Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

This week on Art of the Song we welcome legendary Canadian-American folk singer, educator, and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie. Although Buffy’s music today is far from traditional folk, it embodies the anti-war and Native rights sentiment that is at the heart of folk music. Her music was blacklisted by the FBI during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and despite the setbacks, she persevered with her music and teaching and found a new venue–the children’s TV show “Sesame Street”. 

In 1997, Buffy Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans. She has won recognition and numerous awards for both her music and her work in education and social activism. We spoke with Buffy about the release of her CD “Power in the Blood”.

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Introduction, Power in the Blood

Viv: It’s our great pleasure to be talking with Buffy Sainte-Marie today for Art of the Song. Buffy, thank you so much for joining us from Ottawa, Canada.

Buffy: Thanks a lot.

Viv: We’re celebrating your new release “Power in the Blood”. It’s a wonderful album, and as we’ve all come to expect and know and love about you, you deliver message and connection through just a rockin’ CD.

Buffy: Thanks. It kinda moves, doesn’t it?

Viv: It does. It really kicks. I’m fascinated by your association with A3, Alabama 3. 

Buffy: Oh, were you aware of Alabama 3?

Viv: I did some research on them so I was vaguely aware of them.

Buffy: Well, some people might not recognize their name, but if they ever watch The Sopranos, that great theme song, “Woke up this morning, got yourself a gun”, right? 

John: Of course.

Buffy: Whoa, they are just a powerful group of musicians. Although they’re very different from me stylistically (some people might be surprised about such a collaboration), we’re mutual fans and what I did was I re-wrote one of their songs which was pretty violent. Their song was saying, “When that comet comes, I’ll be ready for war and cut you limb from limb” and this stuff and I thought, “Oh, this would make a great peace song!”. So they thought that was pretty funny, but now that they’ve heard it, they’ve said, “Yes” and now they understand it. So we’re mutual fans.

Viv: You re-worked the songs–did you change up lyrics or did you just re-work the delivery?

Buffy: No both, I re-wrote it as a peace song. My song says “And when that comet comes, I will say ‘No, no no no no to war'”. Both versions, both their lyrics and mine, they’re both about the racketeering that’s kind of generalized in our world today. Everybody’s got some kind of racket going. In other words, real estate or war or GMO or whatever’s coming down. Their approach was to say, “I will be ready for war” and mine was about “I will say ‘No no no’ to war”. Mine says things like “No time for spin doctor’s medicine from corporation, government selling me some cover-up. Weaponizing pesticides, poisoning my groceries, everything a license you can buy and sell.” It’s basically their song “Power in the Blood” kind of updated and relocated to a lot of the issues that people are concerned about throughout the world including North America.

Viv: Is that a common practice–just to sort of grab somebody’s song and say, “This is exactly what I want to say, except I’m going to flip it over and do a 180 on it and do it this way?” Is that something that artists are usually fairly open to having done?

Buffy: You know, I don’t really know. I just know that they like me and I like them and when I heard that song, I asked them would they mind if I do that.

New Album Producers and Song Selection

Buffy: The other songs on my album “Power in the Blood”, all except that one [Power in the Blood] and one other, are originals with me that I wrote. When I was making the album, I knew that the album was, as usual for my albums, going to be real diverse. They were going to be love songs and issue songs and rockers and rockabilly. Kind of high-power everything, whatever it is, intense in whatever it is. I also asked the record company, whatever it is, I said, “There must be some great songs of meaning out there that people are writing. New ones, old ones, I don’t care.” So they sent me a few songs and I chose one other. There was a song that UB40 wrote during the Nelson Mandela Anti-Apartheid years in South Africa, became a huge anthem. It’s called “Sing Our Own Song”. I turned it into a Native American very contemporary version and I used a much-beloved pow wow group named Northern Cree and I used samples from one of their albums. Really, it makes it a brand-new approach to issues that are very contemporary. Again, I changed some of the lyrics to have them fit indigenous people in North America as opposed to South Africa. I hear they like it a lot too. But everything else is original with me.

John: I understand you used three different producers for this record. Explain how that happened and what the effect is. 

