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In Conversation With Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie
Matt Barnes

Legendary musician. Iconic activist. Award-winning artist. For the last five decades, Buffy Sainte-Marie has been all of these things. And in 2015 — 51 years since the release of her first album, It’s My Way! — she’s continuing her work as a trailblazer.

On the heels of the release of her latest LP, Power in the BloodSainte-Marie spared a few moments to chat with us about her history as a folk musician, integrating social activism in her music and what it was like being in New York City in the ’60s. Check out our exclusive conversation below:

How does it feel to have Power in the Blood wrapped up and finished?

It took a while. It feels real good. I spent most of the the last year going back and forth between Hawaii and Toronto in between being on the road, so we’ve been pretty busy.

Were you working on Power in the Blood since the release of 2008’s Running From the Drum?

I was, yeah. A lot of those songs we do every night in our live shows. After I did Running From the Drum I put a band together and I told them we were going on a world tour for two years — now we’re in year six. We just got back from Australia and Wales, Scotland, Ireland, England and of course back and forth across Canada. It feels good to have that wrapped up and to have the songs we do on stage finally available because people always ask about them.

It’s pretty obvious that throughout your entire career, social activism has played an important role in your music. What kind of role does it play with Power in the Blood?

It has always been there for some songs — but, there are songs that have made me enough money to stay in show business like “Up Where We Belong” and “Until It’s Time For You to Go”; the songs on activism have not gotten me the positive attention that I think the subject matter deserves. On this album, of course it’s a lot of contemporary issues that I have faced myself. Fracking, GMOs … they’re spraying untested, restricted pesticides around hospitals and schools, wherever they want to spray the damn pesticides. The whole idea of saying no to war, too, it’s about time we revisit that, folks.

But, “Carry It On” is definitely not a protest song. It’s the opposite! It’s got all this positivity. It’s a song I feel very lucky to have pop into my head because it’s so positive that I kind of thrive on it. It is one of our favorite songs to do live.

It is interesting to hear you say the commercially successful songs aren’t the politically active ones, but that’s never deterred you from writing those more important tracks.

I think as songwriters, me for instance, we have a camera in our head and we film everything and some things don’t make it through the corporate wall and others do. In my case, some songs have gotten me into certain kinds of trouble or have kind of been buried. I love all the songs. A lot of what they are playing today is “Not the Lovin’ Kind,” which has no socially redeeming quality to it, but oh man it can rock. Another song, “It’s My Way,” is the title song of my first album in 1964, the year the Beatles came to America, so that is really fun to revisit because it is about empowering other people, it is about empowering fans and I wrote it when people were coming to concerts and they were trying to dress like me, talk like me and play like me. The idea is about empowering yourself.

When you say some songs got you into trouble, what do you mean by that?

Well, certainly “Universal Soldier” raised a lot of eyebrows and just the idea of alternative conflict resolution and talking about war was something you weren’t supposed to do. It was very controversial at that time; Donovan recorded it and Glenn Campbell recorded it, a lot of people recorded it but no one really heard my version of it. I think what really got me into trouble was Lyndon Johnson’s administration, then after that, Nixon’s administration they were objecting to my stand on Native American rights when everyone was trying to steal the Uranian part of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I had back-to-back political administrations who I found out many many years later that they had been making nasty phone calls out of the back room of the White House and sending out letters on White House stationary commending radio stations for suppressing my music which, in quotes, “deserves to be suppressed.” Who knew that that kind of thing was going on there? I never held back in writing songs, whether it’s about falling in love or the more serious songs with social meaning.

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That is all a part of life too, right?

Yeah, and it happens to you on the same day. It’s not that you used to be this kind of singer and now you’re this kind of writer — it isn’t like that at all. It all can happen in that same day and it is likely that in the same day of writing a love song I will write something more serious, too. It’s like dreaming.

It’s safe to say that you have been making music for a while. How has your songwriting process changed over the past few decades? 

It hasn’t much. I am a real natural writer and musician and I have been making up songs and playing music since I was about three. We had a piano in the house, I never took any lessons and I never had anyone show me anything about songwriting. It is really natural for me. I always say it is like dreaming, you always go to bed and you don’t know if you are going to dream or what you are going to dream. For me, it is mostly inspiration but on the other hand, a song like “Universal Soldier” will bury my heart — it wounded me. The song will pop into my head, but I will work on it like a college girl; when I first started singing in New York in the Village I didn’t consider myself a singer at all. I was singing songs that I wanted people to hear. I didn’t think that I was going to last in show business.

