The Unbreakable Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Candid Conversation with the Resilient Songwriter and Activist
“I thought it would be over tomorrow,” says Buffy Sainte-Marie, remembering her first big break in 1963 when a New York Times music critic came to her debut at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe and the next day declared her “one of the most promising new talents on the folk scene.” She was 22, fresh out of college, and already had written two of her most searing, acoustic-guitar-driven protest anthems, “Universal Soldier“ and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.”
“I was real different, in that I wasn’t going for a career. I didn’t think I was going to last,” says Sainte-Marie, 75, sipping a mug of peppermint tea and sitting down to chat before performing at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco.
When it was over—at least in the States, where Sainte-Marie was blacklisted in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover—she had no idea why, chalking it up to her music falling out of favor with fickle American tastes. She continued recording and touring outside the United States, before taking a 16-year recording hiatus in 1975 to raise her son. It wasn’t until the ’80s that she learned her music had been suppressed, also discovering the US government tapped her phone and she had a 31-page FBI file.
For Sainte-Marie, the personal has always been political. Born Beverly Sainte-Marie to Cree parents on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, Canada, she was orphaned within the first year of her life and adopted by a couple who were part Micmac. A self-proclaimed “loner,” music came naturally and from a young age. Upon graduating from the University of Massachusetts with a B.A. in philosophy, Sainte-Marie thought she’d become a teacher, but her course changed after moving to New York City.
‘I wasn’t trying to embarrass white people. I was trying to give them something they had never had a chance to know—what happened to Native American people.’
Her 1964 debut album—aptly titled It’s My Way! (Vanguard)—established her as one of folk’s most unique voices, with her electrifying vibrato, her use of alternate guitar tunings, and her ability to tackle topical themes (cultural genocide, drug addiction, war) in a three-minute song. In 1969, she trailblazed a new path on her sixth album, Illuminations (Vanguard), the first quadraphonic vocal album ever made. Using a Buchla synthesizer, Sainte-Marie layered vocals and acoustic guitar into a mind-melting album that was the precursor to freak folk and can be heard today in the sound of Sufjan Stevens, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart.
Sainte-Marie has a gift for both far-flung experimentation and chart-topping pop music. Her widely covered 1965 single “Until It’s Time for You to Go” spawned hits for Elvis, Neil Diamond, and the Four Pennies. “Up Where We Belong,” from the feature film An Officer and a Gentleman, co-written with Will Jennings and then-husband Jack Nietzsche, earned her an Academy Award in 1983—making her the only indigenous North-American person to win an Oscar.
The accolades continued with her most recent album, 2015’s Power in the Blood (True North), which won the prestigious Polaris Music Prize—beating out nine Canadian artists that included hit rapper Drake and indie-rock supergroup the New Pornographers—as well as two 2016 Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys) for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year and Aboriginal Album of the Year. In 2015, the American Music Association recognized her tireless dedication to social justice with a Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music Award. Last fall, she released a video voicing her support for activists at the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, where Native Americans, veterans, and other activists were protesting construction of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Sitting down with Sainte-Marie on the heels of her return to the spotlight, at least in the States, she’s glowing with gratitude. (She claims the glow is due to a lifelong regimen of “bed, bath, and ballet.”) She’s as defiant and self-assured as the girl who put an exclamation point on the title of her first album. But, surprisingly, she’s not jaded. Sainte-Marie opens up about how she’s persevered—as an artist and an activist—and why she’s uplifted by the fact that there’s always more work to be done.
Tell me about the first songs you played on guitar?
I had been playing music on the piano. . . . I used to play fake Beethoven and fake Tchaikovsky and anything I heard on the radio. I was supposed to be ironing my school clothes, but I discovered rockabilly radio, so I was listening to Scotty Moore, Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan. My dad bought me my first guitar. I had seen it in a pawn shop.
Did you teach yourself songs off the radio, off records?
No, I made ’em up myself, just fooling around on the guitar. I’ve always been able to find a song in a guitar. You take your hand, put it on any tuning peg, and twist. Then you do the same thing with the next one until you find something that appeals to you.
How old were you?
I was about 16. I knew I must be some kind of musician, because I can sit down and make up music, of just about any kind you can think of. I do it for fun. But I failed all my music classes. I couldn’t read music, and I thought, “Oh, I’m probably just lazy.” I’ve tried three times as an adult to learn how to read [music] and I can’t. I was told that if you can’t read music, you’re not a musician. I only recently learned I am dyslexic.
I was raised in predominantly white towns in Maine and Massachusetts. I was told that there weren’t any more Indians. So it’s kind of a dichotomy that’s beaded the edges of my life, all these things that you can’t be—but I actually knew better.
When did you write ‘Universal Soldier’?
I was probably 20 or 21.
‘A couple of guys go in the back room and they make nasty phone calls to the networks, to the media, to the press. You only have to hold a person underwater for four minutes and they’re dead.’
Before you moved to New York?
Yeah, I’d already written it when I went to New York. I had just graduated from college, I had a degree in oriental philosophy and a teacher’s degree, and I thought I was going to India to continue studying. So I showed up in Greenwich Village with my guitar, singing songs that had come quite naturally to me, about everything under the sun.
