Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Triumph of Buffy Sainte-Marie

Young Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Maybe we should just declare this Canadian Folk Singer Week and be done with it.  Two days after profiling the widely hailed national treasure Leonard Cohen and icon of the early Sixties folk revival, come roaring back winning Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize, awarded annually by a jury of music critics, bloggers, and broadcasters to an album deemed for the greatest artistic merit regardless of genre, sales, or label.  The artist beat out heavy favorites including rapper Drake, former Polaris winner Caribou, and the Toronto rockers Alvvays.
Seventy-four year old Buffy Sainte-Marie was honored on Monday for her overtly activist album Power in the Blood in style ranging from rock-a-billy to Blue which highlights the struggle of indigenous peoples, especially women, against corporate greed, environmental rape, and in support of the First Nations’ Idle No More movement.  She was very practical about the award.
Gemini Award—this is the only one I ever heard that gives the artist money.  It’s real important,  [because] it’s becoming almost impossible for an artist to tour with a band and with instruments.
Known to Americans primarily for her protest songs and striking wide vibrato and for several years of appearances on Sesame Street, Sainte-Marie may have had even a broader range of accomplishments then her Canadian contemporaries and friends Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young.  In addition to decades of singing and songwriting she has made her mark as a record producer and engineering pioneer, an actress, visual artist, educator, activist, and philanthropist.  Yet systematic retaliation for her outspoken anti-war and Native causes got her largely banned from the airways and at one point contributed to a thirteen year gap between albums.
Beverly Sainte-Marie was born on February 21, 1941 on the Piapot Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu’Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada.  A full blooded Cree, her family was unstable and unable to care for her.  At age 10 she was adopted by an American couple who raised her in Massachusetts who provided her with a loving home, encouragement, and educational opportunities available to few First Nation’s women at the time.  She was a brilliant and inquisitive student with a strong artistic bent.  In high school she taught herself how to play the guitar.
While in college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while pursuing degrees in teaching and oriental philosophy she began songwriting penning and performing in coffee houses some of the songs that would later help make her famous including Ananias; the Indian lament, Now That the Buffalo’s Gone, and the Hindi song Mayoo Sto Hoon.  She graduated among the top ten in her class.  Her thirst for education never died and while pursuing her successful career earned a PhD. in the Fine Arts from the University of Massachusetts in 1983.
By the time Sainte-Marie graduated from college she was an established fixture on the burgeoning folk scene.  She was a regular in the coffee houses of Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood and on the Greenwich Village scene in New York where she attracted the attention and enthusiastic support of Pete Seeger who admired not only her unique voice, but the fearlessness of her use of music to advance justice.  She was already touring small venues, college campuses, festivals, and making appearances on Native reservation in both the U.S. and Canada.
In 1963 to life changing experiences translated themselves in classic songs.  First to fight a nasty and painful vocal infection Sainte-Marie became addicted to the painkiller codeine inspiring the song Co’dine which was later covered by Donovan, Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Graham Parson, and most recently Courtney Love among others.  The same year at an airport she witnessed the return of wounded GI’s from Vietnam as the conflict was ramping up and the U.S. government was still denying American troops were in combat.  That inspired the iconoclastic Universal Soldier, which would become an anthem of the developing anti-war movement. 
Both songs were included on her debut album for Vanguard, It’s My Way released in 1964.  The album earned her Billboard’s Best New Artist of the Year Award.  

A screen shot of Buffy Sainte Marie and her mouth bow with Pete Seeger on Rainbow Quest.

