A major singer-songwriter of the 1960s and the creator of several of that decade's best-known and most incisive protest anthems, Buffy Sainte-Marie (born c. 1941) remains one of just a few Native Americans to have attained international popularity in the field of popular music.
Sainte-Marie's influence on the 1960s music scene has sometimes been underestimated, for several of her best songs became familiar in versions by other artists. Her antiwar song "The Universal Soldier," for example, became a hit for the Scottish folk singer Donovan. Sainte-Marie was an independent, eclectic musician; even if she was generally categorized under the folk label, she ventured into and rock, and in the 1990s she became an early adopter of the personal computer and its potential uses in musical expression. Tying most of Sainte-Marie's activities together has been her ongoing concern with Native American rights and with presenting an accurate picture of Native American culture to the rest of the world.
Adopted by Massachusetts Family
A member of the Cree Indian tribe, Sainte-Marie was born on a reservation in Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Canada. The year of her birth has been variously given as 1941 and 1942. Orphaned as a baby, she was adopted by a Massachusetts family named Sainte-Marie that was partially of Mi'kmaq Native American descent. As a child, though, Sainte-Marie knew little of her own Native background, and her rediscovery of that background later on became an important stimulus for her creative activity. Given the name Beverly Sainte-Marie and nicknamed Buffy, she was later ceremonially adopted by a Cree family related to one of her birth parents. Sainte-Marie lived for much of her life in the United States, becoming a dual U.S. and Canadian citizen, but she told an Ottawa Citizen interviewer in 1993 that she would always identify herself as Canadian.
Sainte-Marie had some piano lessons as a child and also enjoyed writing poetry. She learned the guitar in her teens, and during family vacations in Maine she began writing songs. The timing was good, for when Sainte-Marie began attending the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, coffeehouses with live folk music entertainment were beginning to flower across New England. Sainte-Marie was a coffeehouse favorite as a college student, but she did not neglect her studies, either; she graduated in 1962 with a degree in Eastern philosophy and was recognized as one of the top ten students in her class. She later received a fine arts Ph.D. from the same institution.
After she finished college, Sainte-Marie headed for the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Lower Manhattan in New York City, a mecca at the time for aspiring folk singers. With her unique outlook—virtually no other songwriters dealt with Native American life at the time—and her distinctively edgy vocal vibrato, Sainte-Marie won attention from the start in clubs such as the Gaslight Cafe and Gerdes Folk City. She toured and maintained her Canadian ties, writing "The Universal Soldier" during an appearance one night at Toronto's Purple Onion coffeehouse.
Executives at the folk-oriented label Vanguard signed Sainte-Marie to a contract and released her debut album, It's My Way! in 1964. William Ruhlmann of the All Music Guide website called it "one of the most scathing topical folk albums ever made;" its subject matter ranged from incest to drug addiction ("Cod'ine," based on Sainte-Marie's own experiences in the aftermath of a serious bout with bronchial pneumonia in 1963, was later covered by several rock bands), and it included "The Universal Soldier" and another of Sainte-Marie's trademark songs, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone." Sainte-Marie's second album, Many a Mile (1965) mixed traditional songs with Sainte-Marie originals such as "Until It's Time for You to Go." That song was never well known in Sainte-Marie's own version, but it was covered by a long list of musicians that included Elvis Presley, Cher, Neil Diamond, Barbra Streisand, British icon Vera Lynn, and jazz vocalist Carmen McRae. Presley's version became a major hit in Europe in 1972 and helped put Sainte-Marie on a firm financial footing.
Traveled to Nashville to Record
Sainte-Marie's next two albums, Little Wheel Spin and Spin (1966) and Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967, with orchestral arrangements by classical-music satirist Peter Schickele), continued to draw attention, and she appeared at major venues such as New York's Carnegie Hall. Having always enjoyed country music, Sainte-Marie recorded in Nashville with country studio musicians for her 1968 album I'm Gonna Be a Country Girl Again. At the time, bands such as the Byrds had experimented with country-folk and country-rock fusions, but folk icon Bob Dylan's well-publicized Nashville sessions (and Nashville Skyline album) were still at least a year in the future. The album included "Soulful Shade of Blue" and "Sometimes When I Get to Thinkin'," two of Sainte-Marie's most characteristic love songs—a category for which she was known just as much as for her protest songs in the 1960s. Country star Bobby Bare enjoyed a hit with Sainte-Marie's country composition "The Piney Wood Hills," originally recorded on Many a Mile.
