Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. This is taken from his 1974 interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Buffy Sainte-Marie likes to call her most famous song "a high-protein lecture." She said, "I wanted 'Universal Soldier' to do what it did. I wanted it to get people out of their classrooms and onto their feet. 'My Country Tis of Thy People You're Dying' is a condensation of Native American [Indian] history. It's six minutes to make up for the total lack of candor and truth and information available to the American people about Indians. But certain things I have to say are pitched at too high a level to bring any lasting benefit to as many people as I would like to bring them to. If I have something of myself that gets me off, that's brought me through hard times and that refreshes and nourishes me, what good does it do if I'm not smart enough to get it to the people? And I don't mean only the people who are like me, I mean all the people. That's communication. It doesn't do me any good to keep the medicine in the bottle. A 13-year-old can't know what 'Universal Soldier' is about. 'Sweet Little Vera' he can feel, it's emotional, it brings him up."
Although "college student songs" like "Universal Soldier" and "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" brought her to prominence during the heyday of the 1960s folk boom, this Cree Indian from Canada wanted people to know it was just the tip of her creativity. "My songs are collectively reflective of my entire personality, and I'm very varied," she stressed during her 1974 interview. "'Until It's Time for You to Go' is nothing like 'Universal Soldier,' which is nothing like 'Sweet Little Vera,' which is nothing like 'Piney Wood Hills.' I'm not with one person all the time and I don't write one kind of song. If someone were to say they didn't think I should sing this or that because I sang something else that they liked better and they only think I should write one kind of song, it would just make me laugh."
It would also make her angry. "Let me tell you something about American audiences," she said. "They mostly want to hear things that sound like they've heard them before. My songs are always at least two years ahead of their time. For two years, I was criticized for writing 'Universal Soldier.' For two years, I couldn't sing 'Now That the Buffalo's Gone' on television. Two years after I'd written it they finally let me sing it. But they wouldn't let me sing 'My Country Tis of Thy People You're Dying' because it was too strong. Two years went by, now that's all they want me to sing.
Although she's always been possessed by the muse, it's something she seems to feel has a will of its own. "I can't force it. People have asked me to write movie scores and toothpaste commercials, things that I could really make a lot of money with, but I'm really not very confident about being able to write on a schedule. I once wrote a whole series of commercials for Jell-O. All of a sudden I got these commercials for Jell-O in my head. Visuals and everything. But I never sent them in."
To Buffy's earliest fans, it may come as a surprise that she writes more love songs than anything else. "I have 50 or 60 love songs I haven't recorded," she told me. "I also have intellectual songs, rock 'n' roll songs. Then there's another kind of song, like 'Starboy,' which is really a kind of intimate poetry. There are light, story-telling songs, like 'Poor Man's Daughter' and there are country songs. I write a lot of songs in Cree that I only sing to Indian people. But 'Native North American Child,' 'Generation,' and 'He's an Indian Cowboy at the Rodeo' have been giant hits everywhere except in America. America is not ready yet to look at the American Indian except as a victim."
A committed activist for human rights, Buffy is just as dedicated to her craft. "I'm both an artist and a professional. The artist in me has great respect for the professional side. I have lots of songs I don't sing to other people. It's not a matter of commercialism so much as communication. Communication is my art. What I choose of my songs to get across to the people is conditioned by two things. It's usually the middle ground between:
One, where I'm at.
And two, where whoever I want to reach is at.
It doesn't do enough good to put out an entire album of songs that only four people in the world are going to understand. I feel I have an obligation to an audience. I don't sing just for college students or just to Indians or just for women or just for rock 'n' roll lovers. I know for a fact that because the audience reaches me I'm going to reach them. It's an interaction between me and my life and between me and the audience."
Sainte-Marie had a long association with Sesame Street, appearing on the show throughout the late '70s and consulting on their aboriginal programming. In 1977, she famously explained breast feeding to Big Bird.
"It's a new high every time. I can't tell you how thrilling the whole song receiving-writing-performing process is. If a song comes into my head, it's a high. The first time you play it on guitar it's another high, a different high. Then I play it on piano. Then you play it for someone for the first time and you see it react on them. It's like an entire growing up process. You learn that you have a body, then you learn that you can feel your body, then you learn you can do incredible things by feeling your body. Then you learn you can give your body to somebody else and let them feel it. It's the same thing. I can give a song to the musicians and I can feel what each person does with each song each night, how they change it, how they manipulate it. The only thing wrong with travelling around and being on the run is there's just not enough music on the road. Instead of doing interviews like this, I'd much rather be back at my place playing the piano and rehearsing with the band. I'd rather be doing that than anything else in the world."
August 14, 2019
Buffy Sainte-Marie Songfacts
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