Mentor Pete Seeger introduced her to American television audiences on his popular PBS Rainbow Quest program in 1965.  She was soon also on the air in Canada and a guest on American shows from American Bandstand, The Johnny Cash Show with her fellow advocate for Native Americans, and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
In 1964 she returned to the Piapot Cree reservation of her birth for a Powwow and received an ecstatic reception and welcome.  She was formally adopted by Emile Piapot the son of the Cree chief.  She thus reconnected with her roots and reinforced her identity.  She remains close to the Cree people to this day and by extension all Canadian First Nations, U.S. Native Americans, and aboriginal peoples around the world.
Sainte-Marie’s third album Little Wheel Spin and Spin in 1966 was her most successful yet and broke out into the Billboard album charts for that year as #97.  It included her fiery Native protest song My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.  The album earned her Billboard’s Best New Artist of the Year Award.  The album also included several traditional folk songs, but Sainte-Marie began to experiment with presentation, adding Bruce Langhorne’s electric  guitar and string arrangements by Felix Pappalardi to her distinctive guitar work and signature Native American mouth bow.
After that album she increasingly rebelled against Vanguard’s attempts to keep her on the folk music reservation.  She wanted to stretch her legs in new genre’s and styles and to add a more driving electric sound to some songs.  1967’s Fire, Fleet, and Candlelight exemplified the trend.  It included her cover of Joni Mitchell’s The Circle Game, latter used as the theme for the student protest film The Strawberry Statement; 97 Men in This Here Town Would Give a Half a Grand in Silver Just to Follow Me Down with a full rock band led by Langhorne, and T’Es Pas un Autre, a French reworking of her well-known composition Until It's Time for You to Go originally recorded on her second album Many a Mile.
In 1968 Sainte-Marie experimented with country music with top Nashville session musicians for on I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again.  Although the title song became a minor U.S. country hit, and a bigger hit on the U.K. pop charts, the album shocked some of her loyal folk fans and did not do as well as its predecessors in sales.
The same year Buffy married for the first time to surfing teacher Dewain Bugbee.  Although that marriage ended in divorce in 1971, Sainte-Marie has mostly made Hawaii here home ever since with frequent visits to Canada and the continental U.S.  She has also toured extensively in Britain and Europe.

The commercial disaster that became a cult favorite for its experimental electronic sound and use of synthesizer.  The first vocal album ever recorded in Quadraphonic sound.
1969 Illuminations saw Sainte-Marie go even further afield, embracing an experimental electronic sound that included extensive use of a Buchla 100 synthesizer which sometimes completely altered the sound of her voice.  The record was a complete commercial disaster despite being the first vocal album ever recorded in Quadraphonic sound.  It did, however, influence a whole generation of rising musicians and after being re-released byVanguard decades later reached a kind of cult status.  Ultra hip Wire magazine listed it as one of 100 Albums that Set the World on Fire While No-One was Listening.
By the early 70’s Sainte-Marie was having career problems beyond the sagging sales of her last two albums.  Her increasing profile as an anti-war activist and Native militant was alarming authorities.  I found out 10 years later, in the 1980s, that President Lyndon Johnson had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music,” she reported in an interview for Indian Country Today conducted in 1999 but not fully published until 2007. By the mid-70’s she had nearly vanished from the airwaves  in the States except for low-watt college stations and a handful of progressive and free form FM stations in major markets.  Even those started to melt away as broadcast conglomerates realized the appeal of the FM band and began snapping up independent stations and while the survivors turned increasingly to formatted rock programming to maintain an audience share.
Vanguard released two Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie packages in 1970 and ’71 that helped some.  But without new material, it was more difficult to tour.  Her long-time label pressured her for a more commercial album resulting in She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, a tuneful, pop-heavy album with several covers on which Ry Corder, Neil Young, and his band Crazy Horse provided much of the musical punch.  Vanguard boss Maynard Solomon, who had produced her first five albums and most of Illuminations, turned over the board to a new young producer, Jack Nitzche, their first collaboration.  One song, Soldier Blue, the theme for the popular movie of the same name, reached #7 on the British pop charts and the album did well all over Europe.  But it barely dented the Billboard 200 in this country. 
Buffy herself took up co-producing duties with bass player Norbert Putnam for her next album, Moonshot which also featured the Nashville Brass.  With heavy label promotion a cover of Mickey Newbury’s Mister Can’t You See became Sainte-Maries only charted American hit single, peaking at #38 and the whole record made it back to the lower reaches of the Album charts.  Both the label and the artist were disappointed at the results, however, and the relationship was severely strained.
Her final Vanguard record in 1973, with much the same personnel, Quiet Places, was made amid high tension and mutual mistrust.  The label issued no singles and resolutely refused to promote the record, allowing it to sink commercially.  After the break, the label released a compilation of Indian themed cuts from her eight albums with them, Native North American Child: An Odyssey.  It also included to un-released cuts of traditional native music, Isketayo Sewow (Cree Call) and Way, Way, Way.  The album highlighted her long standing relationship with her native roots and was popular with the increasingly militant Native American movement exemplified by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the States, but it was not a commercial success and may have contributed to the increasing boycott of her work by broadcasters fearful of government and popular backlash. It was the end of Buffy’s long association with what had been the premier folk label of the ‘60’s but was itself rapidly fading.
In 1974 MCA signed her and using material recorded in the same sessions as Quiet Places with additional cuts with the same personnel, produced a rock driven pop album Buffy that here new label did not support and quickly went out of print.  Her follow-up 1975 album, Changing Woman returned to all original material and a more experimental electronic sound.  Neither it nor her next album on ABC, Sweet America in 1975 were successful.  But Sweet America, dedicated to AIM was deeply important to Sainte-Marie personally and to the movement it sought to support.  It would be her last album for sixteen years.
Sainte-Marie married for a second time in 1975 to Sheldon Wolfchild, a Native American from Minnesota.  Together they had a son, Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild.