Buffy: When I made my last album “Running For the Drum”, I explained to my band that we were going on a two-year world tour and all of the sudden it’s year six of that tour, so we’re on the road all the time playing all types of great songs that audiences had not heard before, either because they were songs written before they were born or they were brand new. Anyway, they hadn’t heard them, so when True North came to me and said, “Do you want to record?” I was just ready. My band was ready, we had the songs ready and the record company said “Well who do you want to produce?” and I co-produced my previous four albums with Chris Birkett, who’s British, and I did want to work with Chris again, but I also wanted to see who else was out there. So, I got on some airplane rides and I flew around and auditioned a bunch of producers and I actually liked three. I told the record company, “Yeah, I like John Levine a lot”. I call him “The Divine John Levine”. He’s from Toronto, but he’s living in L.A. making hit records with Serena Ryder and all kinds of great artists. I also liked Michael Wojewoda, who’s also a Toronto guy. He’s more of a classical and jazz approach, although he did Barenaked Ladies. Anyway, I wound up working with all three producers. What I did was I had my demos that I had made in my own home studio. I played them all for each producer and I let them choose which ones they wanted to work on. So each producer was very enthusiastic and had a personal love for the songs that he chose. Then Michael Wojewoda mixed the final combination to make sure that everything’s at the right level and works well from track to track. It was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of variety in the album. We’re all real proud of it.

John: Are these songs that you wrote specifically for the album or are some of them older songs?

Buffy: Both, really. Like I said, I was on the road and we were doing most of the songs on the album. Most of them we were already doing live and audiences were loving them, so it was pretty easy. “Carry it On”, which I think is my favorite, is just one of my favorite songs that I’ve ever written because it’s so positive. It’s about the issues but it’s so positive, it brings us up every night that we perform it. Audiences just love the words. It says, “Hold your head up. Lift the top of your mind. Put your eyes in the earth. Lift your heart to your own home planet. What do you see? What is your attitude? Are you here to improve or damn it? Look right now and you’ll see we’re only here right now by the skin of our teeth as it is. So take heart, and take care of your link with life. It ain’t money that makes the world go round. That’s only temporary confusion. It ain’t governments that make the people strong, it’s the opposite illusion. Look right now and you’ll see they’re only here by the skin of their teeth as it is. So take heart and take care of your link with life is beautiful if you’ve got the sense to take care of your source of perfection. Mother Nature, she’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection. Look right now and you see that she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is. So take heart, and take care of your link with life and carry it on. Carry it on. Keep playing. Keep praying. And carry it on.”

Activism, Music for Peace

Viv: Buffy, it sounds to me, it feels to me, like spiritual connection and staying positive like that can be actually one of the most radical forms of activism.

Buffy: Yeah, I think you’re right. A lot of us who came up through the ’60’s, we had the advantage of the student movement and the collective energy of just hundreds of thousands of students who weren’t going to go to the war. They just weren’t going to go. And we saw how public awareness can act as a cohesive connect-the-dots among people. There was tremendous diversity in the ’60’s. You could hear southern rural blues next to flamenco next to four hundred year old British folk songs next to contemporary songwriters. Then it all went away and got genre-fied for a very long time. But now, with the internet, I feel as though, there again, people have enough diverse information available to them, that they can connect their own dots and I think people are getting smarter again. The old rackets, the rackets that still bug people today, have been around for a very long time, probably since before the Old Testament. They’ve brought us some terrible, terrible things like the Inquisition and like the Roman Empire and like colonialism. Every now and then it seems as though the people will be forever defeated, but people do respond I think. And can respond in non-violent ways and make changes. I love Gandhi’s saying, I always think about it when I’m going to perform the song “Power in the Blood”. He said, “There are many causes that I would die for, but there is no cause that I would kill for.” With hair triggers and short tempers and a lot of money to be made in war, I think that every bit of common sense and good feeling and using your brain to figure out alternative ways to resolve conflicts, it’s all very worthwhile.

Viv: Do you think that music is a conduit for peace?

Buffy: I think it can be, sure, but it can also be a conduit for war. Every time that the war machine wants to get us stirred up and marching, those old marches come out. And there are some great marches too. But music is a form of communication and it can be used to communicate anything. I know a lot of Jewish people who won’t ever listen to Wagner because the Nazis used Wagner. They used to broadcast it over the back of trucks when they were doing terrible things to the Jews in Europe. But that wasn’t Wagner’s fault, that was Hitler’s fault. Music, I think, can be a great vehicle for change, including for peace. Yes it can.

