the Middle of Nowhere.”

“I don’t really decide, ‘I’m going to write an album and it’s going to be about this.’ Medicine Songs is the one exception. Medicine Songs is an album that I really wanted to make and I don’t think the record company was that interested in it,” she says, mentioning her latest LP, released in 2017, for which she rerecorded some of her favourite activism-oriented songs, such as “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” “Disinformation,” and “Fallen Angels.”

“On all my albums, there are no two songs alike. It’s so diverse that it drives record companies crazy,” she continues. “It’s not like a Motown record where every song is pretty much the same. They use the same band, the same guys, same feel, the same singers, you know? Not mine – they’re going every which way. That was just natural to me and we got away with it in the folk music days. But with Illuminations, I wanted each song just to be its own little movie.”

That sixth album in her discography, 1969’s electro-folk-rock epic Illuminations, has undergone a remarkable critical reassessment in recent years. It seems it took a lot of people many years to catch up to its brilliance. In its popular Sunday series of reviews for old albums, Pitchfork gave it a 9/10 and wrote in February 2020 that Illuminations is “astounding” and “trailblazing,” noting the album made Sainte Marie the first artist to use vocals processed through a Buchla 100 synthesizer and the first to make an album using pre-surround-sound quadraphonic technology.

“Folkies just held their noses and ran. They just hated it!” Sainte-Marie of the album’s reception five decades ago. “I had the help of Michael Czajkowski, who was loving his Buchla. And later on, I got involved with Jill Fraser who was using a Serge [modular synth] and I was using electronic instruments in movie scoring. So, if you listen to any of my albums, the only thing they have in common is that each one is just itself and that’s just the only way I know how to do it. Some people like that and some people don’t like that.”

Around the time of Illumination’s release in 1969, something insidious was happening in the walls of power that would impact Sainte-Marie’s career in a manner that is impossible to measure. But she wouldn’t find out about it for 20 years. Because of the pacifist, anti-war messages of her music, as well as her songs and work that raised awareness of the genocide and continued exploitation of North America’s Indigenous peoples, she was blacklisted from U.S. radio. Having a hand in it were the presidential administrations of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and influential Nashville radio disc jockey Ralph Emery, who’d taken issue with the anti-colonial lyrics of her 1968 album, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again. At a time when radio was the way songs got heard and artists’ careers were built and maintained, this blacklisting held her career back in untold ways.

“I didn’t know about it at all. I just thought singers come and singers go. Even my lawyer, when he found out about it, he had to talk me into even pursuing it. He said, ‘Well, let’s get your FBI files.’ I said, ‘I haven’t got any FBI files! I never broke the law. I never smoked pot on the White House lawn — nothing,’” she laughs.

Alas, the FBI did have a surprising number of files on her, though she says all they did was prove “I had a normal, innocent life.” The ironic thing is she never sought to be a rabble-rouser. As Sainte-Marie sees it, she’s simply a teacher. She views her most political songs as journalism in the form of music. It’s why she’s meticulous with the accuracy of the lyrics, to the point where she has annotated versions of songs like “Universal Solider” and “The War Racket” on her website that explain every line.

“If somebody comes to you and they don’t know something, it’s not your job to
give them the information in an enema. You’re trying to help them, you’re trying to give them something. Songs like ‘Now that the Buffalo’s Gone’ and ‘Universal Soldier’ are meant to make sense to people. They’re not meant to hurt people,” she says. “The one song in my catalog that really gets down to grinding it into an audience is ‘My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying,’ because it just needs to be done. I just didn’t care who liked it and didn’t like it. For years, people had been coming and asking me, you know, ‘You’ve got to write Indian 101 in a song.’ And so that’s my attempt to write Indian 101 in a song. It’s like six minutes long, but it does get to the point.”

So, the sad reality is Sainte-Marie was unjustly blacklisted because of her message. But because she wasn’t aware while it was going on, she doesn’t get too worked up about it now. What she does wonder about is what would’ve been had she not had those invisible chains holding her back?