There were a lot of open-mic nights and I said, “Oh, what the heck, I’ll do that.” And I went to Gerde’s Folk City. Bob Dylan was hanging around there—he wasn’t famous yet—and he said, “You know where else you oughta go? Go down to the Gaslight, and talk to Sam Hood.”
I didn’t think I was going to last. I thought I was going to India.
How did you fit into the Greenwich Village folk scene?
I wasn’t a part of it. They were singing “This land is your land, this land is my land.” They didn’t realize how offensive that is to Native-American people. This land used to be my land, but we traded it. You gave us the Bible, and you got the land, right? There was always that.
I was such a loner. I was a girl with a pair of sneakers and a guitar. But onstage, I always wore high heels and pretty dresses. The folk police didn’t like that.
Folk police! I love that.
Look at what girls were wearing—granny dresses and sandals and that kind of thing. It was fine, nothing wrong with that, but I used to order my clothes from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the only place I could find va-va-voom dresses, and I wore ’em, and sang “Universal Soldier.” [laughter]
So you’re performing songs like ‘Universal Soldier’ wearing lingerie and, even still, I’m sure you scared the hell out of some people. I know it was covered by Donovan. Is it widely known as your song?
A lot of people still tell me I didn’t write it. They tell me Donovan did.
Someone once tried to tell me Gram Parsons wrote ‘Cod’ine.’
Yeah, that’s right. And “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” they said Rod McKuen wrote that. No. I wrote all those songs. But with Donovan, you know, it’s an easy mistake to make. He only sang his own songs, and then he sang “Universal Soldier” and “Cod’ine.” People figured that he wrote them, and his management didn’t say he didn’t.
I have this song, “Johnny Be Fair,” and about six months ago, I was in Australia at a music festival and an Irish folk singer came up to me and she said, “I just have to ask you, because one of the songs in our traditional Irish literature is called ‘Johnny Be Fair,’ and somebody told me that you claim you wrote it.” And I said, “Are you kidding? Is it really? Yeah, I wrote that.” So, you never know.
Was it Vanguard [her first label] that marketed you as a folksinger?
Yeah, it really wasn’t the place to put me. People who wanted Ewan MacColl and Joan Baez, pure singers of traditional folk music, were disappointed in me. But Vanguard signed me, and when they signed me, they said, “Who’s your lawyer?” and I said, “What’s that?” And they said, “That’s OK, you can use ours.” So eventually, when I finally got out of my Vanguard contract, that was part of it. That they had hoodwinked me in a conflict of interest. Things like that don’t so much impact your wallet as it impacts your heart and soul. I mean, I never even got to decide. I had zero control.
You had no creative control?
None at all. As a matter of fact, the last album that I made for Vanguard, I was in the hospital, and the art director came and said, “If you’re not going to re-sign with us, this is the cover we’re using for—we’re going to call it The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vol. 2.” It was a really bad picture, and [the album] was a lot of outtakes. They just wanted to sell records. They would do anything. They’d paint it green or they’d paint it black or they’d paint it purple or they’d paint it yellow. You know? They were just guessing. They were just trying to outguess the marketplace. Record companies, the record business, people think it’s about music, but it’s not. The business is only about money.
‘I’ve always been able to find a song in a guitar. You take your hand, put it on any tuning peg, and twist.’
I want to talk about your first album. You come out the gate with ‘Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.’ It’s not easing anybody into what you’re about. It unapologetically presents you as a political artist.
What I’m trying to do in a song like “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” “Universal Soldier,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” or “Generation”—which is on the new album—I’m trying to give people something that they otherwise wouldn’t know about. But I’m not trying to hurt them. I’m not trying to break their hearts. I’m not trying to give them the truth in an enema. As a college girl, it’s like, I’m writing a thesis for a professor who doesn’t like me and doesn’t want me to have the point of view I’m trying to convince him of.
You’re being persuasive.
Yeah, which I have to do in three minutes. And I love that, see? Because I trained to be a teacher, so a short attention span is perfect for an audience and a songwriter. All these things went together for me. The idea of writing a concise thesis and getting an A+ from somebody who doesn’t like me, that’s the kind of challenge that I like. I was facing audiences who knew zero about Native-American people. Let alone that a dam [Kinzua Dam] was being built in New York State and that the oldest treaty in the Congressional Archives [Treaty of Canandaigua] had been broken by George Washington.
Did you ever get any feedback about the political songs in particular?
Sometimes. I mean, especially “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” which is Indian 101 in six minutes. Some people really would be offended. Some people wanted their money back.
Did that make you not want to play it?
No, not at all, because I wasn’t doing it to be mean to them. I wasn’t trying to embarrass white people. I was trying to give them something they had never had a chance to know—what happened to Native-American people. How we got to be in the state that we’re in today. Extreme poverty and bad health and terrible diet. In one generation, we went from a diet of fresh food and buffalo stew to baloney and Jell-O. I mean why not take an opportunity? If all of a sudden, you’re rich and famous for a few minutes, why not take an opportunity to do what you wanted to do?