Appearing on such mainstream media outlets as the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Sainte-Marie was, if not a star, at least one of the best-known folk musicians in the country. Her songs were often heard on the radio up to that point, but they disappeared as her criticism of the Vietnam War sharpened. According to Sainte-Marie's website, she was blacklisted because her name appeared on a White House list of performers "who deserved to be suppressed." Nevertheless, Sainte-Marie continued to record for Vanguard. Her albums from the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s were an adventurous group; Illuminations (1969) employed the psychedelic rock styles of the time and gave advance notice of Sainte-Marie's interest in musical electronics. The 1972 album Moonshot was mostly a straight-ahead rock effort except for the country-oriented "He's an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo." That song was one of a group that gained Sainte-Marie a strong fan base among Native Americans, one which persisted even when she fell out of view in the pop mainstream.
Albums such as She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971) and Native North American Child (1973) continued to feature unusual new Sainte-Marie compositions; the title track of the former album put Sainte-Marie back on the pop charts, while that of the latter was a satirical piece pointing to the invisibility of Native Americans in the mass media: "Sing about your ebony African queen/Sing about your lily-white Lili Marleen/Beauty by the dozen, but the girl of the hour/Is your Native North American prairie flower." Sainte-Marie moved to the MCA label in 1974 and issued the experimental Mongrel Pup the following year, with cryptic lyrics like "Laughter is the grease of growth/Support your local clown."
Sainte-Marie moved to Hawaii in the late 1960s and continued to make her home there despite frequent projects that took her back to the mainland. A marriage to surfing instructor Dewain Bugbee ended in 1972. Sainte-Marie married actor Sheldon Peters Wolfchild in 1975, and they had a son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild. In 1976 Sainte-Marie withdrew from the recording scene in order to concentrate on raising a family, but she did not remain outside the creative sphere for long.
Won Academy Award
Appearing with her son, Sainte-Marie joined the cast of the long-running children's television program Sesame Street. She appeared on the show between 1976 and 1981. In a way Sesame Street launched the second phase of her career, which was increasingly often concerned with Native American issues. She used the show to introduce children to aspects of Native American life that she felt were poorly served by existing educational materials. Sainte-Marie continued to write songs, and "Up Where We Belong," co-written with Will Jennings and veteran producer Jack Nitzsche, was recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes and used in the 1982 film "An Officer and a Gentleman," bringing Sainte-Marie an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Some obituaries of Nitzsche reported that he and Sainte-Marie were briefly married in the early 1980s.
Sainte-Marie's activities in the 1980s were varied. She appeared in several films, including Broken Rainbow (1985), about the long-running land dispute between the Hopi and Navajo tribes. She wrote about Native American issues for a variety of publications, and she penned a children's book, Nokomis and the Magic Hat, in 1986. The long effort to free imprisoned Native American activist Leonard Peltier listed Sainte-Marie as a stalwart supporter, and she taught courses at several institutions on a wide variety of subjects that included songwriting, musical electronics, and women's studies. She also appeared in a commercial for the Ben & Jerry's ice cream chain.
One of Sainte-Marie's visiting professorships was at the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she taught a course in digital technology and art. Perhaps unexpectedly for someone whose creative beginnings lay in the low-tech world of folk music, Sainte-Marie became an enthusiastic user of computers in both her visual-artistic and musical endeavors. Her digital art works, some of them as large as nine feet tall when realized in printed form, were exhibited in Canadian and American museums and galleries including the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, Alberta, and the G.O.C.A.I.A. Gallery in Tucson, Arizona.
In 1992 Sainte-Marie returned to the recording arena, working from a home studio in Hawaii controlled by a Macintosh PowerBook computer. The album Coincidence and Likely Stories, released on the Chrysalis label, yielded a British hit in "The Big Ones Get Away." Sainte-Marie became an exponent of the idea that online communication could decentralize power in society generally and facilitate the spread of Native American culture specifically. "It does give an image of Stone Age to space age," she conceded to the London Independent. But she pointed out that Native Americans had been involved with computer technology almost since its inception. "It's natural for any indigenous community to be online, because of our desire to remain in the local community, yet be part of the global community," she pointed out.
Sainte-Marie released Up Where We Belong, an album of remakes of her earlier hits, in 1996. The following year she was awarded the Order of Canada. Her educational efforts continued to expand; her Cradleboard Teaching Project, which included digital material, was a set of resources for educators who wanted to address deficiencies in the ways Native American history was usually taught—deficiencies that Sainte-Marie had encountered firsthand when she had looked at her own son's schoolbooks. "It was the same old dead text on dead Indians," she told USA Today. "It was shallow, inaccurate, and not interesting." Sainte-Marie also set up a foundation that supported Native Americans who wanted to attend law school. She continued to perform about 20 concerts annually, one of which was captured on her Live at Carnegie Hall album of 2004, and the sizes of the crowds she drew—a concert in Denmark, was estimated at over 200,000 people—testified to the lasting impact she had made on the musical world.
Albuquerque Journal, March 31, 2001.
