Buffy Sainte-Marie is a unique artist who is best known for her songwriting with hits such as “Universal Soldier,” Until It’s Time For You to Go,” and co-writing the Academy Award-winning “Up Where We Belong.” She is also a household name from being part of the cast of Sesame Street for five years. But her talents and influence as an artist, musician, activist and educator embrace a scope way beyond her hit songs and television appearances.
Coffee houses, creative expression, and the mouthbow.
It started in the early 1960′s when took the world by storm, performing her protest songs and traditional folk songs in coffee houses. In 1962, she had just moved to New York City to perform in Gerdie’s Folk City and The Gaslight in the Greenwich Village area. There was a lot of creative energy happening in the coffee houses, then. On the heals of the Beatnicks of the 1950′s, the early 1960′s witnessed a folk music revival, while at the same time people were eager to discover new kinds of creative expression.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music bridged the interests of traditional folk music and new songwriting. Her stark, simple songs accompanied by guitar blended new, creative ideas, with her challenging song lyrics forcing the listener to become aware of the injustices committed to Native American nations, and of the horrors of war. In her song set, she would perform an original interpretation of a simple traditional folk song or a simple love ballad that she wrote. Then she would sing “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” or “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” that told of the history of inhumane treatment of the Native Americans. Then she would hit the audience with “The Universal Soldier” that confronts the listener with the realization that each one of us has personal responsibility for the wars that happen around the world. During her performances, she would bring out an unusual instrument called a mouthbow. She explained it was probably the oldest musical instrument in the world. When she played it, its single string created haunting overtones that blended with her captivating voice. In 1964, Buffy Sainte-Marie performed at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival.
Protest songs and songwriting.
Her talented songwriting and bold messages of peace and humanitarianism brought Buffy Sainte-Marie immediate notice. Vanguard Recording Society offered her a recording contract and in 1964, her first record, It’s My Way!, was released. Her music and her album received critical acclaim, and many top performers started to record her songs.
Buffy Sainte-Marie continued to use her performances to communicate and educate the truths about war, American history, and the United States Government. While Buffy’s popularity grew, she released many LP’s and singles, her recordings got very little radio play. She discovered much later that throughout the sixties and early seventies, the Johnson and Nixon administrations blacklisted her, and pressured the radio stations not to play her music. Buffy also discovered that during the same time period, the FBI kept files on her. Despite her music being largely overlooked in the US, Buffy never stopped being a strong voice as both a performer and an activist. (See Education and Activism.)
Electronic music and other adventures.
By 1967, it was crystal-clear that Buffy Sainte-Marie was not going to adhere to the purist standards of the Newport Folk Festival followers. Nor could she be pushed into any other specific musical category. That year, she released Fire & Fleet & Candlelight which included works by Joni Mitchell, Benjamin Britten and traditional folk songs in addition to Buffy’s own compositions. Half of the songs on the album had ornate orchestral arrangements by composer Peter Schickele. The following year Buffy went to Nashville to record I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again with some of the finest of Nashville’s country music talent. In 1969, Buffy released Illuminations, which was more unique that her other early recordings. It was the first quadraphonic electronic vocal record to be released. Many of her folk music fans were displeased with her venture into electronic music, and the album did not sell well at the time it was released. However, it is now considered a landmark album, among musicians and artists. In the year 2000, Wire magazine selected this outstanding record as one of the “100 Albums That Set the World on Fire.”
Her 1970s recordings documented Sainte-Maire’s ventures into even wider spectrum of styles and genres. Her 1972 album Moonshot was recorded in Nashville with top musicians and produced by Norbert Putnam. She scored a top 40 single with “Mister Can’t You See. In 1974, Buffy broke her ties with Vanguard Records, moved to MCA Records and released Buffy. While she stayed with producer Norbert Putnam and many of the same session musicians, this album had a noticeably bigger, rock and roll sound. Then for her next album, Changing Woman, she took a 180 degree turn and created an ethereal sound full of electronic synthesizers that picked up where Illuminations left off. The following year, she left Nashville to record Sweet America in Los Angeles with producer Henry Lewey. On this album she returns to her more folk/country/blues roots and introduces her signature “Pow Wow Rock,” with several songs, including her classic “Starwalker.”
