First published at popcultureaddict.com in 2009.
From the plains of Saskatchewan to the coffee houses of Greenwich Village to the Islands of Hawaii and even a little place called Sesame Street, singer/songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of the most revered and respected musicians on the pop culture journey. Doubling as an inspiration for both women and native Americans across North America, Buffy Sainte-Marie has become many things to many people. She is an entertainer, as Oscar winning song writer, an educator, a mother and an activist. Her songs have ranged from powerful truth cutting tutorials on the plight of the Indian and hard-hitting critiques on politics and the injustices of the world we live in, to beautiful love songs and fun tunes which are both singable and danceable. As a song writer her music has been performed by some of the most legendary performers in music history, such as Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin and Barbara Streisand, and has made politicians tremble, where she found herself on a White House blacklist at the end of the 1960’s. As a singer she has one of the most unique and recognizable voices in the folk music industry which Johnny Cash once described as “being as sweet as a rippling stream in the mountains.” Over her five decades in the music business, Buffy Sainte-Marie remains to be courageous, hard hitting and beautiful in both mind and soul.
This summer Buffy Sainte-Marie is touring Canada and Europe promoting her first album in thirteen years. Titled Running For the Drum, the CD has already won Canada’s Juno award for best aboriginal CD. Featuring twelve brand new songs, many dealing with current political issues, Buffy brings her hard hitting song writing into the 21st Century. As an added bonus, Running For the Drum includes a brilliant documentary exploring the life and music of Buffy Sainte-Marie titled A Multi-Media Life. Directed by Joan Prowse, and featuring friends such as Taj Mahal, Joni Mitchell, John Kay and Bill Cosby, A Multi-Media Life is a powerful look into Buffy Sainte-Marie’s journey and is a testament to how she has changed the world through her music and her wisdom. I spoke with Buffy just prior to the first leg of her upcoming tour Although I had never met nor spoken to Buffy before, her kindness and openness towards me made me feel like I was talking to a lifelong friend. Yet, growing up with Buffy on Sesame Street, and having been a long-time fan of her music, it seems like I have known her my whole life. Yet, what really struck me about Buffy was her brilliance. Buffy Sainte-Marie could be one of the smartest and most well-spoken musicians I have ever interviewed. In the short time we had together Buffy and I managed to pack in a range of topics from the longevity of the impact of her music, to her days on Sesame Street, to her work supporting Barrack Obama and voter protection in New Mexico and, of course, the new album.
Sam Tweedle: On YouTube there is a video of you performing Universal Soldier at a Washington DC protest held by Veterans Against the War in Iraq, which was a very powerful piece to me, and it really brought back the fact that your older music is still so relevant. Why do you think the music that you were writing in the 1960s is still so relevant and powerful today?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Well, partly it was the example of folk music. I was never a folk singer but I was around people who were singing songs that lasted across generations. Songs that were meaningful enough so people would translate them to other languages and pass them along to their grandchildren and many of those songs had a universal subject and were about things that affect us all. War and peace, love and hate. I had a college degree, so I knew what I was doing as a writer and songs like Universal Soldier and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee were very deliberately crafted to be meaningful to people who might not want to know about what I was saying. Just like I had to impress as professor and I was determined to get an A and had to impress him or her, writing curriculum, writing songs, making paintings, for me it’s all the same. It’s trying to make things interesting enough and clear enough so both the message and artistry comes through.
Sam: That totally makes sense to me. I remember the first time I ever heard My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying. I was driving home from work and it was just about dawn, and the song cut me like a knife. Tears were coming to my eyes, although it really had nothing to do with my personal politics. It was just the first time I had ever heard that version of history.
Buffy: That was a deliberate attempt to give people Indian 101 in a short time. The art of song writing always appealed to me because if you can say something in three and a half minutes that somebody else has to write a four-hundred-page book that nobody is going to read, then song writing is a very immediate way to reach people. So for some songs I’m trying to be effective. But other songs, such as love songs, I’m not selling anything at all. They are just really inspired. So I do things both ways.
