Buffy St. Marie
Thurs., June 13, Infiinity Music Hall, 20 Greenwoods Road West, Norfolk, (866) 666-6306, infinityhall.com
In his memoir, Bob Dylan says he resisted the label of “protest singer” at a certain point in his career. “I didn’t think I was protesting anything,” he writes. Though she’s way more than just that -- including actress, activist, artist and award-winning pop-song composer -- Buffy Sainte-Marie doesn’t seem to have much trouble with being called a protest singer. She did write “Universal Soldier,” one of the most well-known anti-war songs of the Vietnam Era, though Donovan is the one who had the biggest success with it. She also wrote songs about the plight of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada, about the destruction of natural resources and songs, like the shiver-inducing “Moratorium,” that movingly described the hardships of soldiers returning from the war in Vietnam, and which may be among the most moving protest songs of the era because of its deep empathy for the psychic damage that war does to those who fight it. If you don’t know of Buffy Sainte-Marie as ‘60s folksinger, maybe you know of her from her years on Sesame Street in the ‘70s. If not, you’ve probably at least heard the ballad “Love Lift Us Up Where We We Belong,” which she co-wrote.
Sainte-Marie, who is part Cree, was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in the early ‘40s and was adopted by an American family and raised in Maine. She attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the late ‘50s, playing in the emerging folk and coffeehouse scene in Northampton in the early ‘60s before moving to New York City and running into the likes of Dylan and an unknown Joni Mitchell. “Buffy was building a repertoire and her songs were intelligent and well crafted and she was a stunning performer,” says Mitchell in a documentary about Saint-Marie. A write-up in the New York Times led to a record deal with Vanguard Records and a performance at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.
Her voice could safely be described as an acquired taste, because it certainly can surprise some listeners, with her dramatic swoops and the fierce vibrato. You can hear the sound change shape and move around her mouth, chest and head. Sometimes it flickers like a candle and other times it rages like bonfire. She can go from something that sounds like a throaty gargle to a spooky coo, covering a spectrum ranging from the wild ululations of Yoko Ono to the witchy whispers of Joanna Newsom. There are war-whoops and yelps and emotive half-spoken lines. That would all just be ornamental filigree, but Buffy Sainte-Marie’s songs are heavy, deep and intense.
In the documentary, Sainte-Marie says “I started playing music in my head, and I thought everybody did.” She describes a childhood where she’d retreat to the woods to seek refuge from “predators” and get energized by her closeness to nature. After emerging as an outspoken performer, she eventually mingled with the giants of the era. In the film, she’s seen hanging out with Stevie Wonder, Mohammed Ali, Marlon Brando and meeting Queen Elizabeth.
What follows is an e-mail Q and A Sainte-Marie did with the Advocate in 2010. Here’s part of the exchange:
Are there any artists writing protest songs currently whose work you admire? What forms of protest music are you into these days?
Lots. I’m listening to Jon Brooks “War Resister” now. I also like Darryl Menow, macho rocker Cree from a small reservation in Manitoba, who wrote a great song about domestic violence called “They Hurt Inside”. Unexpected.
I was recently a judge for Noel Paul Stookey’s (of Peter, Paul & Mary) web based Public Domain Foundation - http://www.pdfoundation.org/ - that spotlights songs of conscience; what was good about the judging process is that all forty songs were great, all kinds of styles and subjects
How did you think about balancing the general and the specific in those two great protest songs, with Universal Soldier being sort of general, and Moratorium having very specific names and anecdotes and scenes?
I wasn’t thinking of trying to make a contrast, but as usual with writing topical songs, I was trying to make a point in each song. Most of it is simply emotional; but as a Four-College philosophy student (UMass, Amherst, Mount Holyoke and Smith, late 1950s-1960s) I faced up to many a terrific professor who didn’t easily give up an A grade, and it really helped my songwriting to be able to come up with an A+ thesis. In general, I write songs as they occur to me in my day-to-day, colored by all the experiences, sounds and lighting effects of the movies life brings into my head. However with topical songs like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Universal Soldier, No No Keshagesh et al, I am targeting that inflexible professor with new information, and I am determined to engage him in spite of himself/herself. It’s not just the words: it’s also providing a driving rhythm and musical surprises that keeps a reluctant listener engaged to the point where you make a new kind of sense to him.
What is it about Canada that produces so many great songwriters?
