When Buffy Sainte-Marie stormed onto the Greenwich Village music scene in the early 1960s, no one knew what to make of the young Native American woman with the mouthbow and crackling vibrato. Her 1964 album track “Universal Soldier” became the anthem for the peace movement for generations to come after Donovan’s hit version; her classic anti-love song “Until It’s Time for You to Go” was covered by everyone from Elvis Presley and Cher to Françoise Hardy; and her drug addiction confession “Cod’ine” was covered by Gram Parsons, Donovan (again) and Courtney Love. Born on a reservation in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sainte-Marie was orphaned and raised in suburban Massachusetts. She moved to new York in her early 20s and launched her career as a musician in the city’s burgeoning folk scene. Now 71, Saint-Marie has since added roles as activist, educator and digital artist to her CV, which also includes a famous five-year stint as a children’s presenter on Sesame Street and a 1983 academy award for Best original Song for co-writing “Up Where We Belong”, as featured in the film An Officer and A Gentleman. On August 7th, Sainte-Marie is performing at Antony Hegarty’s Meltdown Festival in London.
Sesame Street highlight? Being able to breastfeed on television, because to my knowledge, nobody had done it. Sesame Street never stereotyped me; I appeared in episodes related to Indian culture and everything else as well
Dazed & Confused: Are you looking forwards to performing at the Meltdown Festival?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I can’t wait! All the interesting people! I like Antony’s fearless presentation of a song and the diversity of what he feels and writes about. He doesn’t seem scared to portray a song in ways beyond the standard ‘music police’ range of octaves, shimmer and storyline. There’s always a surprise and it seems natural to him.
Dazed & Confused: Can you tell us about your life in Hawaii?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I live on a remote farm in the mountains and have no idea who the trendy people are or what they’re doing. I live out of my garden, I have 21 goats, a little horse and a kitty-cat. I wake up at the crack of dawn and hug my animals, jump into the garden and listen to the songs in my head. I’m a biblioholic and don’t drink, but I’ve had a lot of psychedelics. I have a truly charmed life: famous in one life, anonymous in another.
Dazed & Confused: Did you face challenges starting out, as a young Native American female musician in the early 60s?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I felt misperceived on a lot of levels. Managers wanted me to appear like Pocahontas in fringes. Indigenous people suffer from this misperception all of our lives. It’s like standing in front of a mirror and seeing everybody reflected accurately except yourself. But so do most creative and original people. As a young woman in showbusiness, people didn’t know how to market me. no matter what they thought, it seemed to be wrong. a writer of protest songs? okay. But a woman? I was definitely a challenge.
Dazed & Confused: When did you start to feel that Native American rights and issues were something that you wanted to focus on?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: In college I read everything I could find about Native America, and I started to travel to reservations and hang around with other native american scholars. When I graduated in 1962 I thought I was going to India on a scholarship, but suddenly I got famous as a songwriter and singer. I wasn’t much a part of any scenes. I was an outside loner, but I loved new York and Greenwich Village. In the early 1960s, students were all over the streets; we had discovered our brains and we weren’t going to support their damn money wars any more.
Dazed & Confused: What was it like starting out with musicians like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I knew Bob a little, but Joni also came from Saskatchewan and was being ignored by the folk bosses who ran the record companies. I thought that she and my friend Leonard Cohen were fantastic talents, so I carried Joni’s tape around in my purse, playing it for all the bigwigs. Finally a young guy in an agency I was working with got it! He became her manager and built a huge career with her. But basically people like me, Phil Ochs and Joni were also-rans to the major management stables. During the civil rights and anti-war marches, even though my song ‘Universal Soldier’ was all over the streets, I was absent. I threw myself into another direction and covered the base nobody else knew about – the reservations. I was friends with Stokely Carmichael, Mohammed Ali, Harry Belafonte and other african-american civil-rights giants. I took Dick Gregory to his first reservation – it broke his heart, he cried on the airplane back. With Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and all the other famous artists appearing at every photo op, I felt that other issues didn’t need my help; the reservations were a different story.
Dazed & Confused: Considering you were seen as a folk singer, how did people react to Illuminations, the album you made with a Buchla synth in 1969?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: All the folkies thought I was crazy to make a totally electronic quadraphonic album in the 60s, but art and electronic music students loved it. There really wasn’t a market for that at the time – the only place to take that technology was into movie scoring, so that’s what I did! They were nothing major, oh, but I did this film called Stripper (1986). That was fun!
Dazed & Confused: How did getting blacklisted in the 70s effect you?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: It broke my heart. It sank my boat in the US where I had a huge momentum going – magazine covers, big TV shows, tons of records selling. Everybody thought censorship was a thing of the past, like McCarthyism. I didn’t know that I had been strategically put out of business until the 1980s! A radio broadcaster showed me a letter on White House stationery saying my music ‘deserved to be suppressed’. I was flabbergasted! Recently I found out the FBI had files on me, and the CIA too.
Dazed & Confused: Do you have a highlight from your years on Sesame Street?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Being able to breastfeed on television, because to my knowledge, nobody had done it. Sesame Street never stereotyped me; I appeared in episodes related to Indian culture and everything else as well.
Dazed & Confused: Why has education always been such an important focus for you?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I hated high school, I couldn’t wait to get out, but I fell in love with college. and then when I got some money in the 60s I started my scholarship foundation. And 15 years ago I found out that two of my early scholarship recipients had gone on to become the presidents of tribal colleges. Wow, that was such an incredible moment for me. I started the Cradleboard Teaching Project in the early 80s, when my son was in grade five. I looked at the material in the american Indian unit and it was the same junk as when I was a kid. So I started writing curriculum. now I teach how to write interactive multimedia curriculum in universities. I have a lot of honorary PhDs, I forget how many now.
Dazed & Confused: How did the success of ‘Up Where We Belong’ and your 1983 Academy Award affect your career?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: It didn’t make much difference. Well, my friends all loved it. Right now my oscar is in the Smithsonian, because I’m the first native american, I think the only, to win an oscar.
Dazed & Confused: Why do you think that contemporary music is more politically dis- engaged?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: No idea. I wonder too. Don’t forget that in the 60s, businessmen smelled money and marketed us to a youth audience in the streets. Now both political conversation and engaged youth happen for free on the internet. Topical songs are about being effective, truly making change in my world, not just being rich and famous. I have hundreds of letters from people saying my songs made significant positive differences in their lives.
Dazed & Confused: You’re 71 – how do you still find the motivation to travel and connect with people?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I love it more than ever. I’m grateful for every airplane ticket, and I just can’t wait to do the music. I’ve been travelling with my band down under, all over north It was a lot of conversation, plenty of energy and a lot of ethnic and musical diversity. america and Europe. I do huge concerts in cities and tiny concerts on reservations. I just like people, love music and seeing the world.
Dazed & Confused: What would you tell young people who want to create change through music, art and activism?
Buffy Sainte-Marie: I just tell everybody: keep your nose to the joy trail. Whatever your passion, don’t be discouraged by others who don’t get it. Young people are full of energy, curiosity, strength, resilience and creativity of all kinds. You are the new upgrade. accept the fact that you need to create your new songs, books, friendships, families, communities and colleges for alternative conflict resolution. Create your new world yourself and connect with others who are doing it their way. Just go forward, not backward.
Buffy Sainte-Marie is playing Meltdown Festival August 7, 2012. More info HERE. This week Antony Hegarty is guest editing Dazed Digital, bringing with him many of the artists part of the festival onto the pages of Dazed.
Follow Karen Orton on Twitter here @AaronKorton