Buffy Sainte-Marie Kicks Ass, Empowers, and Inspires with Potent Dose of Medicine Songs
Sometimes press releases make a point that rises off the page. The release accompanying Buffy Sainte-Marie’s latest album, Medicine Songs (True North Records, November 2017), nails it: “For more than a half-century, Sainte-Marie has been a disruptor of the status quo.”
Although her more than five-decade-long career as a songwriter/singer/multi-instrumentalist/actor/educator has been distinguished by her versatility, it has been firmly guided by her unwavering commitment to speaking truth-to-power and fighting to make the world a better place. Yes, Sainte-Marie has won dozens of awards and honors, including the 1983 Academy Award for Best Original Song, “Up Where We Belong“, from the film An Officer and a Gentleman. But it is her 2015 ‘Spirit of Americana’ Free Speech Award, jointly presented by the First Amendment Center and the Americana Music Association, that truly tells the tale. And so does her sonically and emotionally breathtaking new album, which infuses many of her career’s best activist songs with new blood in newly recorded versions, just in time for all those among us who could use a fresh rallying cry.
Sainte-Marie, a Cree Indian who proudly wears her Indigenous heritage on her sleeve, says she has really felt the need to dust off these songs and put them to work on “the same damn issues” that have plagued people for at least the last fifty years: “war, oppression, inequity, violence, rank-ism of all kinds, the pecking order, bullying, racketeering and systemic greed.” In an ‘Artist’s Statement’ printed inside the album sleeve, she adds that “some of these songs were too controversial for radio play when they first came out, so nobody ever heard them, and now is my chance to offer them to new generations of like-minded people dealing with these same concerns. It’s like the play is the same but the actors are new. I really want this collection of songs to be like medicine, to be of some help or encouragement, to maybe do some good.”
Because I have long loved her songs and seen her perform several times over the decades, have listened to the new album, and have been a longtime environmental activist myself, I wanted to know more. So, I called her up at her home in Hawaii and asked her to elaborate. In a wide-ranging conversation about her career (and her blacklisting), her recording techniques, and Indigenous music more broadly, she graciously shared her views.
Bill: You’ve been an activist for a better world since the beginning of your career, and your public persona has clearly conveyed that. So why release this new compilation now?
Buffy: These are not old songs for me. These are songs I do every night for live audiences, and every night we get two hundred people standing in line for autographs after every show, and a lot of them ask, “Where can I get this song, or that song?” So, I wanted to put all these songs in the same place, so that people who are looking for empowering music, or protest music, or contemporary issues songs in my catalogue – and I’ve got a lot of them – can more easily find them. So, really, it’s like popular demand from my audiences. A lot of people are confronting classic human issues at the moment [issues, she notes, that have been around for centuries], and they’re feeling either at the edge of empowerment or totally disempowered, and I wanted these songs to support them. Human oppression raises its head now and then, and I’m there to shine a spotlight on it; that’s what I do. A lot of people are waking up for the first time, and for me that’s good news. As I’ve said, the good news about the bad news is that more people are aware of it now [and can be motivated to take action]. I think that this kind of song can make a difference in the world. It’s not going to cure cancer, but it can empower a lot of people to know that they have company in wanting to make the world better than it is today.
Bill: It’s always inspiring to me to be reminded of how powerful songs can be.
Buffy: They’re the most powerful art form I think. I have huge respect for songwriting as an art form, because in a three-minute song you can say more than you can in a big fat book, and it’s immediately memorable and it’s replicable and it has a melody and you can play it on different instruments and it can be done in different languages… and sometimes you can dance to it.
Bill: The lead track on the album, “You Got to Run (Spirit of the Wind)”, is a brand-new version [see video below] of a song you originally wrote and recorded decades ago for a movie. Most of the others are newly redone versions of existing songs, ranging all the way from the 1960s through 2015’s, “Power in the Blood”. Why did you decide to re-record these songs, and how did you approach the task so the result was worth the effort?
