Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

Buffy Sainte-Marie

by Bruce Pollock

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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.

"I wrote 'Until It's Time for You to Go' and the folkies called me a sellout. I wore sparkles on my clothes and tight satiny dresses and high heels because that's the way I felt and it was the wrong way to feel at the Newport Folk Festival, because it wasn't what Joanie and Bobby were wearing. For me, music is 99% of my life. I've sold out everything else. I've sold out my heart. I've sold out my head. I've sold out my body. I've sold out everything from my health to any lover I've ever had. When it's time to get on that airplane, that's it. It's partly because I'm drawn as a performer and partly because I'm pushed by the music."

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."

Luckily for Buffy (and music lovers) she was able to overcome that trait, when she and Jack Nitzsche composed the theme for An Officer and a Gentleman in 1981. Will Jennings added the lyrics and the song became a #1 hit in 1982 for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. It also won the Best Song Oscar in 1983. As an added bonus, Buffy and Jack were married in 1982.
"It started out maybe just being a pastime, an escape from homework, an escape from doing things the way everybody wanted me to do them," Buffy told me in 1974. "I found I could invent my own music, keep myself company with it, express myself with it, but most of all play with it. I don't sit down with a pencil and paper and write poems and songs and stories, but I always have poetic ideas and music going on in my head. It's like a constant radio station of my own," she said. "I can't notate music very well, so I have to remember things. If it's exciting enough for me to remember it, then it's exciting enough to share with people. It's totally a gift. It's not something I did because I was a singer and I needed some songs. I've always been able to do it and I've always appreciated it. I swear it saved my life a number of times because I've felt down, ill, unable to cope with things, especially when I was in high school. And the music, I don't understand it at all, but it's healed me on a number of occasions. And I've found that it's healed other people, too."

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."

Sesame Street

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.
There was a third element that played an extremely important role in Buffy's music, circa 1974: her band. "Let me tell you something about being a writer and having a band at your disposal. It could be devastating unless you have very generous musicians. As a writer, it enables me to be like five writers at once. In other words, when I go in to record a song, it's not only the words and the melody that makes it me, it's the whole arrangement. I'll play the song once on the piano and the piano player will watch what I do, then he'll play the same kind of runs that I do. Then I'll play it on guitar and the same thing happens. So, there's me playing the piano and me playing the guitar and I'm also free to sing. The drummer will put down my licks. The bass player will look at the patterns I'm doing. And then when we're playing it all together they'll add their own creativity and skill to the song, but basing the arrangement on my ideas. It will take probably a half an hour to record a song. It's lightning fast and it's always fresh, but it takes an extraordinary combination of musicians to build the song without destroying it.

"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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Comments: 3

  • Sparkle Allison from Massachusetts Awesome songwriter, love her music
  • Wintermoon from LouisianaShe is very gifted! Such a great talent!
  • Betsy Siggins from Massachusetts She’s one of the best ❤️
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