Sam: So a love song is more of an emotional thing instead of an intellectual thing?
Buffy. Yeah, but, in the actual creation of the song. But Universal Soldier and My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are very emotional. Sledgehammer emotional. They are crafted with the same intent as a college thesis. There is no argument against them. The key to it is to make it danceable, listenable. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and No No Keshagesh are very very danceable.
Sam: Well in [Running For the Drum] you’re taking a lot of new political stances and bring your music into the 21st Century…
Buffy: Yeah, with some songs. But all my albums are diverse.
Sam: I was really impressed with the different styles of music and arrangements you put together. No No Keshagesh….
Buffy: You know what that means?
Sam: I read it in the liner notes. It means greedy little dog.
Buffy: Yeah. It means greedy guts. It’s a playful name. It’s what you call your puppy when he’s eating everything in sight. You call him greedy guts. He’s eaten all of his dinner and now he’s going to try to eat mine, so I used it as a metaphor for the war greed/environment syndrome that appears ever thirty-five years.
Sam: In that song you use a lot of drum and bass. You use a lot of electric guitar in Cho Cho Fire, which by the way, is my favorite song on the disc.
Buffy: Oh thank you! I like it to, and its so much fun to perform.
Sam: On When I Had You you almost have an Amy Winehouse thing going on. Blue Sunday you have some Rockabilly and I Bet My Heart on You is more of a torch song. So it was a lot of different stuff that I wasn’t expecting.
Buffy: Oh really?
Sam: The album was just so full of really diverse musical styles.
Buffy: But all of my albums have. From the very beginning that’s what I’ve been both praised and criticized for because they don’t know what bin to put me in the record store. Until Its Time For You to Go is a love song, so how do you put it next to Universal Soldier? Where do you put them? So most artists write one style but, I don’t know, I have all these different songs come to my head and then there you got it.
Sam: In the liner notes, for Too Much is Never Enough you write ”This is about heroes and the ones that love them.” What, to you, is a definition of a hero?
Buffy: Somebody who goes beyond what’s required to help someone else. Like the firemen in our world, and 9/11 is an example. Firemen in general and policemen who are on the right side of the law. Teachers who stick up for something and is mistreated. Whistle blowers and people who are really really trying to do a good job. It’s not only heroes with a capital “H” but also the lower-cased letter heroes.
Sam: Going back to the longevity and strength of your music. In my personal opinion, a lot of the music coming out today doesn’t have the same lasting power or importance as music coming out forty years ago. Do you agree with that? What do you think the problem with today’s music industry is?
Buffy: Oh gosh. The music industry isn’t about music. It’s about business. It always has been and that’s what it’s about. Nobody objects to that description. Everybody in the music industry knows. The music industry is about the business of music. What artists do is totally different then that. Artists are about the music part of the music business. So with that said it’s almost always that the top forty songs are going to be about nonissues. Almost always. It’s very rarely that songs of effectiveness will come to fore. In the sixties it happened because people were being drafted into a war that they were saying they weren’t even having. It was ludicrous. So there was a huge student outcry against this and we had come from the Eisenhower years into the Kennedy years and free speech was greatly encouraged and coffee houses were providing a safe atmosphere and caffeine is very stimulating to conversation, and that was a very rare time. We shouldn’t just compare today with those times. We should compare the last forty years with those times. That was a rare time. The suits were looking the other way and the students were discovering that we have brains. The perfect non storm. The perfect day.
Sam: So is that why you’d say the music of the sixties has been preserved and is so beloved today because something was actually being said?
