1960s folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie reflects on her life, career, and breaking out of stereotypes in the music industry.
Buffy Sainte-Marie rose to fame as one of the many solemn, slender warblers of the 1960s folk scene—a peer of Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Mary Travers, among others. She laughs at how she is often remembered: “The little Indian girl who’ll make you cry—just get me out of that stereotype!”
Her emotion-packed songs were delivered in a rich vibrato with spare accompaniment. She was one of the best singer-songwriters of that era, but Sainte-Marie, who is Cree, never quite fit inside the prescriptive folkie box. For one thing, she didn’t idolize the dust-blown, train-hopping Americana that led Robert Zimmerman to create the alter ego of ramblin’ Bob Dylan. “I never was the Woody Guthrie kind of rah-rah American that was popular at the time,” she remembers. “This land is your land. This land … uhhm … used to be my land.”
Her early songs include the blistering anti-war tune “Universal Soldier” and the love song “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” which was covered by Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond, and Roberta Flack, among others.
As the ’60s came to a close, Sainte-Marie ventured into electronic music. The groundbreaking album Illuminations, released in 1969, was met with confusion by the few people who listened to it but is now hailed as a masterpiece. Another electronic music accomplishment: In 1992 Sainte-Marie became the first person to record an album by sending sound files to collaborators across the Internet.
But folkie-turned-electronic music pioneer isn’t an apt description. It obscures the richness and variety of a stillevolving career that has included:
- Recurring visits to Sesame Street. In 1977 she breastfed her son on the show, a landmark moment.
- An Oscar won in 1982 as a cowriter of the pop ballad
- “Up Where We Belong.”
- Decades of activism for Indigenous causes.
And she was a schoolteacher, and an actor, and a student of religion and philosophy, and … you get the idea.
Now in her 80s and living in the mountains in Hawaii, her forceful laugh frequently punctuates her conversation. She credits her vibrancy to staying away from processed foods and sweets and abstaining from alcohol. “Having been overprescribed opiates in my 20s, I’m super careful about anything addictive, even sugar,” she says. “I’m the same weight as I was in the 1960s, still fit those same clothes, and jump around in the gym a couple times a week, dance, garden, run around the farm with my goats.”
“Universal Soldier” and her landmark songs about Indigenous issues, including “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country: ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” are exceptionally strong and forceful, opting for declaritive plain language instead of vague poetics. That’s created a misimpression in some corners: “I’ll see on the Internet, ‘Oh, she’s such a warrior for peace.’ And I hold my nose because I don’t fight with anybody, ever. I’m just not a warrior. I have respect for people who are veterans, who are willing to lose their life or take a life. But I don’t do any of that. I’m about alternative conflict resolution, like Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King, who were also not fighters.”
Sainte-Marie is as far from us-versus-them as possible. “As a teacher and a learner, I’m kind of patient with the world. I’ve seen things that I thought would not change, change. Sometimes rapidly, and very often temporarily. I think things came in waves.”
She continues: “I see a lot that I disagree with and that needs to be 99 percent better, but knowing that doesn’t make me mad. Knowing that, seeing how messed up the world is—it’s always been messed up—makes me seek better alternatives.”
Things aren’t one way or another, in Sainte-Marie’s view. Instead they are always changing, or “ripening,” as she says. “One thing that is hard for people to take—that guy over there who you don’t like, he’s ripening too.”
“I believe that all of us are ripening according to our own personal timing and that there’s no need to rush the river, and no way to hurry the moon. No writer’s block or type-A pressure going on here. The Creation unfolds like fruit coming into season. Enjoy it.”