So “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” was part of that, and so was “Universal Soldier”—I thought it was an irrefutable argument against war, and it still is.
I did realize that some people, especially in New York, were coming to Buffy’s concert to see the little Indian girl cry. And that just stood my hair on end—that there were some people who were just coming to indulge their emotions. So I took my show to the reservations. I told people, “Turn around and dig the beauty of your own people.”
What songs made you cry? Did you actually cry when you performed?
“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” I wouldn’t stand there blubbering. I would just get a stronger vibrato because my throat kind of tightens up when I’m emotional.
When did you realize your music was being suppressed?
I made four albums in Nashville with [producer] Norbert Putnam that were really, really good, but we couldn’t get them played. It was killing me that we couldn’t get ’em played. Because, you know, we were doing them night after night onstage and people were going crazy for them. It was the early ’70s and I was totally out of the picture by then. It didn’t matter what we put out. My name was dead. I never knew why until the ’80s.
How did you find out?
A DJ publicly apologized to me for having gone along with letters from the [Lyndon] Johnson White House calling to suppress my music. I didn’t think much about it, but I mentioned it to my lawyer, and he said, “Let’s see if you have FBI files.” And I said, “No, man, I’ve never been that important.” Well, sure enough, there were FBI files, and I saw them.
I was really not suffering during those years. I was having a great career outside of the US, and I thought that tastes change, and singers come and singers go. That’s what you think. I mean, who would have thought it?
I didn’t know that any of it was going to get me in trouble. People will say, “Well, doesn’t that make you hate the goddamn US government?” No. It has nothing to do with the government. It has nothing to do with the United States as a country. The Lyndon Johnson administration was a handful of cronies. And then, Nixon? He objected to my stance on the whole American Indian Movement [AIM]. The federal government wanted an eighth of the Pine Ridge Reservation, which contained uranium. That’s what that was about.
So a couple of guys go in the back room and they make nasty phone calls to the networks, to the media, to the press. You only have to hold a person underwater for four minutes and they’re dead.
‘I did realize that some people, especially in New York, were coming to Buffy’s concert to see the little Indian girl cry. And that just stood my hair on end.’
I was indignant for you when I found out. Like, she’s not as famous as she should be here, people don’t listen to her enough. But you don’t seem to carry a chip on your shoulder.
No. There are things that bothered me about being gagged in the US, but it didn’t have to do with my own career, it had more to do with the fact that people didn’t have a clue. They were denied what I had to give. I always felt funny about that. I felt as though I could have been more effective.
I was working with the American Indian Movement and the energy companies were really down on us. The FBI was down on us. But I got away cheap. I mean, my career was drowned, but other people were murdered. Other people were given life sentences. Poor John Trudell [AIM leader, poet, and spoken-word artist], his family was burned alive in their home during a nighttime firebombing. I don’t think that’s the way most Americans want the world to be.
The hard part of it, for me, was that I was not invited to play in Indian country. Because who owned the newspapers? Who owned the venues? Who owned the theaters? Who owned the radio stations? It was people who did not want me and my big mouth talking about what was going on in Indian country. Consequently, I didn’t play the Dakotas, I didn’t play Montana, I didn’t play the Southwest.
It’s a terrible shame for the people who lived in those areas—especially the non-Indian people, who could’ve learned something. Being blacklisted by Johnson and Nixon is one thing, but being gagged in Indian country by essentially real-estate agents is to me a true tragedy. So I’m not known in those areas.
It had to get to you at some point.
It still does, sometimes. Well, in the US. As soon as I enter the country, I become anonymous. But I’ve kind of made that work for me, too. You have to stay cheerful about it. You have to say, “You know what? I’m going to do this.”
That’s what I really admire about you.
Thanks. There’s a lot of good work left to be done in the world. There always has been. I’ve just never been the type of person to get discouraged because once you solve a problem, you see a new problem. That’s how it is. My own philosophy is that everybody in the world, whether we want to admit it or not, is ripening. A little bit at a time. I think every living cell is a part of the body of God and it all ripens together. We’re all learning, and we’re all ripening, even the guys that you don’t like. Even if you don’t like it, they’re learning, too. It just seems that it goes so slow, until you look back 50 years and you realize that it’s been lightning fast. And there’s always some more left to be done. Once you’re comfortable with that, I think you’re happy.
What Buffy Sainte-Marie Plays:
These days, Buffy Sainte-Marie is often seen with a Yamaha SLG110 Silent Guitar, but she has a number of vintage acoustics and electrics in her collection. Those include a 1928 Martin 000-45 12-fret with a slotted headstock; a 1907 Martin 1-45; a 1930s Larson Brothers Prairie State acoustic; a Del Vecchio Dinamico resonator once owned by Chet Atkins; an Ovation Preacher 12-string, from the late 1970s (she once posed for an Ovation ad with a 1967 Roundback model); a Takamine EF-340S dreadnought; and assorted guitars by Alvarez, Washburn, and others.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.