A song like “Universal Soldier” I was writing from my point of view, I had just graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Oriental Philosophy and a teaching degree, so I thought I was going to continue on to India but what I wound up doing was writing “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and other songs kind of from the point of view a student trying to get an A+ from a teacher who doesn’t like you and doesn’t approve of what you want to write about. I became very good at being able to say in three minutes what it might take others four hundred pages to write, and I really value that art. It is more like journalism, you know? It is really natural. I don’t really have a process, I just keep working on it.

It is interesting because it seems like the people that really came out of the Greenwich Village scene in the 60’s were all similar in that way. I got the chance to talk to Tom Paxton a few month ago …

Oh, sure. What a writer.

I think he’s been blessed with a similar natural ability to write songs as you. And then I think of Dave Van Ronk or Bob Dylan. That whole scene in New York City is fascinating, and today, it doesn’t seem like there’s necessarily one scene or location that houses that kind of talent, all focused on one common thread. The Village produced all of these international icons, and they were all tied together through folk music and basket houses. With you traveling the world, what is your take on the current state of music?

That is interesting. I’m glad you brought that up and I’d like to talk forever about Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, but my take on it is it’s a very similar time with a very narrow window of opportunity like that in the mid-’60s. We were getting over the Eisenhower generation and we were saying “No” to the Kennedy/Johnson war — their war. Students ruled. We were using coffee houses as our meeting places. Coffee is different than alcohol and drugs, as more in the late-’60s, it had already regained control of the music scene. But for a while it was truly a student movement. We were writing songs about our own experiences, then it was all shut down for about 40 years. It was all run by corporations and genres keeping us apart, yet with the internet I feel as though there’s a lot of … everybody now, again, can write songs and publish their own feelings or blogs. We all have a chance to publish now where for a long time we did not. But in the ’60s, that was a true grassroots, students from the streets, movement.

It’s not as though somebody designed it. I was so early on the internet, I’ve really seen changes. I was using computers in the ’60s and making movies with computers and got my Mac in the ’80s. I’ve been doing it for a very long time and it’s a dream come true for me to see any artist, so many non-professionals, just people able to publish their own music, visuals, videos. I think it’s really wonderful. But I don’t think it’s just in one place. I think you’re right. There’s no one little scene like there was with the folk music scene, the folk music scene was the only one at the time. But now — think of what people are saying through rap and hip-hop. I think it’s very inspiring. If you’re going to do the cool thing, it’s to do it through hip-hop at the moment.

It seems that way. There are definitely rap artists who are making statements with their music, which is really cool.

A lot of them sample me, like Young Thug, Cam’ron — there are a bunch of people who have been sampling me and that’s really flattering.

Back to the Village … I’m a huge fan of Dave Van Ronk and just that entire scene, so when I had the chance to talk with Tom Paxton, I was excited when he regaled me with some memories. I know it’s a loaded question, but can you share a story from that time? Paxton told me about how Van Ronk taught him to pick with three fingers.

Oh, that’s nice! I have so many, how do you sort them out? [Laughs] That was my life. Just living in the Village — I was on Perry Street for a while. I had a fifth-story walk-up and I used to sit on the fire escape looking out over the city and play my guitar, practice, fool around with it and see if there were any new songs in there. Then I’d come down the five flights with my guitar in a cardboard suitcase and walk to the Village. I was playing at the Gaslight, the Bitter End, Gerde’s [Folk City]. Just walking through the city used to be such a pleasure. Whether people knew we who we were or not was not the point, it was just so incredible — such a lively scene. We think the internet is lively now, but to have it lively on the streets, having students in the streets coming to see their peers playing music, it was great.

The cat was out of the bag — that’s what I want to share with you. Everybody knew that you didn’t have to take music lessons to know how to play the guitar and write songs. That was what I think that Tom and Dave and Bob and the rest of us had in common. We knew that you didn’t have to do it the way that the previous generation had done it and you could share music, your heart, your soul without having to stand in line and get somebody’s stamp of approval. That was true freedom.

You can pick up Buffy Sainte-Marie’s brand-new full-length album, Power in the Bloodhere, and check out her official website to grab her full tour itinerary and stay current with everything happening in her world.

Take a Look Behind-the-Scenes at the Making of ‘Power in the Blood’

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