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Album Aspirations, Writing past genres, Sesame Street

Viv: What is your hope for this album? Do you have a particular dream for what’s going to happen with it? Or are you simply walking your path and releasing music?

Buffy: Well, kind of both. I hope a whole lot of people get to hear it. Because everybody who’s here hears it, likes it. People are sometimes surprised though. I’ve had an interesting career as a songwriter and a singer in that people usually categorize me according to whatever they were listening to the first time they heard me. If they were in high school the first time that they heard “Universal Soldier”, that’s kind of how they think of me or, if the first thing that they ever heard from me was “Until It’s Time for You to Go” (which Elvis Presley and Barbara Streisand and everybody in the world recorded) or my Academy Award song in the ’80’s “Up Where We Belong”. So people think of “Classic Buffy” in different ways. I’m always surprised when they’re surprised at how diverse my albums are. Randy Bachman is a big fan of mine, and Alabama 3 and I found out Chris Isaacs, and Neko Case and people who come from all different kinds of music will respond to me as a songwriter through their own genres and it often surprises people who like a different kind of music. They’ll think, “I hope she doesn’t do any of those issue-oriented songs” and other people will say “I hope she does!” or “I hope she doesn’t do any rockers” and somebody else will say, “I hope she does”. 

Viv: “I hope she doesn’t sing any love songs!”

Buffy: “I hope she doesn’t sing any darn love songs!”

Viv: Totally stomp our buzz. That’s wonderful. How human to be so diverse and just unpeggable in that way. If you could talk a little bit about how that comes to you: the different sides, the different facets of you that come out musically that express and connect to all of these different genres. 

Buffy: Yeah, it’s more of a natural thing. I always say I’m kind of an overgrown 3 year old. I still write and perceive the world pretty much the same way I did when I was a kid. I’m a natural musician. I remember my friend, the late Chet Atkins; he told me one time somebody asked him, could he read music? And he said, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” So he was a natural musician too, which I think many, many songwriters and musicians are. I found out recently that I’m actually dyslexic in music because I’ve tried three times to learn how to be a site-reader and read notation. It’s funny, I can write for an orchestra but I can’t read it back the next day, so it’s not as though I don’t know how, it’s just that to read music for me is like trying to write with my left hand, why would I bother? So I play by ear and by heart and that greatly informs the emotional content of my music, I think. I never had somebody, the classic beating on your knuckles with a ruler when you’re taking piano; I never had to go through that. As a songwriter, it’s kind of like, if you go to sleep at night, you don’t know if you’re going to have a dream, let alone what a dream might be about. Songs pop into my head very often, just unbidden. They just show up and I’ll wake up at night, or I’m in an airplane, or I have an instrument or I don’t have an instrument, all of the sudden there’s a song in my head. I write in two different ways really. There’s that inspirational thing where the song pops into your head and it’s pretty much a helicopter vision of the song where you know what the emotion is, you know what the music sounds like, some of the words are already there. So that’s what I’ll call an inspirational kind of song. But then, there’s another kind of song that I write, I think, which has really been helped by the fact that when I was at the University of Massachusetts, I got two degrees. I got a teaching degree and a degree in Oriental Philosophy and World Religion, because that’s what I was interested in. I loved studying that intensely for four years. So some songs like “Universal Soldier” or the new words for “Power in the Blood” or “Generation”, which is also on the new album, these are songs that really take some crafting. The way I think about it is, it’s like I’m trying to write a thesis for a professor who doesn’t like me and doesn’t like my topic and I’m still determined to not only get an A+ but to convince the guy. As early as 1962, I guess, ’62 or ’63, I was writing things like “Universal Soldier” and “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone”. I really love the art of the 3 1/2 minute song and I wanted to inform the people in an engaging way. I wanted to not only give them the information, but I also wanted them to enjoy the experience. I’m a teacher and if you have a lesson to give, you want to make it charming, informative, and engaging. You don’t want to give the people the message in an enema. It’s not a matter of yelling and screaming. It’s a matter of having respect for your audience and giving them the information in a way that they’ll enjoy. There are some songwriter skills involved there. The next place that I went to, though, I had a hard time with the Johnson and Nixon administrations and where I went with my music and what I wanted to do with my brains in the world. I went Sesame Street and I went into movie scoring. So there was no way I was going to get any airplay during those two administrations, who did not want the public to say about either the Vietnam War or the theft of American Indian lands and oppression and poverty of American Indian people. They did not want that information on television. I had a big hit record. In 1964 I was named Billboard’s “Best New Artist” and that was the year the Beatles came to America. So I had a big career, lots of magazines and magazine covers and I got to go on the Tonight Show. I did a song called “Now the Buffalo’s Gone” when Harry Belafonte was substitute host for Johnny Carson. He invited me to sing that song. However, when I went back to the Tonight Show, after the Johnson administration had started their blacklisting phone calls, etc., I was asked to just stick to celebrity chat and not talk about the Vietnam War or native issues at all. So, when I went to Sesame Street, I was back in a 3 1/2 minute short attention: be engaging, be charming, and deliver a message that is really wonderful. Sesame Street was just a fantastic experience for me. I was never exploited, I was never stereotype. I wrote some of the scripts that we did. For instance, we did one on breastfeeding. I asked if they had ever done that, because I was breastfeeding my own baby and, sure enough, they did it and it’s still on YouTube. Somebody puts it up, somebody else takes it down. But there’s Big Bird looking over his nest and I’m sitting alongside of his nest nursing the baby and he says, “Watcha doing Buffy?” and I said, “Oh I’m feeding the baby”. He waits a minute then he says, “That’s a funny way to feed a baby.” So I explain to him that not all mothers feed their babies this way, but this is a good way and he gets everything he needs and I get to cuddle him. Then Big Bird does what the normal four year old would do. He goes back to playing. He says, “Oh that’s nice”. And it’s no big deal. So they were like an extension of songwriting for me, Sesame Street was.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE #5: Blacklisting, Cradleboard Teaching Project