Buffy: Originally, I was just going to put out a playlist because I knew people wanted this kind of music, but then I talked to my record distributor and they said, “Wouldn’t you like to re-record the whole thing?” I thought first it was going to be a chore, but then I thought this could really be nice. Songs are not like paintings so when you’re finished you’re finished; it’s not like sculpting. Here’s how it is: I write a song, I record it, then I go on the road and I’m singing it every night, or I write a song and we’re doing it on stage, and we record it, and we’re continuing to do it and it just keeps getting better. You know, when you first write a song you take that snapshot, and then later in the afternoon you take another snapshot. And they’re not the same. Songs are alive, you can’t break them, you can’t hurt them. You can do them all kinds of ways.
Chris Birkett, my co-producer, and I were totally open to re-doing anything and everything, as well as changing nothing. We decided to improve each song–or not–whatever it needed to make it perfect for right now. We had no rules and no one was looking over our shoulders. “Soldier Blue”, for instance, we re-did the song from scratch. Both “Disinformation”, which Chris and I agreed we couldn’t improve by changing, and “Working for the Government”, which I begged to add at the last minute because it seemed to belong to the same collection, but we had neither the budget nor the time to re-do, and liked it as-is anyway, are the original recordings. I think they fit with the other songs. All the other songs have something new: entirely, or as remixes with various additions and subtractions and replacements of instruments, backup vocals, panning, and other techniques.
Bill: Do you feel that your Medicine Songs primarily express a unique Indigenous/First-Nations perspective, or are they broader, or both?
Buffy: When I first emerged in what they were calling the ‘folk music era’, people had never heard about Indian issues of any kind, and it’s still not very much on the radar. For the most part, we’re kind of invisible. And I remember singing “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” in Greenwich Village in the 1960s, and people were just astounded; they had no idea about the inequity in Indian Country. That song was on my first album alongside “Universal Soldier”, which had nothing to do with Indians at all, so I write both from my own core niche and I also write from a broader point-of-view. Some songs are more oriented toward Native American issues, but others include us all. Very early in my career I experienced audiences being floored by information they had never heard about before, and my purpose in singing those songs was to let them know, to inform them. I wasn’t trying to embarrass them or hurt them; I was trying to give them some information, and I truly believed that if more people knew then more people would help, and in many cases that was correct. A lot of people did learn and a lot of people helped.
Bill: I assume that, in writing songs like this, you might hope that, somewhere out there, they will light a spark in someone and move them to do something. Do you recall the first time you had evidence that one of your songs had that sort of impact on someone?
[Buffy recounted a story about an October 2004 article in Smithsonian magazine that described some of the things American soldiers had written on their bunks and personal belongings during the Vietnam War. One inscription had quoted a verse from her hit song, “Universal Soldier”, but the article’s author had erroneously labeled it as free verse from a “mysterious poem”. As a result, the magazine was flooded with several bags of mail from readers who knew better.]
Buffy: I have hundreds of letters about “Universal Soldier”. The Smithsonian said they had gotten more mail about that error than they had ever received on any story in the history of Smithsonian magazine. So, I read these letters and a lot of them were from soldiers who either had burned their draft cards because of the song or the song made common sense to them out of something they had never looked at in that way. So, I’ve just got stacks and stacks of mail from my very first record, and that’s continued. I get lots of feedback from audience members who say this song or that song made a difference in their life. Certainly “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” did; it made a huge impact among Native American people, and it made a huge impact among the hippies and folk music fans in the Sixties. “Universal Soldier” did, and “Starwalker” continues to. But I was also doing other things at the time. You have to put your money where your mouth is as a songwriter, if you’re serious; if you’re really serious about making change you don’t just write songs, you also do other things.
