Music

“Protest Songs Spell Out Problems. Activist Songs Spell Out Solutions.”

And for more than half a century, Buffy Sainte-Marie has been looking for solutions

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Buffy Sainte-Marie’s voice is a sweet one. “Talk to me!” she says with a chipper burst after a brief hello. The 76-year-old singer-songwriter and activist is calling from her hotel room in Nova Scotia, where she is performing as part of a tour for her new album, Medicine Songs, her 16th LP since starting her career in the early 1960s. Because she is an artist unafraid—in song and indeed in our conversation—to speak about difficult things, that levity can be almost striking.

Sainte-Marie is Cree, a member of a First Nations tribe of about 200,000 people living in what is now Canada, and she has fifty years’ worth of songs about the theft of Indian lands (“Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”), drug addiction in rural and poor communities (“Cod’ine”), and “the genocide basic to this country’s birth” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”). But all of it, she says, she has approached with a charitable, enlightening spirit, much like she is displaying right here on this phone call. “I don’t want to give people information in an enema,” she says. “With ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee’”—a song of hers that references the 1890 massacre of hundreds on the Lakota reserve in South Dakota—“no one wants to hear about that except that it’s got a great rock track to it. You’re dancing to it before you even know what it’s about, and by that time, you’ve heard the story. And hopefully, you’ve learned something.”

Sainte-Marie is as passionate about addressing injustice in her own folksy way as she has ever been, and Medicine Songs is her attempt to corral all of her most riotous words—some brand-new, some, like “Bury My Heart…,” updated versions of her classics—in one place. “This album has activist songs, not protest songs,” she says. “Protest songs spell out a problem, but activist songs spell out solutions.” In a post-Trump landscape of woke, politically minded young artists like Solange and Kendrick Lamar, her music has never sounded more relevant. On Medicine Songs, against a backdrop of crunching electronic rock, many of the lyrics are almost instructive in their messaging, centering on issues like the uranium conflicts between oil companies and indigenous Americans in, she says, the hopes that knowledge is power and will lead to change. “It’s passion, but it’s practical,” she says. “Even if somebody wanted to make a revolution, I don’t think they could pull it off. And I believe in nonviolence. It doesn’t do us any good to just hate on the oil people—we have to find ways to settle things, like convincing them to reinvest in clean energy. Aboriginal people are practical—that’s how we survived.”

Sainte-Marie’s down-to-earth approach stems from how she first started making music. She was born in 1941 to a Cree family in Saskatchewan, Canada, and was later adopted by a family in Massachusetts, where she began to make music without ever taking lessons—to this day, she does not know how to read notes. “I didn’t learn from music school; I learned banging pots and pans and blowing on grass. Anything that would make noise,” she says. “I used to sit in front of a piano at three or four with a Christmas book and make up songs to the pictures. It’s kind of like I was scoring movies. I would score my life.”

She went on to a philosophy degree at the University of Massachusetts, where she first started writing and performing songs pulled urgently from her own experience, even when they were controversial for their time. “There was an off-campus coffeehouse, an open mic kinda thing. I wrote a song about an interracial love affair, because I had a crush on a black football player,” she says. At school she wrote her first activist songs, including “Universal Soldier,” an antiwar work that she would eventually record for her 1964 debut album, and which would become one of her standards as well as a rallying cry for the 1960s peace movement. “I’d sing in an old man’s blues style, Blind Willie Johnson-style,” she says.

Around this time, she ventured back to the Cree reservation to get in touch with her roots, and, though decades and distance had separated her from her birthplace, she found herself right at home. “It was just so easy-going and relaxed and nice,” she remembers. She now lives on a farm (with 27 goats!) in Hawaii, but continues to spend a lot of her time in Saskatchewan. “People on the reserve are comfortable with silence. They don’t have to be talking all the time. They don’t feel embarrassed if there is a lull in the conversation,” she says.

With her roots and identity coming into focus, Saint-Marie made it to Greenwich Village in New York City, then in the midst of a folk revolution epitomized by Bob Dylan, and knew exactly what she needed to be singing about. “In the 1960s when I was talking about genocide, nobody believed it. Nobody knew anything about Native American people. It’s almost like we are so invisible that most people don’t even have any picture of who we are,” she says. “The big thing for me in Greenwich Village was that students ruled. We had discovered our brains. We weren’t going to somebody’s damn war. We were a little full of ourselves.” She often played a mouth bow on stages around town, an old indigenous instrument with a twangy sound. “I didn’t want to sound like Joan Baez. I was always trying to cover the base that nobody else was covering. Because it needed to be covered,” she says.

