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“The World Ripens Slowly”: An Interview With Iconic Artist, Songwriter & Activist Buffy Sainte-Marie

Written by Riley Fitzgerald on February 19, 2020

Labels can seem so essential when selling someone on the unfamiliar. If you had never heard the name Buffy Sainte-Marie, how could this writer ever hope to describe her to you? And yet hanging a label upon her – even one like ‘pioneering woman in electronic music’, ‘activist’, ‘indigenous entertainer’, ‘protest singer’, or ‘inspirational mother’– doesn’t feel like it does her any justice.

Perhaps it’s simply satisfactory to peg her as an artist, one whose work has as often embodied the times as has been ahead or at odds with them. People have written entire books, magazine articles, as well as academic papers relating to her in these ways and many more besides, and yet the closest you might ever really get to her is hearing the conviction in her voice as she sings about war (‘Universal Soldier’), addiction (‘Cod’ine’), genocide (‘My Country Tis of Thy People’) and love (‘Helpless’).

Music Feeds: You came to Australia in 1972. Could you tell me a little more about your first trip here?

Buffy Sainte-Marie: I played Sydney and Melbourne, Adelaide, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth and I just loved them all, especially the animal parks which were and still are right up my alley. I try to visit Lone Pine Sanctuary every time I’m in Brisbane. I still have some nice TV clips and clippings from way back then and over the years. The audiences were great, the press were interested, interesting and kind, and the venues varied – halls, churches, theatres.

But what I remember most was my down time just walking around observing and meeting Australians. I was particularly looking to connect with other indigenous people. I remember I dropped into a little law office manned by Peter Noble who was involved in Aboriginal rights then and later became a great concert promoter. I was surprised to learn that at the time Aboriginal people were not even legally human, and handled by official departments concerned with the flora, the fauna and the wildlife. At the same time in the U.S., indigenous people didn’t even have religious freedom. The world ripens slowly.

MF: Can you share a little bit about your connection to First Nations communities?

BSM: I was adopted and raised in a typical White New England town. My adoptive mother was part Mi’kmaq but was never taught much about that part of her family. There was only one other indigenous person in town – the mailman was Narragansett! – and he and his family were nice to me. In college I majored in Oriental Philosophy and also got a teacher’s degree and entered show business by accident when my plans to go to India were drowned.

I was Billboard Magazine’s Best New Artist the year the Beatles arrived in America, and I sang the songs I’d been writing all my life: big love songs (‘Until It’s Time for You to Go’), well-researched protest songs about global human issues like war (‘Universal Soldier’), personal songs (like ‘Cod’ine’, about opiate addiction 50 years ago), and about indigenous issues (‘Now that the Buffalo’s Gone’ and many others).

I’ve stayed continually connected to my second adoptive family in Saskatchewan to whom I may be related. As to my connection to First Nations communities, there are hundreds over more than fifty years so I refer you to biographies by First Nations University head of Native Studies the historian Blair Stonechild (‘It’s My Way’) and feminist journalist Andrea Warner (‘Buffy Sainte-Marie’).

MF: You are best known for your work as a songwriter. What is it, do you think, that makes songwriting such a powerful medium of expression?

BSM: Well in the first place, nobody knows how or why certain music (even without words) can have a marked and measurable effect on people, but music does. Frequency, rhythm, melody, harmony and all the rest are a force. For songwriting effectiveness it’s all about creating the right music to carry your message.

Try to use words that sum up what the world is feeling but cannot articulate, and do it with genuine emotion and you get something wonderful that can be more powerful and long lasting in three minutes than a 400-page book on the same subject. A great song is portable, replicable, and can cross generations and cultural barriers, and memorable and flexible and can be tailored to other deliverers of the same message (additional artists beyond the songwriter) in their own key, tempo, style.

MF: With the commercial side of the music business being, as it is, an often-dehumanising space, and with oppression, inequity, violence, as well as greed feeling like they have just a tight of a grip on the world as ever before, what motivates you to keep pushing ahead as an artist?

BSM: Aw shoot, if you’re just in it for the money you definitely should worry because there are great big sharks in that pool who will resent every penny that doesn’t come to them, and see artists like sheep to be continuously shorn. But if, like me and many other artists, you do it because you love it more than anything, the business side is just more of the same-old same-old that business is everywhere else. In European-based business institutions there’s not a clear line between earned profit and outright greed backed up by corruption. (Read Frederick Dannon’s expose on the recording industry ‘Hit Men’ – he nails it.)

Show business, music and sports have a potential for the business guys to make millions fast, so artists should simply expect them. My own philosophy is reminiscent of that old desert proverb: “Trust everybody but tie up your camel.” I say, if you live in a wood house, you should expect termites to come and eat your house. And if you get rid of them, another group of termites will come. That’s how it is with show biz sharks, but don’t take it personally! Just smarten up and be vigilant. Artists need to learn about the business side of show business but few bother, as showbiz is exciting and access to on-ramps is scarce. Many business people are hoping artists won’t smarten up.