I know what I was trying to do [with songs like that]; I was trying to spotlight issues. I knew I couldn’t solve them by myself and I knew that writing a song about them wasn’t enough and I knew I really cared, so that’s why I followed through with things like The Virginian [TV series which ran on NBC from 1962 to 1971] and with Sesame Street [children’s Public TV series]. I had been asked to take a lead role in The Virginian, and I said, “What about the other Indian parts, are they being played by other Indian people?”, and they said, “Oh, well, we really want you for this part but you can’t expect us to do that,” and I said, “But I really want you to do that – no Indians, no Buffy!” Sometimes you just have to stand up and make a bigger move than just write a little song. So, I connected them with the Indian Actors Workshop [which trained Indians for TV and film roles, and was founded by actor Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto on The Lone Ranger]. I mean Sesame Street originally called me up and asked me to do the alphabet and to count from 1 to 10, but [for me] that just wasn’t enough. So, I told them, “No, I’m not going to go all the way to New York in the winter to say the alphabet; you don’t need me.” But before I hung up I said, “Have you ever done any Native American programming?” It’s the same message really: it’s that Indians exist and we’re more than just Indians, we’re also just people, who have children and do breast-feeding. A lot of people say that I was the first visibly Indigenous person that they got to see on television, and it was very deliberate on my part. That’s why I was on Sesame Street for five and a half years [where she also became the first woman to breastfeed on national television]. They invited me to come and do something minor, just like The Virginian invited me to come on and be the Indian face on the show, but I countered with a commonsense reality which I could deliver. I could deliver the Indian Actors Workshop to The Virginian, and I could deliver alternative Native American programming to Sesame Street.
Bill: In the field of North American popular music, you’ve been one of the few prominent First-Nations artists that has projected a consistent Indigenous identity over decades, and you’ve had hit records. But there’s a huge crowd of Indigenous artists out there whose music is usually completely ignored.
Buffy: I’m afraid you are right. But in Canada especially, it’s a little different. The Native music scene in Canada is huge. In the 1980s, two other Indigenous Canadians and I went to the Junos [the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys] and we said, “We want our own category. We want a ‘Music of Aboriginal Canada’ category.” And they said, “Okay, come up with the numbers.” So, we had to show them that we had the artists, the songs, the musicians, the studios, the actual records recorded and released and played, and we showed them the numbers and we got a ‘Music of Aboriginal Canada’ category. But in Canada and the US there is also an entire world of traditional Pow Wow music that most people are unaware of. I mean most non-Indian people would be very surprised to go to an event like A Gathering of Nations which is held in New Mexico and see fifty-sixty-seventy thousand Native American people involved in music and culture. Pow Wows are a very big thing in Indian Country and yet the No Depression audience might not know about it.
Bill: How do you feel music with a strong Indigenous identity has been treated by North American audiences, record-buyers and critics?
Buffy: It’s kind of like arts and crafts, not taken seriously. And they didn’t know where to find it.
Bill: Have you detected any evolution in this attitude?
Buffy: Certainly in Canada and outside of the U.S., but very little in the U.S. The U.S. is really behind the times when it comes to Indigenous issues and culture and art and music. In Canada there’s a much higher profile for everything Indigenous, and there are a lot of Indigenous artists. If you pick up the average newspaper in Canada there will be a lot of stories about Indigenous people, but hardly ever in the U.S. Not that we’re deliberately left out, but it’s almost like… just to be seen at all in the United States is quite different from how it is in Canada.
Bill: But why is that, because Canada has its own checkered past with respect to the rights of Aboriginal peoples?
Buffy: Thank you for saying that. That’s absolutely true, but at least we’re addressing it in Canada. We have Truth and Reconciliation in Canada. I was never blacklisted in Canada; I was blacklisted in the U.S. but not in Canada.
[For years beginning in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, through both the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, Sainte-Marie says radio stations across the U.S. stopped playing her music. In a 2016 interview for the Bucks Local News in Pennsylvania, she said, “I was put out of business in the United States… I didn’t find out ‘til almost 20 years later… I just figured all singers come and all singers go. I just thought it was a normal music business happening. I had no idea my music had been repressed.” She also recalled to me being invited onto NBC’s The Tonight Show during that period and being specifically told “to stick to celebrity chat, and… not to talk about Indigenous issues or the war in Vietnam.”]
