Now 77 and with over 50 years of writing and performing influential songs while backing them with intense social activism, Buffy Sainte-Marie is the subject of a new book, Buffy Sainte-Marie--The Authorized Biography (Greystone Books).
Written by music critic Andrea Warner (author of We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music), the book delves deep into the extraordinary life and career of Saint-Marie, a member of the indigenous Cree tribe and hailing from the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, who went on to write or co-write such songs as the Academy Award-winning “Up Where We Belong” and the much covered anti-war anthem “Universal Soldier” (a 1965 hit for Donovan and also recorded by the likes of Glen Campbell, Chumbawamba and the legendary folk group The Highwaymen).
Buffy Sainte-Marie discusses and performs her classic "Universal Soldier"
Winner of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences Juno Award this year in the Indigenous Music Album of the Year category for her album Medicine Songs (19 songs addressing such issues as the environment, alternative conflict resolution, indigenous realities, greed, and racketeering, as well as re-recordings of Saint-Marie classics like “Universal Soldier,” “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You‘re Dying”), Sainte-Marie is also an inductee into several Halls of Fame, including the Juno Hall of Fame and Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
And while she‘s best-known as a folk singer-songwriter, Sainte-Marie in 1969 recorded one of the first electronic vocal albums, Illuminations.
“When I started out in the ‘60s there weren’t many women writing music, but Buffy Sainte-Marie was an exception to the rule,” recalls fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell in her foreword to the biography, crediting Sainte-Marie for championing her songwriting early on by playing her songs at shows, and her demo tape “for anyone who would listen.”
Meanwhile, Warner, who was born and raised on the traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Wauthuth First Nations in East Vancouver, grew up well aware of Sainte-Marie.
“She was everywhere,” recalls Warner, “but I didn’t fully understand the scope of her work and life until I started working at CBC Music.”
An associate producer at the FM radio network operated by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Warner had explored “the problematic idea of Canada as a whole and who gets counted as Canadian--and who gets left out.”
“This spurred my research into Buffy and her music,” says Warner. “I thought that even though she was an icon, she hadn’t gotten the credit she really deserved as a songwriter and innovator. I was also frustrated by finding a lack of information on her as I researched, and when [her 2015 album] Power in the Blood came out, I was just blown away. I thought, ‘This record--one of the most important albums of the 21st century--is made by an artist who made some of the most important records of the 20th, and is still putting out incisive and commanding and innovative albums.”
Warner wrote about Power in the Blood extensively, and also interviewed Sainte-Marie at the time.
“It was the same year my first book [We Oughta Know] came out, about Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion, Sarah McLachlan and Shania Twain—kind of my fairy godmothers as a young feminist. It turned out that Buffy was a huge fan of the book, and I thought about doing an authorized biography. So I made an inquiry to her management and was floored when they said yes!”
Warner notes that Sainte-Marie queried her early on about whether she had interest in indigenous decolonization and violence and systematic oppression that invariably came with it.
“But I didn’t fully know how funny she is!“ says Warner. “She’s one of the funniest people, who can quickly go from innocent and naively funny to dirty and darkly funny: You can hear some of that in her songs, but people don’t necessarily think about her in that way, and they put her in a couple boxes, and that’s it. So I hope the book shows how funny she can be, and how she used humor to deal with things that happened to her.”
A private person, Sainte-Marie, has had her share of personal trauma, notes Warner, including abusive and violent relationships, racism and marginalization, blacklisting (Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover were among those who suppressed her music) and drug addiction (her much-covered song “Cod’ine,” about her addiction to codeine due to illness, appeared on her 1964 debut album It’s My Way).
“She moved through it all with a core belief in herself and her creativity—and it’s so important to have those stories exist on paper so people can not only see what survival looks like, but thriving looks like,” says Warner. “My perception of her as an ethical, moral, creative and brilliant person only deepened my appreciation of how empowering she is. She always trusted her gut—which was very instructive for me and countless others who feel compelled to work outside traditional business paradigms, especially since not everyone’s journey through hard times is the same.”
Sainte-Marie’s activism—and advice to activists—is likewise significant, says Warner.
“She offered small ways people can participate, like the way she supplied clean water for the Native American occupation of Alcatraz Island [from 1969-71] when she knew she couldn’t be there because of touring—but she showed up when she could and did benefits,” says Warner. “And she advised activists on how not to burn out and continue carrying hope in your heart all the time.”
Hope, in fact, is at the center of the Buffy Sainte-Marie story, notes Warner.
“Hope motivates a lot of her actions on many levels—and it’s very useful advice for a lot of people besides activists. And it’s a wonderful thing that at 77, she is still out there carrying that same hopeful message and belief system that she’s had her whole life. That she’s able to talk about it all now—and about how she takes care of herself—is so instructive and valuable.”
Warner observes, “I think most of us feel that the world right now is very difficult and really scary. There are awful people in leadership, and Buffy is always there to remind us that for her, there are always moments of bad leadership—and that it brings a chance for us to look at our community and strengthen it, and bring together people we love.”
“She tells us that bad leadership is temporary,” concludes Warner, “but building a community is a longtime strategy.”