Buffy: In some cases, but on the other hand people were still playing Woolly Bully. That’s a lot of fun too. It’s not as though the music industry dies when songs are about any old thing. Most songs are about sex and love, sex and tears. There are a lot of reasons that some songs last. Some are owned by very aggressive companies that keep getting the songs recorded by other artists and keeping played and there is all sorts of payola and non payola involved. Other songs, in spite of not having business support, last anyways. Those ones are a little different, and when you think about folk songs in the 1960s, and the writers who were around, like myself, writing a song that I was hoping would last forever…I mean with Universal Soldier I tried to write a song that would make sense in any language, at any time in history, to anybody. That was very deliberate. Writing songs that have a subject for which there really is no audience because they are about things that we don’t ever admit…I mean how many people have written songs about genocide? How important are songs about genocide either for people who are hearing about it for the first time, or for people whose families have went through it? It’s very important and very effective but it’s not a top forty hit. The song that has allowed me a writer of all different songs is a love song, Until Its Time For you to Go. If I didn’t have that song then chances are you wouldn’t be calling me up today.
Sam: Well where I first saw you was when watching you and Cody on Sesame Street when I was a little kid. How did you get involved with Sesame Street? I mean, for somebody who has already reached certain amount of fame, what made you decide to become a part of this strange little kid’s show?
Buffy: Well that strange little kid’s show happens to be the most viewed kid’s show in the world. 76 countries in the world are showing it three times a day. I don’t know if that is still [the case], but when I was doing it was the most viewed kid’s show in the world. I mean, when you come from Canada you think that it’s just us and the States but, no, it’s everywhere. Actually, I didn’t know it, but I had had my career gagged so that I wouldn’t have any airplay in the US.
Sam: That was by Lyndon Johnston and the whole censorship thing.
Buffy: Well that was the first thing. That was about Universal Soldier and Lyndon Johnston’s ego but for the next four years I had Nixon to contend with and he was making sure that I was not heard because of Indian rights. That’s when all the uranium was being stolen from the Pine Ridge Reservation during Wounded Knee times in ’73.
Sam: Well why were they so scared of you?
Buffy: I don’t know. I guess they didn’t want people to know what was going on and I was a journalist with a guitar. But I wasn’t the only one. A lot of people had it a lot worse than I did. I mean you never heard of Eartha Kitt after Lyndon Johnston put her on the list. Or Taj Mahal, and they had huge careers going on. When it came to Nixon, some people were shot out of airplanes. I just had my career gagged. Other people were killed. They were burned alive in their homes during Wounded Knee. I didn’t know what was going on at the time. I had no idea because I was already having a great career elsewhere. So that’s what was going on! Wounded Knee was 1973, and I joined the cast of Sesame Street just at the end of 1974. The first episodes came out in 1975. All they did is they called me up and said that they wanted me to recite the alphabet like everybody else does, and count from one to ten, like Burt Lancaster and Stevie Wonder and everybody else, and I said that I wasn’t interested in doing that, but I asked if they had ever done any native American programming. I thought that would be the last I’d ever heard from them, but they talked it over and they called me right back and I said “Oh boy. Let’s talk.” So I gave them a bunch of ideas. [On] the first show we did we went to Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and brought Big Bird and the cast to a reservation for the first time and it was so beautiful to work with them. I just loved it. And then programming continued and it wasn’t though I was the token Indian. We did things on sibling rivalry and breast feeding. It was the only time anybody ever did breast feeding on children’s television.
Sam: The breastfeeding clip is on YouTube and it is really really well done.
Buffy: I thought so. Well everything Sesame Street did during the years I was involved were fantastic. The things that they did on sibling rivalry was just magnificent and we did some native American programming too. It was just wonderful. Because I started out as a teacher. Before I was ever a singer I was a teacher. My first college degree was in teaching, and then my second was in Oriental philosophy so I only got into show business by accident and I stay in the peripheral while I do all these other things.
Sam: In the documentary [included in Running for the Drum], you say one of the reasons you did Sesame Street was because you wanted kids to know that “that Indians still exists.” What do you mean by that?