“The second part of what you said, ‘Do you ever think about what would have happened if you had not been taken out?’ That’s the point I think about because I think I could have made a real contribution,” Sainte-Marie says to Canadian Musician. “For instance, I was never booked in the west. I wasn’t booked in South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, Oklahoma — I wouldn’t go anywhere where the oil companies ruled. They were mostly controlling the newspapers, the television, the radio stations, they were all heavily influenced by people who considered Indigenous people to be a potential threat to their ownership.”

But in addition to those corporate and political shackles, Sainte-Marie says she also didn’t play the industry game needed to become a household on the level of, say, Neil Young or Leonard Cohen. Really, it was a combination of not knowing how to, not wanting to, and not being allowed to play that game. Plus, being a young, solo female artist who doesn’t drink, she often stayed away from the bars and parties where a lot of industry relationships and deals get made. “I know what it was that made Neil Young so well known, in addition to talent. I mean, I wonder if Neil would have done as well if he had been a female Indigenous person? Or would he have walked away in disgust with what he would have had to put up with? He did not have to put up with misogyny and racism,” she asserts. “I knew Leonard and he was just plain wonderful and talented. And then I know the show business details of what it is that makes an artist into a household name, and I never had that. As I as a matter of fact, I had the opposite.”

In fact, Sainte-Marie says the same lawyer who got her out of the contract with Vanguard and helped get the FBI files also told her, about 15 or 20 years ago, that there had been “men in the music industry who didn’t want me to succeed.”

“That hurt, because I think it recalled old misogyny and bullying from my childhood,” she continues. “I didn’t know that there were actually some famous men who were responsible for making sure that I didn’t happen in the U.S. I think for some, it was just that they didn’t know how to manage me themselves. They didn’t know what to do with me, you know? And therefore, I was the competition because I was doing all that kind of by myself. I did have management in my early days, but for a very long time I didn’t. Now I have a fantastic manager, [Gilles Paquin,] and it makes all the difference in the world.”

On the cusp of 80-years-old, Sainte-Marie’s career and reputation have never been stronger. Her latest albums – Power in the Blood and Medicine Songs – are among the most acclaimed of her career. Across this country her concerts have been a huge draw, and young artists treat her with incredible reverence. And her list of accolades is intimidating — a Golden Globe and an Academy Award (both for Best Original Song for 1982’s “Up Where We Belong”); inductions into Canada’s Music Hall of Fame, Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Country Music Hall of Fame; a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame; an armful of Juno Awards; the 2015 Polaris Music Prize; an absurd number of honorary doctorate degrees from Canadian universities; and a Companion of the Order of Canada, just to name a few.

No doubt, she is an icon – in Canada at least. Though she has spent the majority of her life in the U.S., this country has proudly claimed her as its own idol. And while Sainte-Marie identifies simply as Indigenous North American, she is also happy for the recognition and appreciation. “Well you notice they’re the only ones who do? At least somebody claims me, because the U.S. sure doesn’t!” she good-naturedly exclaims. “We predate that border. So, it’s not as though I’m rejecting either the U.S. or Canada. I think I’m pretty lucky to have had two families and to have two countries. And one of them claims me, the other one doesn’t know who I am. They think I died in 1973, so it’s all good,” she deadpans.

It’s been an astonishing life and career. She is a remarkable person, artist, teacher, and thinker. One whose imprint on other artists can’t yet be measured. But maybe Jeremy Dutcher identified her biggest contribution when speaking with Canadian Musician in 2019.

“We have this beautiful word in our language – nihkanapasihtit – that means, ‘the
ones that have led the way.’ That is exactly it. I play this work, and the beauty that I get to experience – going around and doing these awards shows and wearing silly things and doing lots of cool stuff – because those people shared what they could,” the Polaris-winning, Indigenous musician and composer said. “[Buffy] did not stay safe. She was blacklisted for a very long time for her stances on Vietnam and what she was doing. But she was there; she was holding space and keeping the door open for the rest of us to walk through.”

There is really no better legacy than that.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter and weekly updates