Bill: How did you first find out about the blacklisting?
Buffy: What happened was that radio broadcasters broke the news to me and apologized on-air for having gone along with it. This one guy had a letter from Lyndon Johnson’s White House commending [the broadcaster] for having suppressed music “that deserved to be suppressed,” including mine. I mentioned it to my lawyer some months later and he said, “Why don’t we get your FBI files?” But I said, “I don’t have FBI files, I’m just not that important, and I never broke the law.” And, sure enough, I had FBI files, and [the FBI] invited me to go to Washington to the FBI offices to sit and look at my FBI files with them but my lawyer said, “No, that’s not how it’s going to go; you guys can come to my office while she looks at her files.” So that’s what was done. That’s the first time that I found out about it, in the Eighties.
Bill: Was your blacklisting triggered because of “Universal Soldier” or something else?
Buffy: No, I don’t think it was triggered by “Universal Soldier” at all, or “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”, or any one song. I think that what really triggered my problems was that my song “Until It’s Time for You to Go” was making an Indian famous, an Indian with a big mouth who spoke out about the war. So, it was not my prowess as a songwriter, it was my visibility, because I would be invited on to talk shows and I would say what I knew to be true, which was being covered up. I mean, they were stealing the Pine Ridge Reservation, they were stealing the uranium, they were making caribou deals, all the energy companies were all over Indian Country and I was speaking up and so were a lot of Indian people and we all got shut up. But it was not just to our detriment, it was to your detriment, because you never got to hear what was going on.
Bill: Medicine Songs manages to mix powerhouse rockers with acoustic songs into a very coherent whole. How did you decide what approach to take to re-work the originals and match everything together?
Buffy: I needed all these songs that I had written in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s to sound as though they went together; they had to sonically relate. [And they do.] In the overall concept that I had, I wanted them to relate sonically. So just using new technology in my own studio or in [Chris Birkett’s] studio, we could just make better recordings. We could capture more emotion, more depth. Sometimes we had new instruments. For instance, on “The War Racket” I’m using the new Roland JUNO-DS. It’s quite simple. It’s just me with my guitar, which is an old beat-up, gold-plated National that I’ve had since the Sixties, and a brand new electronic keyboard, and then Chris added some great percussion. That’s all it is, just these three instruments and the voice, and it is muscular, but it’s not muscular because I have somebody playing bass or doing a loud kick snare. The song sounds original and every one of the songs on the album sounds original. Even though they have a unifying theme in their empowerment or protest vibe, each one is unique, each one is its own little movie. It’s whatever I hear in my head. Sometimes I hear an orchestra and sometimes I don’t, sometimes it sounds like a guitar song or a keyboard song or a mouth-bow song. I didn’t need to do “Little Wheel Spin and Spin” very differently… with an orchestra. I heard it in my head pretty much like I heard it originally when I originally recorded it a long time ago. “Soldier Blue” I really changed a lot; it was originally done with a real orchestra in London in the Sixties and that was okay, but when I listened to it, it just sounded old, it sounded kind of dead. I love the song, and so we just said, “Let’s do it differently.” So, I just fooled around with it on the keyboard and came up with what we got.
Bill: You’ve been an avatar of new recording technologies since the late 1960s. Those technologies have continued to evolve over the years, giving you even more options for augmenting your music. The sonics on these new Medicine Songs tracks are gorgeous. What are some of your favorite recording techniques for enhancing both the impact of your songs and the playback experience for listeners?