Buffy: When I was a little girl I was taught that there were no Indians. The only time I ever saw Indians was when we visited the stupid natural history museum and they were dead and stuffed like the dinosaurs. That has always remained with me and I know that most people know zero about aboriginal cultures or the western hemisphere. They don’t know anything because it’s not offered in school and its not offered in teacher college. When I was including that kind of journalistic approach for concert audiences and record buyers, the logical thing to do when I was no longer to get airplay in the US was to work through Sesame Street and reach people at a younger age. So I was doing essentially the same thing that I was doing all along, in trying to raise consciousness and spotlight Native America, because it’s fascinating and interesting. It’s not all protest. Its culture and fun and families and very appropriate for Sesame Street. It was just a very natural unfolding for me.
Sam: On the documentary they talked about the Cradleboard Teaching Project. Are you still involved with that?
Buffy: Yeah. I still write curriculum. I write curriculum like I write songs and, oh man, I love it. Our dream came true about a year and half ago when we made things free, so you can help yourself to our curriculum at Cradleboard.org. When I get finished touring with this album I’m going to finish the Astronomy for high school curriculum and continue to write curriculum. I really love it. It’s really fun. I get to use my artistic talent and music and narration and writing and education all at the same time. The idea is to use interactive multi-media because it’s more engaging.
Sam: Do you have any idea how many schools across North America are using it?
Buffy: No, because we make it free. We don’t even count anymore. We were very careful about info structure when we first started putting it out on-line, because there is metrics built into everything you do on-line so that you can know if anybody is actually learning anything. Teachers get an automatic e-mail of every test that every student takes. But instead of overwhelming ourselves with all that, the tests go right to the teachers, and the teachers and the students take ownership of their own stuff. We get thousands of hits everyday but we haven’t built ourselves up. I didn’t want to become the music industry and so long as money and info structure stand between the students and learning I will try to make it free. The information wants to be free. That’s why the internet is free. Tim Berners Lee. You know who that is?
Sam: No I don’t.
Buffy: Tim Berners Lee, and his team at CERN and MIT…he could have owned the internet personally and he decided that, no, the information wants to be free and he made sure that the internet would belong to everybody. What an incredible contribution. He’s my hero.
Sam: Can I ask you about a certain song? It’s a song I love, and one that I don’t think I’ve ever read anything about anywhere. I always wondered about this song, because it’s such a bizarre little tune. What made you write The Vampire?
Sam: I love that song. I am a horror film fan, and in pop music you don’t often get songs about vampires, especially when you wrote that song. Is that song about a vampire or is it a sort of metaphor? Where did that come from?
Buffy: I come from an abusive background as a child, and very often such children become abused as a spouse. They learn that word no just triggers more abuse. So, I wrote The Vampire with the feelings of somebody who was kind of a predator. I was living with somebody who was abusive and a predator and so it fits in perfectly for a metaphor of a vampire.
Sam: I can totally see that.
Buffy: Yeah. Thank you for liking that song. I never get a request for that. I wish one of these Goth groups would do it. It’d be perfect for one of the Twilight movies.
Sam: It’s a bizarre and beautiful song. Anyhow, over the last few days as I have been telling people that I’d be talking to you, I had at least two friends tell me that you were a large inspiration to them. Who is a large inspiration on you?
Buffy: Barrack Obama. Just having a professor with a degree in constitutional law in the White House makes me feel he’s the only president that’s ever been so highly qualified. I campaigned for him and I really really like him. In music, Edith Piaf, Carmen Amaya the great flamenco dancer and singer. I still sing and dance flamenco. Harry Belafonte because of inclusion of world music so early in his career and he was so kind to me. Marlon Brando, who I did lots of things with. We were both working for UNICEF at one point, and he had a global perspective that most actors still don’t. Most people in show business are just looking for the next chart hit and it’s about me me me. But some people are more expansive and its fun to learn with them.
Sam: When you were campaigning for Obama did you get to meet him?