Buffy breast feeding her son Cody on Sesame Street with Big Bird's encouragement.

The same year the Children’s Television Workshop contacted Sainte-Marie with a request to record some simple counting an ABC material for Sesame Street she countered with a proposal to play a bigger, ongoing part on the educational series  to be living proof that Native Americans continue to live and thrive apart from old cowboy and Indian stereotypes. That began a five year collaboration that saw her become an important and beloved part of the show with dozens of appearances, including one in which she famously breast fed her son Cody.  In 1979 a week’s worth of programs were filmed on location at her Hawaiian home.  Since Sesame Street recycles material, she can still sometimes be seen on new episodes.
Sesame Street reawakened Sainte-Marie’s in education, particularly for native children.   She began to dedicate more time to the philanthropic non-profit Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education which she originally founded in 1969.  She made frequent visits of reservations in both the US and Canada to speak with students and their parents and provide school supplies.
Here long-time interest in spiritual matters got more attention during her retirement form recording.  She had been a student of Oriental religion in college in addition to her attraction to various forms of First Peoples and Native American spirituality.  She began a long, close relationship with the Baha’i community in the mid 70’s that continued for twenty years and included numerous performances for Baha’i audiences, benefits, and specialty recordings. 
I gave a lot of support to Bahá'í people in the '80s and '90s … Bahá'í people, as people of all religions, is something I’m attracted to … I don’t belong to any religion. … I have a huge religious faith or spiritual faith but I feel as though religion … is the first thing that racketeers exploit. … But that doesn’t turn me against religion …
In the early 80’s in her Hawaiian home Sainte-Marie became an early adopted of computer technology, using Apple II and Macintosh as early as 1981 to compose and record music and for visual arts composition.  When she finally made her triumphant return to recording an album, in 1992 Coincidence and Likely Stories, it was recorded on her computer in Hawaii and sent via then very primitive internet to producer Chris Birkett for re-mixing and final production in London.  The result was a fresh, highly political album that showed her continued interest in electronic music.  It included the song Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee inspired by Vine Deloria’s history of the struggles of the Lakota people.  The album was a hit in Canada and Europe and announced a reborn career.
Not that Sainte-Marie had been entirely idle.  She had created and exhibited paintings and other visual arts and created scores for films, including the documentary Where the Spirit Lives about native children being abducted and forced into residential schools to strip them of their cultural identity, and the theme from the short lived CBS/TVOntario co-production Spirit Bay focusing on children and youth in an Ojibwa reservation town in Ontario.  She also was cast as an actress in the TV movie The Broken Chain with Pierce Brosnan, and as the un-seen Cheyenne woman narrator of the Custer TV bio-pic Son of Morningstar among other projects.
But the biggest boost to Sainte-Marie’s career and public profile came with her collaboration with Jack Nietzsche and Will Jennings on Up Where We Belong, the theme for An Officer and a Gentleman and an international mega-hit for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes which earned her the 1982 Academy Award for Best Original Song.  After the collaboration she married Nitzche in 1982 and the couple stayed together until separating in the early ‘90’s.  Records are unclear if they ever divorced, but Nitzche died in 2000,
Up Where We Belong would be the title of her second come-back album in 1996. 
After that, there was another long hiatus from new recording although a re-release of the best of her Vanguard recordings in 2003, including the little heard Illusions and of her three albums from MCI and ABC in 2007 kept her reputation alive with audiences. 
Meanwhile she turned once again to her native educational projects and activism.  She founded the Cradleboard Teaching Project in1996 with funds from her Nihewan Foundation and with a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation with projects across Mohawk, Cree, Ojibwa, Menominee, Coeur D’Alene, Navajo, Quinault, Hawaiian, and Apache communities, partnered with a non-native class of the same grade level from elementary through high school in the study of geography, history, social studies, music, and science.  She also and produced a multimedia curriculum CD, Science: Through Native American Eyes.  In 2003 she became a spokesperson for the UNESCO Associated Schools Project Network\ in Canada.
Despite her residence in Hawaii, Sainte-Marie has made few appearances in US off of reservations since her perceived black balling in the ‘70’s.  In 2007 she made a rare exception to honor her old friend and mentor Pete Seeger by playing the annual Clearwater Festival in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.