Billboard, June 13, 1992.
Independent (London, England), March 8, 1996.
Ottawa Citizen (Canada), June 30, 1993; March 29, 1994; July 5, 1997; August 24, 2002.
People, June 17, 1996.
Times (London, England), February 16, 1996.
USA Today, December 12, 2000.
Wind Speaker, March 1996.
"Biography," Official Buffy Sainte-Marie website, http://www.creative-native.com/biograp.htm (December 20, 2005).
"Buffy Sainte-Marie," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 20, 2005).
"Sainte-Marie, Buffy." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sainte-marie-buffy
"Sainte-Marie, Buffy." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sainte-marie-buffy
One of the most striking voices of the contemporary folk music movement of the 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie has enjoyed a career far broader than the “protest singer” category into which she has sometimes been placed. She has written and lectured on native-American affairs, written poetry and screenplays, and composed film scores, as well as writing, recording, and performing songs in styles ranging from folk to rock and from art song to electronic music. But while she has become known for love songs like “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” Sainte-Marie has never abandoned the social and political concerns that marked her early work. And though she resists the label of “protest song,” she admitted to Paul Sexton of Billboard, “The only reason I ever became a singer in the first place was because I had something to say.”
Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a Cree Indian reservation in western Canada. She was orphaned when she was only months old and adopted by a family from Massachusetts. Though her adoptive parents were part Indian, she has described the cultural environment in which she grew up as completely white. It was routine at the time to place Indian children in white families. “Many Indian children were effectively kidnapped—it was supposed to be for our own good,” she told Diane Turbide of MacLean’s. It was not until she was in her teens that Sainte-Marie discovered her Cree roots and was reunited with her relatives.
By the time she was in high school, she had taught herself to play the piano and the guitar, using her own unconventional tunings. She had no intention of making a career in music when she began singing in coffeehouses while in college, but an appearance at an open mike night at Greenwich Village’s Gaslight Cafe brought her to the attention of critics and record companies. By the end of 1963, she had given up her plans to become a teacher and was being hailed as one of the most promising talents on the New York folk scene. Another Indian folksinger, Patrick Sky, taught her to play the traditional native-American instrument the mouth bow, which became a distinctive part of her sound, along with her unique guitar style and her sometimes strident, sometimes delicate vibrato-rich voice.
Shortly after Sainte-Marie began singing professionally, she came down with pneumonia. Unwilling to give up performing, she took codeine to ease her symptoms. The illness persisted for six months, and she became addicted to the drug, recovering only after a painful withdrawal; she also came close to ruining her voice. She wrote of her addiction in the song “Cod’ine.”
That song, as well as two of her best-known compositions, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “The Universal
Born February 20, 1942 (some sources say 1941), in Piapat Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada; adopted by Albert C. and Winifred (Kendrick) Sainte-Marie; married Dewain Kamaikalani Bugbee, 1967; children: Dakota (son). Education: University of Massachusetts, B.A. in Oriental philosophy, 1963; Ph.D. in fine arts.
Began performing in coffeehouses, early 1960s; performed at clubs, concerts, and festivals, 1963—; recording artist, 1964—. Actor in films and television shows, including “The Virginian,” “Then Came Bronson,” and “Sesame Street”; appeared in cable film The Broken Chain, TNT, 1993. Free-lance writer on Indian affairs; associate editor of The Native Voice, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Founder of NIHEWAN Foundation for Native American Scholarships, Native North American Women’s Association, and Creative Native, Inc. Author of children’s book Nikosis and the Magic Hat.
Awards: Billboard Award, 1965; named outstanding artist of the year by National Association of FM Broadcasters, 1975; Academy Award for best song, 1982, for “Up Where We Belong” (from film An Officer and a Gentleman); Premio Roma Award.
Addresses: Record company —Chrysalis, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.
Soldier,” appeared on her first album, It’s My Way. In the liner notes, Maynard Solomon remarked on “a hint of blues-inflection, a trace of Indian song, a touch of Parisian chanson, an echo of beat” in her music, which was already much more harmonically and rhythmically adventurous than most folksong.
By 1965 Sainte-Marie’s growing popularity had taken her out of the coffeehouse scene and into major concert venues like New York City’s Carnegie Hall. She toured Europe as well as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, gaining a large international following. But the folk boom was fading, so Sainte-Marie, who had never let herself be confined by traditional idioms anyway, began exploring other directions. Still, while others were experimenting with folk-rock, she moved another way, recording her song “Timeless Love” with a string ensemble for her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin. In that record’s notes, Nat Hentoff wrote that Sainte-Marie sang “with so unyielding a sense of self that the listener, once seized, finds concern about categories to be secondary.... She is, there is no one else like her, and that’s what counts.... The personal thrust of her bristling expressivity is both a satisfaction and a challenge.”