Buffy: No I did not, but he did come to the inauguration ball. He’s from Hawaii. I was campaigning for the issue of voter protection in Southern New Mexico where brown people are kept away from the polls. They are told if they vote they’ll be committing a felony.
Sam: In Southern New Mexico?
Buffy: It happens all over the US. That’s what happened in the past two elections. The Bush elections. Voter protection was not put in place at all and people were turned away from the polls by big guys in puffy jackets and sunglasses who get out a book and say that [the voter] has outstanding parking tickets and if they go in that their children will not qualify for federal funding and education and that they will be committing a felony.
Sam: The whole world has a love affair for Barrack Obama…
Buffy: Well he’s amazing.
Sam: He seems to have a wonderful respect for people that the other presidents didn’t seem to have.
Buffy: Yes he does. And he was raised in the Islands and the Aloha spirit is very very different then it is in the other parts of the world.
Sam: In what sense?
Buffy: We’re a mixed race here, and have been for a very long time, and we get along and we respect each others’ traditions and were we come from.
Sam: So you’re touring and promoting Running For the Drum. Is that bringing you mainly through Canada this year?
Buffy: We’ll be mostly Canada and Europe. In November we’ll be whipping the map with Europe. They haven’t given me the schedule yet. The rest of the winter and spring we’ll be in the US, and then we’re talking about going to Australia and Japan for the spring so I’ll be touring for the next couple of years. But it’s nice because I have a computer with me so I can be writing curriculum and I can be doing paintings. It’s so nice to have an extension of your brain that you can shut down now and then.
Sam: Do you enjoy touring?
Buffy: Yeah. I do. I mean, it’s a long ride. Its five and a half hours to get [from Hawaii] to LA. If I’m coming to the East Coast it’s another five hours plus whatever time you have to wait. And if you’re going to Europe it’s another five and a half hours and it’s just awful. It can take your whole day and you’re upside down when you get there.
Sam: How do you deal with jet leg?
Buffy: I’ve kind of learnt how. No caffeine for a few days before I fly and sleep when you can on the plane. Bring a lot of books.
Sam: Now Running For the Drum was your first album in thirteen years. What took you so long to put a new one out?
Buffy: I just wanted to go on the road again. There’s no sense making an album if you’re not going to go on the road. My co-producer was available and I felt like doing it and I had the time and my studio was smiling and looking good. So I said I was willing to travel and I said, yes I am. I felt like traveling. The songs weren’t written all last week. They were written all over the place.
Sam: Well they were obviously not all written last week because the quality wouldn’t be there.
Buffy: No, I write them real fast. I write songs all the time. Sometimes I’ll have a song on a newer album that I’ve written many years before, and other times it’s a combination of something I wrote yesterday and something I wrote twenty years ago. It’s just all mixed up.
Sam: Well I want to wish you luck on your tour, and continued success on the new album. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today Buffy. It’s been so nice to talk with you.
Buffy. Thank you too Sam.
A week later Buffy arrived not far from my home and I had the delightful opportunity to meet her in person. As part of a line of primarily female fans and supporters, it seemed like everyone waiting for Buffy had a sense of familiarity with her as if they knew her their whole life. Each woman in line had a story or a testimonial for Buffy about how her music had touched their lives. Buffy took the time to listen to each story and to give the sense of love and familiarity back to them. I didn’t want to take to much of Buffy’s time away from those waiting to talk with her, and we only exchanged a brief greeting as she signed a photo for me and I thanked her again for doing this interview. In person Buffy was as charming and beautiful as she was during our talk. Buffy has an extensive and busy year ahead of her and if she is in your area I can’t stress enough that you take the time to watch this dynamic and legendary performer. For more information on Buffy’s tour, as well as all of her many projects, make sure to visit her web-site at http://www.creative-native.com. Despite five decades in the business, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s music and performance is as dynamic and fresh as ever. Buffy Sainte-Marie continues to defy expectations