Viv: Buffy, there’s a lot of things that have happened throughout your career, and it doesn’t feel to me like you have ever taken them as something to hold you back. It almost sounds like it’s been more of an impetus to move forward and find another way of getting your music and your message out.

Buffy: The whole blacklisting thing, I didn’t even know about it. It’s not as though they call you up and tell you, “Guess what? The FBI is doing a file on you.” I found out 20 years later that they had me under surveillance. What a waste of the taxpayer’s money. Here I am goody two-shoes. If you had written to the FBI and asked “Do they have a file on Buffy Sainte-Marie?”, they wouldn’t tell you what was in it, but they would let you know “Yes, we do. We have her under surveillance. We have a file on her.” When I finally did get my FBI files because I was on the radio in Toronto and a broadcaster let me know that he had participated in suppressing my music and had letters from the White House thanking him for suppressing my music, which, in their opinion, deserved to be suppressed. It’s not as though they passed an Act of Congress, it’s just nasty phone calls that a couple of guys make in the back room. They’re not the government; it’s just an administration. They’re only there for four years; they’re going to do whatever they want to do. In my case, they kind of drowned a career. At the time, they did not want people to know. For two years, there was no war in Vietnam. That’s what they were saying. Of course, there was a war in Vietnam and I was talking to soldiers who had been there. When you shoot your mouth off sometimes for a good cause, ok, you get shut up, but it doesn’t turn your brain off. So I just continued my concerts and touring in other countries. But I did continue to work in the U.S., just at a quieter level. Sesame Street was huge. I was basically delivering the same message: Indians exist and make love, not war. Sesame Street was shown in 73 countries over the world. Three times a day. It was a huge audience. Went into movie scoring too. It’s not as though just because I disappeared from the public perception in the U.S. It’s not as though I had quit. I kept on writing. I kept on performing. I kept on touring. I kept on developing my music, becoming a better guitar player. Writing more songs. Being involved in music in a different level and I was really happy about it. I didn’t know that I was being blacklisted in the U.S.

Viv: I just feel like your music and your message is unquenchable. It’s going to come out.