Oscar the grouch, Oscar award, and going digital.
Buffy continued to have a successful career in Europe, Asia, South Pacific, and Canada — basically everywhere except the United States. After Sweet America, she took a break from recording and started to appear as a regular cast member on Sesame Street. She continued to support Native American communities by performing on reservations, performing for benefit concerts for Native American causes, such as American Indian Movement (AIM), and awarding college scholarships to Native Americans through her Nihewan Foundation. Her son Dakota was born in 1976, and often appeared with Buffy on Sesame Street.
In 1982, Buffy Sainte-Marie came back into the lime light for a moment to accept an Oscar for the song “Up Where We Belong” from the film “Officer and a Gentleman” that she co-wrote with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings. Buffy was one of the first to have a Macintoch Computer and began producing large digital paintings, and went on to show her digital art in galleries and museums. It was not until 1992 that she released a recording again. She dazzled fans with her comeback “Coincidence and Likely Stories” that was recorded in her home studio and showed of her mastery of electronic music. Her tasteful blending of synthesizers and digital samples with Native American, rock, and pop music proved Buffy was still cutting-edge in songwriting and music. In 1993 she starred in the TV film “The Broken Chain.” In 1994 Buffy continued her commitment to help Native American musicians gain
more attention, and help establish the Aboriginal Recording of the Year category for Canada’s Juno Awards.
In 1996 she released “Up Where We Belong” that included three new songs and a portfolio of re-recorded older hits and favorites. This recording also came from her home studio that showcased her talent of blending hi-tech digital music and samples with traditional country, pop, and Native music. Along with the CD, a music video “Darling Don’t Cry” was released. The album won a Juno in 1996.
Educating in a digital age and spreading beauty.
That same year, Buffy Sainte-Marie founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project, her ground-breaking educational program that delivers accurate material on Native American cultures. This project has connected thousands of students all over the world, as one of the first educational programs to use the internet. Students communicate with each other in real time, exchanging experiences and learning about each other’s cultures first hand.
In 2008, Buffy released, Running For the Drum, a power packed album of “Pow Wow Rock,” country, jazz, pop, and rockabilly. Fans were delighted with the accompanying DVD with this album, ‘Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life’ that documents the history of Buffy’s amazing, multifaceted career. The music video “No, No Keshagesh” hit the screens at the time of the CD/DVD release.
Over the past few years, Buffy has been touring world-wide with a 3-piece all-Aboriginal band from Winnipeg: Jesse Green, Mike Bruyere and Lee Constant. This on-going tour features Buffy’s classic standards while showcasing her Running For the Drum CD/DVD and also performs numbers from the new Pathfinder CD that is a reissue of her three albums from the mid-1970s.
In 2012, a spectacular biography Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way came out. It was written by Blair Stonechild, a Professor of Indigenous Studies at First Nations University of Canada. Dr. Stonechild is a historian and gives the required insight and depth into the life and creativity of Buffy Sainte-Marie. It is a book about life as a creative process. For perhaps the first time, one can find the many avenues and dimensions of Buffy’s amazing creative life in one place.
Power in the Blood (2015) her first new album in 6 years, includes odes to the sanctity of life, the splendor of Mother Nature, and scything political and social commentary on songs like the title track, a collaboration with British electronic group Alabama 3, as well as the tracks Uranium War and Generation. The album was recorded in Toronto with three different producers, Michael Philip Wojewoda (Barenaked Ladies, Jeff Healey), Chris Birkett (Sinéad O Connor, Bob Geldof) and Jon Levine (Melissa Etheridge, Serena Ryder).