Buffy: When I made Illuminations [album] in the Sixties, that was an extension of what I had been doing with the Moog and the Matrix and other synthesizers, and later on I continued to use electronic music in scoring movies, using a Surge and eventually a Sinclavier and a Fairlight and after that a Macintosh, so I have a curiosity about sound. On the other hand, I’m really not a techie. You could never call me a techie. If I’m trying to figure out something on a new instrument, I call in help. But when I come across something that’s interesting to me, I grab it right then; I use it right then. It’s like hearing a song in my head, I try to record it right now. Some of the nice things that I like to do, that I was doing probably before other people, include sampling nature. I was doing very early sampling, I was multi-tracking mouth-bows, such as for a couple of tracks on the soundtrack to the [Nicolas Roeg/Donald Cammell] movie with Mick Jagger, Performance. Another thing I like to do is multi-track my own vocals, such as on “Starwalker”. They’re all me, but when I sing, if I’m singing seven background parts, I’ll name each part, each voice, for somebody I know. I won’t try to copy her singing style so much as I’ll try to give my own performance a uniqueness that reminds me of that person, you know, the way she talks or the way she sings, so that I give each of the background parts an identity [which she then demonstrated]. So, it’s as though I’m singing each of the multi-tracked vocals in a different accent. And it gives the tracks a richness and a community feeling that you just don’t get from singing eight vanilla parts. I just call it Pow Wow singing.
Bill: That technique, the ‘Pow Wow chorus’, shows up on several tracks on Medicine Songs, and I find it just thrilling. It sends chills up my spine, makes my eyes tear-up, my nostrils swell, and my fists clench.
Buffy: Thank you very much [with delight]! That’s exactly the reaction I was hoping for. What I do, though, is not true traditional singing. I wasn’t raised in my own culture, and it was only in my late teens that I was adopted into my Cree family in Saskatchewan. But until then I had not been around very much traditional music, so starting in the Sixties I spent a lot of time with traditional people just loving it and living there, but what I do is not what they do. I would never call myself a traditional Pow Wow singer. I can sing along with them, and they can sing along with me, but it’s not the same. I can’t really find Pow Wow singers who can sing “Starwalker”. That’s why I do all the parts myself [except for] a few tiny samples of other people. All the big background vocals on “Starwalker” and “No No Keshagesh”, they’re all me singing in different accents. But in “Starwalker” there are a few real Pow Wow samples, and if you listen closely you can tell when it’s me and when it’s samples. I think they really go together beautifully.
Bill: Those who first discovered you and your music decades ago, but who have not followed your career very closely, may not realize what a rocker you are. A lot of your work, especially in recent years, and the new album in particular, really rocks. You really rock. I saw you in concert just a few years ago at the Kennedy Center in DC, and I was knocked out by the energy level in your performance. What’s it been like to become a wise elder and still be kicking ass as a rock star?
Buffy: It’s a lot of fun. You know I’m not that much different now than I was when I first started out singing. “Universal Soldier” was written by the same head that wrote “You’ve Got to Run” and “Starwalker” and “Until It’s Time for You to Go” and “Up Where We Belong”. I don’t know if you get any smarter. I think that kind of wisdom is more of an approach, and my mom really respected common sense and a kind of basic wisdom, and I think I picked that up from her and followed it along into being a philosophy major in college. That kind of ‘think it out before you open your mouth’, and ‘work on it a little more if you want to really make sense to someone other than yourself’. It’s one thing to write something that you think is terrific, and it’s another thing to read it back the next day and realize you’re preaching to the choir. And if you want to reach beyond your own niche, sometimes you have to work on things a little harder. But the basic love of life that I referred to as wisdom is, I think, something that’s built into each one of us, that has a chance to ripen according to how much sunshine you get in your life and how much you pursue good things and lovely things.
Bill: The new album features thirteen tracks, but there are another seven bonus tracks available in the digital release. Can you please explain why the additional tracks have only been released digitally?
Buffy: Well, I wish they had all fit on one CD but they didn’t, and the record company didn’t want to put out a double CD, so they said, “Why don’t we include a download card and people can download the extra songs?” Since most people are downloading songs these days, I said OK. And [the record company] were the ones who decided which songs would be downloaded.
The CD booklet contains the lyrics to the Medicine Songs, along with Sainte-Marie’s brief introductory comment about each song. One of those comments seems to encapsulate the essence of the new album: “A song I wrote in 1961 about individual responsibility for the world we’re living in. I wish it didn’t still make sense.”