Buffy: Thank you, but it’s funny you’ll notice if you look through, for instance, in Albuquerque, I never did tours through Indian country. I wasn’t invited to do tours in those big theaters that Joni Mitchell may have played or some of my other contemporaries may have played. Because who was it who owned the theaters? Who owned the newspapers? Who owned the television and radio stations? The same people who were cronies of the resource companies who were stealing Indian land and making sure that we remained in poverty and gerrymandering and splitting the vote in Indian country. I wasn’t invited to tour in Indian country. In the U.S., most Native American people today would not know my name. They may have for a brief time in the ‘60s, but I was definitely put out of business in the U.S., especially in Indian Country.

Viv: Would you like to talk a little about Cradleboard? 

Buffy: Just a very little about Cradleboard. Cradleboard really is our classroom partnership program and is on hiatus at the moment. I’m personally working with a lot of universities to teach them how to do the Cradleboard Teaching Project. The Cradleboard Teaching Project was the main initiative of a scholarship foundation that I found in 1969 to put aboriginal people through college. They would graduate high school and not know how to negotiate the path to college. They just didn’t know how to get to a foundation. How to get funded to get to go to college. Even prouder than I am of my Academy Award, I’m so proud to have found out maybe 15 years ago, that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to become the founders of Tribal Colleges, the American Indian Tribal Colleges. So that was really nice, you never know you might do some little thing for somebody and they will take that gift and maximize it in ways that you never could have done yourself. So I went to being a scholarship foundation from answering a question that my son’s teacher, after we had finished Sesame Street (I was on Sesame Street for five and a half years with my little boy). So now he was in grade five and his teacher came and said, “I’m required by law to teach this Indian unit and I know it’s bologna, the resources that I have”. So I started helping her by writing a Native American studies unit for grade five, and it expanded into a big partnering program that I ran for over twenty years whereby kids and teachers and community members in a reservation community would be connected with a non-Indian school far away and they would become study-buddies and learning partners about Native American geography and social studies and government and science. Not primarily history, but other things. Core subjects. Now we’re not operating that partnering program but I’m working with a lot of university teacher-education programs teaching them how to do that in their own local communities so that they’ll be doing science through Cherokee eyes. Science through Navajo eyes. Government through Mohawk eyes. Etc. It’s really a great joy to be teaching the teachers of future teachers, who’s curriculum will finally trickle down to elementary, middle, and high school grades with proper, engaging, enriching, fun, multimedia curriculum.

Importance of finding your voice

Viv: Buffy, with all of the work that you’ve done in education and all of your music, and your work on Sesame Street, do you believe that it’s important that everyone find their creative voice and share it?

Buffy: Oh yeah, and what a great question that is, thanks. I told you I’m kind of like a three year old. The first time I saw a piano, I sat down and figured out what it could do, I didn’t want to get up ever again. It became my toy, my playmate. I never did learn how to play barbies. I’m not very good at sports. But, I tell you, music and art, and when I discovered my own creativity, life began for me. Of the hard things I’ve been through, the arts and creativity have been what connects me to the creator. What connects me to the creation?  You know that everybody is creative at age five. You take a bunch of five year olds to the beach and they’re all creative. They make up songs. They make up stories. They use their imaginations and make up dramas and different characters. They make pictures and they dance. Then they enter school and it all goes away. All of the sudden they’re working and it change. That’s why that song “Carry It On” it says “Keep on playing!”. I always tell grown-ups, “You know, that creative kid is still inside you! Go into a dark room with a big canvas and a bunch of paints and don’t even look. Just paint something without looking. See what you get! Or go into a room with a piano and just sit down when nobody’s around. Close your eyes. Don’t even look. Just make some noise and follow your instinct as to what you think is interesting. Creativity is really play. Even in the Bible where it says we are made in the image of the Creator. To me, that really stands out because it’s our green light for creativity. We’re supposed to create our worlds. We’re supposed to create our families. Our communities. Our works of art. Our music. Our songs. That playful sense of creativity is really sacred and inborn in every one of us, I believe. I was just lucky to have held onto it for a lifetime of sharing and continued learning with other musicians. 

John: Wow. This is really what our mission is all about is inspiring creativity so you just hit the nail on the head for our listeners.

Buffy: Oh good! Thank you. Thanks a lot.

John: Buffy Sainte-Marie, thank you so much for talking with us on Art of the Song. 

Buffy: My pleasure.

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