In the U.S. and Canada there are hundreds of thousands of people working and supporting the White music industry. Smaller but still huge are the Black and Latino music industries. There is no indigenous music industry. Seldom does more than one indigenous artist or group get invited onto the big shows, and seldom in a prime spot (although promoters invite a local Indian to open the festival with a prayer, and then the promoter can check off the box related to inclusion, for a tax break). I’m not trying to be cynical; that really is a pretty good snapshot of how it is. Competition for the top spots is serious and Mr. Shark knows how it’s done even if you don’t. It’s business.

What motivates me now is the same thing that motivated me as a little girl when I saw my first piano: bliss! Fun. The beautiful satisfaction of touching that instrument and making music you’ve never heard before! I wouldn’t trade that for anything, including all the money in the world.

Natural music is a gift! I never played sports or Barbies but I sure played music and art and dancing and appreciated those natural gifts more than any toy I’ve ever owned. It’s the sacred pleasure of creativity. If we’re “made in the image of the Creator”, I guess that’s our green light for creativity, eh? However, whether people know it or not, natural artists like me are often shunned and shamed in music class, not allowed to be in band no matter how well we play because we play naturally by ear and there’s no money in that. De-coding European notation is the saleable commodity, even though it has nothing to do with actually making music, at least for a natural musician. I’m encouraging the Junos (Canadian Grammies) to make a video celebrating the natural musicians who couldn’t learn to read what music schools are selling. People like me and Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix. I wish parents knew this and simply encouraged their kids to play with music for fun like I did. It’s all about the playing and it’s supposed to be fun.

MF: Is it true that you were the first woman to breastfeed a child on US television?

BSM: On television anywhere. We reached people in 72 countries three times a day with that simple little clip of me sitting alongside Big Bird’s nest, showing him that I was feeding the baby.

MF: Why do you think people did, and still do, find that kind of intimacy so confronting?

BSM: Who knows? I sure don’t. I thought it was cuddly, healthy and convenient. I was a new mum doing two Sesame Street shows a day with a baby on my hip. I was feeding him on set every day anyway, and when I suggested we do a segment on breastfeeding, the producers Lisa Simon and Dulcie Singer said yes immediately.

It was totally discreet and wonderful. At the time there wasn’t even a ripple of controversy, just lots of gratitude from mummies everywhere. Nowadays it’s on YouTube and every now and then somebody takes it down and somebody else puts it up again, go figure. You do what you can whenever and wherever you can. It was a small thing at the time but a very big thing in the long run.

MF: For those who will be coming to see you at Bluesfest or your other Australian shows, possibly for the first time, what are some key albums or songs to listen to?

BSM: Power in the Blood won Canada’s Polaris Prize, very diverse, everybody loves this one. But if you are also interested in those of my songs we can call activist songs – including both protest and its opposite for which there is no genre – hugely positive songs of courage and encouragement like ‘You Got to Run’ and ‘Carry It On’ – you might want to hear Medicine Songs. I re-recorded fifty years of my activist songs and put them all together on one album. ‘Universal Soldier’, ‘Little Wheel Spin & Spin’, ‘The War Racket’, ‘Starwalker’, ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’.

MF: As someone who has spent a lifetime escaping labels and narrow definition, do you have any advice for those who find themselves in a similar position?

BSM: [Laughs] Yes, it’s funny. People who first heard me sing ‘The Piney Wood Hills’ think of me as a country singer, people who first heard ‘Universal Soldier’ think I’m a protest singer, people who first heard ‘Up Where We Belong’ think I’m a pop singer. Just say thank you, and continue being all the somebodys you know you are, and don’t worry about other people’s filtering systems. Since it’s an ever-changing world, many eyes are yet to be opened. Just keep writing and playing if you love it.

But beyond this, I feel it’s good for an artist to get comfortable with operating on many levels at the same time beyond show business, multi-tasking your whole life, although this talent isn’t much encouraged. Like women’s intuition, it’s a long successful strategy but unknown to about half the population. My career has come in waves of activity and quiet time.

When I’m being famous, I can be effective in big-time spotlight ways; but afterwards there are opportunities every day to be effective in multiplicities of other more small-town ways. Other people’s labels and pigeonholes might be accurate or not, but they’re only one tiny part of your lifetime success and longevity. People tend to think I’m cool and creative when I’m out on the road; and that I’m probably less creative when they’re not seeing me. Actually, it’s the opposite: when I’m hibernating from the road is when I’m most creative.

However, regarding songwriting, I have learned that there is better and worse timing when it comes to scattering your pearls. Sometimes an artist is many years ahead of the issue because of personal experience the public doesn’t know about, and I’ve learned that the world may not be ready yet to understand your song. As in surfing, wait until the wave is right before you take off. In 1966 my song ‘My Country Tis of Thy People’ talked about the genocide of indigenous people, and the reaction then was “The little Indian girl must be mistaken”.

Fifty years later Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee investigations (for which I was one of many witnesses) educated the public about the residential schools and concomitant abuses (electric chairs and cattle prods used on kids, forced exposure to tuberculosis, kidnapping, sexual predation etc) and confirmed the use of the word genocide. So regarding public success, sometimes it’s smart not to be too smart too soon. Don’t get so far ahead of your audience that they miss the point by way of their lack of education and your lack of timing. The world is only so ripe at any given time, and times do change. Wait for your moment but meanwhile do other important things every day. Don’t operate solely on the general public showbiz success level.

Buffy Sainte-Marie will appear at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest 2020.

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