Our standard answer is “Boredom, eh?”, but that’s just a joke. I can only speak for myself in saying that Canada is still fresh and inspirational. It’s one of the biggest country in the world and the immensity of the land (so incredibly beautiful), and the clear diversity of people who are not expected to blend in and become broth in the corporate soup feels much less censored, less constricted by local and national gossips, pundits, style-police than other countries. Next to free Canada, the past forty years in the U.S. has felt like Salem during the witch trials. Leonard Cohen, K.D. Lang, Bryan Adams, Joni Mitchell, so many truly unique songwriters, none of us expected to sound like someone else!
Do you think of music as an important tool in affecting change with regard to the plight of Native Peoples in North America? Are there other avenues that you view as more important in that struggle?
I’ve always felt that my songwriting was only one part of being effective. Many of us do more, other things that might not show up in our resumes. In the 1960s, I was a young singer with a lot of airplane tickets that took me to both concert stages and reservations. I put the two sides of my life together with my singing money and started a scholarship foundation called The Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education. Later I expanded it to include a K-12-through teacher college program called the Cradleboard Teaching Project which provides curriculum in science, government and four other core subjects through Native American cultural perspectives, such as SCIENCE: Through Native American Eyes.
However, much of the change I have seen in Indian Country has come from interacting with other people working on different aspects of making things better. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation have helped us do wonders in higher education, alongside the American Indian College Fund; and, in contrast, so have activist groups like the American Indian Movement and the American Indian Treaty Council. But the crucial work is done anonymously by countless people in the grassroots and urban Indian communities who effect change at the local level. I use my career to spotlight local issues where I can.
Over your career you’ve made records that were traditional, some country, some folk, some experimental, some rock. Are there are genres and forms you’d still like to explore?
I was very fortunate in the 1960s to discover electronic music, which made me a fearless pioneer in all things digital. Not much of a learning curve from there into computer music. I had a studio in my house when most of the folkies were discovering eight tracks. So I have had the luxury of creating pretty much anything I could dream up and do it all the time. I went from 1970s music computers (a Synclavier and Fairlight) right to my first Macintosh in 1984 and I explore digital music and visuals all the time, although in the U.S. my work was pretty invisible.
How did you arrive at your technique/style?
I don’t know. I just never saw the sense in trying to sound like somebody else, last week’s flavor of the month. I always wanted to bring audiences something unique you couldn’t get anywhere else. Politically, I covered the bases that nobody else was covering: in Indian country. Also, I was so sure I’d never last, I didn’t even think of myself as a singer, but just a songwriter. I was so shy that I would concentrate on whatever the song was about. Later, out of embarrassment, I learned how to listen to myself, became a better singer I think.
The thing is: I’m dyslexic in music. I can write for an orchestra, but cannot read it back the next day. I’m all “by ear.” By default I’m a “natural” musician rather than a schooled one, and it’s left my originality intact. Unless I’m going for some ancient effect, my songs usually sound very “conversational.” The words are sung as if we are in a conversation, which makes them approachable, understandable.
How would you talk to an aspiring songwriter about writing songs like that that seem to resonate with so many?
I’d say I got real lucky with certain songs, and that some of my own favorites have never gotten any airplay, so don’t take it personally no matter what happens. There’s so much potential money in show business, all kinds of people – from angels to sharks – are part of the life of any success or ‘failure’. Thanks to all!
Are there any boxed sets/. Unreleased re-issues, things like that in the works?
You can see all my records at my website buffysainte-marie.com and there are audio clips for many songs. We are re-issuing “Pathfinder: Buried Treasures,” a collection of three albums recorded in the 1970s that never received any airplay because of the blacklisting (both Johnson and Nixon administrations). Also, we are re-issuing “Up Where We Belong,” which is a collection of all the songs most requested at concerts: Universal Soldier, Until It’s Time for You to Go, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Starwalker etc.
There’s also a DVD packaged together with “Running for the Drum” called “A MultiMedia Life,” which is about my work.
And Blair Stonechild, a Cree historian, has just finished writing my biography. It’ll be out this winter.
I’m currently touring Europe and Canada, with rare U.S. concerts, with my band, who are all Aboriginal guys from reservations in Canada. Jesse Green (Ojibwe and Lakota) on guitars; Mike Bruyere (Ojibwe) on drums; and Leroy Constant (Cree) on bass. I play guitars, keyboards, mouthbow, and computer; oh, and I sing.