Interview: Buffy Sainte-Marie Disobeys All the Rules…
Interview and story by Don Wilcock
Smithsonian Magazine called “folksinger” Buffy Sainte-Marie a few years ago to apologize. Apologize for what, she couldn’t imagine. “They did a story about Vietnam servicemen who had peace slogans and comments carved onto their rifle butts and into their bunks, and one of them had carved a verse of ‘Universal Soldier’ that the Smithsonian Magazine did not recognize (as one of my songs), and they attributed it to this soldier writing this brilliant lyric.”
“And they said, ‘Would you like me to send you the letters?’ And they sent me all these packages of wonderful letters of people who had written in, servicemen who were there clarifying the fact that I had written the song. They [Smithsonian Magazine] printed a retraction, and they told me they had more mail on that story than on any story they’d ever had before.”
“Universal Soldier,” written in the early ’60s, ran totally counter to the prevailing style of folk music of the time. First of all, it was a contemporary commentary on the importance of every man and every woman taking responsibility for society’s war-like nature.
At the time, the prevailing attitude in the folk conclave of Greenwich Village was that the only valid songs were those that looked back on the history of the genre. Woody Guthrie’s dustbowl sagas were king. Bob Dylan hadn’t written “Blowin’ in the Wind” yet, and the world was totally unplugged. Joan Baez and Judy Collins were barefoot Madonnas, and the songbook of the day was an academic treatise primarily on American history, and secondarily on Irish and British history as it impacted the relatively short musical history of the states.
Buffy Sainte-Marie drove headlong into this retro scene with no rear view mirror. Greenwich Village didn’t know what to make of her.
“It was major whiplash, man,” she says. “No, I’m just joking.
“To tell you the truth, I didn’t think I was ever going to last. “In the first place, I was just there temporarily. I was on my way to India, because I’d just gotten a degree in Oriental philosophy, and I had a scholarship to go to India, and I still have never been to India. So, all the time that I was being a young songwriter, I just thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ll just do one more concert, just take it as it comes.’ So I never really got into careerism like some of my contemporaries. Their parents were merchants and teachers and stuff, and I just came from such a nowhere background. I didn’t understand the music business.”
Born on a Cree Reservation in Saskatchewan in 1941 and adopted by a poor white family, she was totally unprepared for the business side of folk music and unaware and/or unconcerned about the genre’s unwritten rules of the road. “When I had signed up with Vanguard Records (the premiere folk record label of the 1960s), I didn’t have a lawyer. So, they said, ‘Okay, we’ll send this to a lawyer.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know a lawyer.’ They said, ‘Oh, you can use ours.’”
She ended up signing away the rights to “Universal Soldier” for a dollar.
She took to wearing Fredericks of Hollywood clothes that she describes as the Victoria’s Secret of the day. She played an electronic synthesizer on her mid-60s album “Illuminations” at a time when electricity was hypocrisy in folk music. And her anti-war sentiment all but destroyed her career in the United States.
“For me, the blacklisting that went on during Lyndon Johnson’s administration and then during Nixon’s administration was like eight years of back-to-back disappearance for me, but that wasn’t done in any other country accept the United States. In Canada, they played all my albums and had all new ones and were very up to date. So was Europe and Asia and Down Under, but the United Sates was – we should never think that it was the government in big capital letters. Just a handful of guys who made phone calls.”
She never even knew about how pervasive the blacklisting was until the 1980s when she did an interview with a Toronto deejay. “He said that he got a letter (from President Johnson on White House stationery) as a thank you for suppressing music that ‘deserved to be suppressed.’ It’s been misinterpreted so many times as to think that the American government is terrible. It’s not. It’s just a handful of boys in the backroom who make phone calls. It goes on all the time in the corporate world. It’s just a handful of boys around the President, and if they hear things like ‘Universal Soldier’ when Lyndon Johnson is saying there is no war, they don’t want it to be heard.
“In this feudal system we live in, one of the major societal templates is bullying, and the idea in life many people are told is some day you’re going to hit that asshole that lives down the street, right? It’s like we’re always hitting each others’ butts to find out whether in the pecking order we’re a peckee or a pecker.”
Buffy went on to earn a Ph.D in fine arts from the University of Massachusetts. She was a regular on “Sesame Street” from 1976-81. Elvis Presley had a British hit with her song “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” She co-wrote “Up Where We Belong” with then husband Jack Nitzsche in 1981, and Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes recorded it as the theme song for the hit film “An Officer and A Gentleman,” which earned an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award.
She also proudly states that she had the first large scale digital artwork to be shown in museums and art galleries in North America in the 1980s.
“Macintosh is just another tool,” she says. “You can make your own brushes. You can make your own colors.
“You can do all the same things, except that it’s an additional tool, and the cleanup is faster, and the paint doesn’t dry out. You can work again tomorrow or make seven different versions.”
But once again, she wasn’t playing by the same rules as others in her field. “It’s not as though Johnny Carson wanted to interview me about computers.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie brings a young Canadian Aborigine rock band to the Eighth Step at Proctors on Friday night, prior to their NYC show at the Highline Ballroom on Tuesday. When I told her she reminds me of Patti Smith now, she corrected me. “Patti Smith could never keep up with me, are you kidding? You’re talking Tina Turner or Patti LaBelle here. I’m not joking. That’s what we do. We knock people’s socks off.”