At 74 with her all-First Nation Band, Buffy Saint Marie kicks ass on stage with high energy music from her powerful new album Power in the Blood.
In 2008 Sainte Marie made a splashy re-entry into the Canadian music scene with the release of a new album, Running for the Drum featuring the aboriginal influenced No No Keshagesh which became a hit single up north, a re-working of her earlier Little Wheel Spin and Spin, an adaptation of Katherine Lee Bates’s America the Beautiful with two new original verses, and other all new material.  Bluesman Taj Mahal sat in on piano with a rocking band.  Eliciting rave reviews for its original sound, the album one the prestigious Juno Award for best aboriginal album.
This year Power in the Blood got even better notices.  She has been particularly inspired by the work of Idle No More, the movement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples and their non-Aboriginal supporters in Canada founded by female activists Nina Wilson, Sheelah Mclean, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon in November 2012 to fight encroachments on First Nations land and water by the development policies of the Conservative government of Stephen Harper.  The movement has been marked with massive civil disobedience, road blockades to block timber and mining operations, long marches, and demonstrations provincial capitals and Ottawa, The movement has galvanized First Nation resistance and earned strong support from environmentalists and the white Left. It has also inspired similar action in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, and Latin America.  Songs like the title piece, We Are Circling, The Uranium War, Cary it On are anthems of the movement.
Yet in style, the music does not resemble old folk/protest.  NPR, critic Ann Powers wrote that:
…those who know her mostly by reputation as a standout of the early-‘60s folk revival will be delighted to discover an artist who's more Bjork than Baez, more Kate Bush than Laurel Canyon. Sainte-Marie is a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds, and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics.  
Now with the Gemini Award under her belt, Sainte-Marie is getting ready to tour again with a kick-ass band.  The lady takes no prisoners.



  1. She performed in Reno for to the public concert, with the equally astounding Martha Redbone opening! See her if you can!

  2. Patrick, wonderful find, man we have not spoken in nearly 39 years if that; maybe as far back as like 1979.. This is Carlos and Mariana Cortez's neighbor friend Carlos Cumpian. Do you have anything on that Coffee House on Halsted near Altgeld that Rev. Tuttle (?) long breaded cowboy hat wearing big man ran for a year or two?

  3. Of course I remember you, Carlos! I haven't posted on the Great American Coffee House that was run by the Rev. Iberus Hacker. Rev. Tuttle used to manage a headshop next to the IWW Hall when it was on Lincoln. I have written more than once about Carlos and you get a shout-out.