Fire & Fleet & Candlelight moved even more in the direction of art song, including a piece by British composer Benjamin Britten and orchestral arrangements by Peter Schickele. But Sainte-Marie’s next effort, Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, was recorded in Nashville with country music’s top studio players; the follow-up, Illuminations, featured hard rock songs like “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” and “Better to Find Out for Yourself,” blended with electronic music synthesized from Sainte-Marie’s voice and guitar.
Though she had won a large following, Sainte-Marie did not score a hit record until the early 1970s. The resurgence of interest in singer-songwriters during that decade, however, finally brought her significant airplay and two hit singles, “She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina” and “Mister Can’t You See.” Elvis Presley’s version of “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” from her second album, also put her in the Top Forty. But her mid-‘70s albums met with mixed reviews and yielded no hits, and by 1977, Sainte-Marie had stopped recording, though she had by no means retired.
“I quit recording when my son was born,” she told Paul Sexton of Billboard. “[I] decided to take some time off.” Her break from the record business stretched to 15 years, but during that time she appeared semi-regularly on the PBS children’s show Sesame Street (where, among other things, she sang the alphabet song to her son and explained breast feeding to Big Bird). She also wrote a children’s book, earned a Ph.D., gave numerous concerts in support of Indian causes, and co-wrote “Up Where You Belong,” which was featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and for which she won an Oscar in 1982.
In 1992 Sainte-Marie re-emerged with Coincidence and Likely Stories, which Sexton called “a striking, modern, and thoughtful collection of rock’n’roll songs that updates Sainte-Marie’s musical image.” She produced the album in her home studio using state-of-the-art computer technology. While many of the lyrics addressed familiar themes, the modern pop sound displayed on Coincidence was a far cry from the acoustic guitar and mouth-bow of her earliest records. “In lesser hands, the washes of synthesized sounds would be an egregious mistake, but Sainte-Marie has artfully managed to tame the technology and bend it to her needs,” wrote Tom Graves in Rolling Stone. “The result is eleven songs that have deep thematic resonance and that are among her most appealing work.” In compositions about the environment, government corruption, and the oppression of native Americans, as well as in love songs, Sainte-Marie demonstrated that her long leave of absence had diminished neither the intensity nor the inventiveness of her music, nor her ambition to tackle major issues in, as she remarked to Maclean’s contributor Turbide, “the kind of songs that would make as much sense in ancient Rome as they would today.”
It’s My Way (includes “Cod’ine,” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” and “The Universal Soldier”), Vanguard, 1964.
Many a Mile (includes “Until It’s Time for You to Go”), Vanguard, 1965.
Little Wheel Spin and Spin (includes “Timeless Love”), Vanguard, 1966.
Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, Vanguard, 1967.
I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, Vanguard, 1968.
Illuminations (includes “He’s a Keeper of the Fire” and “Better to Find Out for Yourself”), Vanguard, 1970.
The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vanguard, 1970.
The Best of Buffy Sainte-Marie, Volume II, Vanguard, 1971.
She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, Vanguard, 1971.
Moonshot, Vanguard, 1972.
Native North American Child, Vanguard, 1973.
Quiet Places, Vanguard, 1973.
Buffy, MCA, 1974.
Changing Woman, Vanguard, 1975.
Sweet America, ABC, 1976.
(Contributor) Bread and Roses Festival of Acoustic Music, Fantasy, 1979.
Spotlight on Buffy Sainte-Marie, Vanguard, 1981.
(Contributor) Greatest Folksingers of the ’Sixties, Vanguard, 1987.
Coincidence and Likely Stories, Chrysalis, 1992.
(Contributor) An Officer and a Gentleman (soundtrack), Island.
New Grove Dictionary of American Music, edited by H. Wiley Hitchcock and Stanley Sadie, MacMillan, 1986.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martins, 1969.
Tudor, Dean, Popular Music: An Annotated Guide to Recordings, Libraries Unlimited, 1983.
Billboard, June 13, 1992.
High Fidelity, August 1974.
Life, December 10, 1965.
Los Angeles Magazine, May 1992.
Maclean’s, April 20, 1992.
McCall’s, March 1971.
Rolling Stone, April 25, 1974; November 26, 1992.
Stereo Review, September 1974; May 1975; September 1992.
Vogue, May 1969.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from liner notes by Maynard Solomon to It’s My Way, Vanguard, 1964, and by Nat Hentoff to Little Wheel Spin and Spin, Vanguard, 1966, and from Chrysalis Records press materials, 1992.
"Sainte-Marie, Buffy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 22, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sainte-marie-buffy
"Sainte-Marie, Buffy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved October 22, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sainte-marie-buffy