Dylan helped jumpstart her career. “I saw Bob at Gerde’s Folk City, and he was real sweet to me. He liked my music right away, because it was different,” she says. Dylan pointed her in the direction of Sam Hood, the owner of the famous Gaslight Cafe, a coffeehouse where young folk singers could play and get momentum. Soon, she was offered a contract to release her first album, It’s My Way!, in 1964, with a title song that is a simple, strong statement of intent to which she has remained remarkably true: “I’ve got a way I’m going, and it’s my way.” She became a cult figure on the folk scene, if still an outsider. “I was definitely not part of the Woody Guthrie crowd—that was quite vanilla compared to me. ‘This land is my land, this land is your land’—no, no, no. I was asked to do Pete Seeger’s [TV show that featured folk performances] Rainbow Quest, and when everybody was supposed to come out and do a European-style finale and hold hands and sing ‘This Land is Your Land,’ I just cried through it. I thought, ‘This used to be my land and you guys aren’t even smart enough to be sensitive to this? Hello?’”

Sainte-Marie established herself as an iconoclast with a passion for Native causes, and she developed friendships with civil rights icons of the day like Muhammad Ali and Dick Gregory. “Dick came to my reservation, and he was crying in the airplane going back because he didn’t know there was a worse poverty than what he had seen,” she says. She had folk hits that led to big moments like a performance—in white gogo boots!—with Johnny Cash (“He wanted to know a lot about indigenous people. He kinda considered himself an honorary Indian.”) on his television show, but also made unusual, innovative music like her 1969 album Illuminations, one of the first records by a major act to use newly available electronic synthesizers. “That experimentation is just a carry-over from me playing like a kindergarten kid. I was that same person on my first album too: I was singing songs in Hindi, playing a mouth bow, tuning my guitar upside down and inside out,” she says. “I didn’t think I was going to last anyway, so I never thought I was jeopardizing some career. I thought this was my only chance to show people things they hadn’t seen.”

For the next few decades, she was a consistent if outlying presence in pop culture. From 1975 to 1981, she was a regular guest on Sesame Street, where introduced Native themes to the show. “That became my new outlet for letting little kids and their caregivers know that Indians exist,” she says. She wrote love songs to sit next to her activist ones, and won a 1983 Oscar for “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman. And she has continued to put out albums. Just two years ago, she released Power in the Blood, winning the Polaris Prize as Canada’s artist of the year. “I’ve been very fortunate in always being somewhat on the periphery of show business. I’ve managed to stay underground,” she says. “There’s a level of fame I’ve never achieved, and I think I’m probably lucky. If you get to the point where you can’t walk down the street, I don’t know see how life can be fun anymore.”

Sainte-Marie is as concerned about the future as she has always been, but always with a note of optimism. “I think a lot of things have changed for the better. My motto is that the good news about the bad news is that more people know about it now,” she says. “Progress is always too slow when you’re going uphill, but when you’re looking back downhill you realize how far you’ve come.” She sees good things everywhere: the Women’s March, the Standing Rock protests, Colin Kaepernick. “Boy, would I love to get him my music,” she says admiringly. She loves hip-hop, which she says carries on her spirit of storytelling and honesty. And she was inspired to call the album—which looks back at her years of activism and offers up some new anthems too—Medicine Songs precisely because the world needs balms now as much as it ever has. “If you’re carrying a medicine, sometimes you have to wait until the epidemic hits your neighborhood before you start splashing it around,” she says.

Her way, it seems, has been the path of relentless engagement. “I feel pretty much the same as I always have. People used to say, ‘How can you be so wise when you’re so young?’ and now they say, ‘How can you look so young when you’re seventy-six?’” she says, laughing. And when she does get time off from fighting her fights, a simple life is enough to keep her grinning. “I have a real sweetheart back home in Hawaii—I have the best guy. He’s at home right now looking after the kitty and all them goats, and when I come back, he’ll pick me up at the airport on time with a big smile, won’t let me touch my stuff, putting it all in the van. We’ll go home to the farm, and the place will be cleaned up,” she says, sounding as grateful as a person can. “And there will be flowers.”

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