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Buffy Sainte-Marie returned to the recording world after a 14 year break in 1992, with her album ‘Coincidence and Likely Stories 'marking the latest twist in a remarkable career. There have been so many milestones and influences, spanning the complete spectrum of performance and composition art, in a lifetime that has been equally dedicated to campaigning for human rights and social awareness around the globe, that it is difficult to know where to begin.
Aside from Buffy Sainte-Marie`s obvious songwriting genius she is an honours graduate in Oriental philosophy and education, fluent in French, conversant in Japanese and Spanish. a published author, a gourmet cook, an artist and illustrator, a poet and designer of her own clothing and costumes. She has a PhD in Fine Arts.
‘Coincidence and Likely Stories’ was recorded straight onto an Apple Macintosh computer, communicating musically with her co-producer in London via modem, utilising the global reach of the Compuserve Information Network. Buffy has been creating music and Art on Apple Macs since 1981, and if this seems a far cry from the purism of the folk tradition where she began, then it is typical that she should be embracing new worlds like cyberspace worlds given shape by William Gibson s vision of a future based on virtual reality as throughout her career she has continuously exposed herself a vast range of influences.
A mixed-blood Cree Indian, she was raised in a white town that didn`t believe in Native Americans. She felt insecure in childhood friendships, and she spent most of her time alone, enjoying the solitude of the New England forests and the company of dogs, rabbits and goats on her uncles farm, and playing the piano by heart. She took no formal music or singing lessons, she laughs at the suggestion. When she was about 16 she switched to guitar, only because it was easier to transport, yet she followed her own teacher-less route, developing unique tunings, tailored to her needs (on harsh songs like Codine) which had a seminal effect on a new generation of folk club devotees. Uncomfortable in high school, she went to college merely to escape the stifling familiarity of home. Once there, she discovered a different, more international world on campus and easily made friends with her peers.
During her senior year she lived in the French wings and mixed with fellow language students, exchanging songs and ideas. She became a close friend of the housemother Theresa de Kerpely, a poet and novelist, who is credited on the sleeve of her first album, It’s My Way. Above all others it was she who encouraged Buffy to keep writing. Off campus, she played her songs in a coffee house for $5 a night (and remembers that three of her most respected songs Ananias, the Indian Lament, Now That the Buffalo s Gone and Mayoo Sto Hoon were in her college repertoire). The last of those, sung in Hindi, hints at the course which could have changed her entire career. For after graduating in Oriental Philosophy and Education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, she had the chance to go to India and study philosophy, music and dance at a school founded by Ghandi, or she could have taken up teaching on an Indian reservation. Instead she slipped off to New York one weekend. Knowing no-one, she slept at the YWCA and sang at the legendary Gerdes Folk City, where Bob Dylan started out. She quickly became a favourite at the Bitter End and Gaslight as well. Downtown had welcomed a new folk hero and that weekend turned into a life
‘It's ironic really. Going to school in India to study religion as expressed through art is something I know I would have loved’, she reflects. And the world would have been deprived of a truly wonderful collection of work dating back to 1964 from one of the most multitalented artistes of her generation. Socially she was never a part of the burgeoning colony of beats and singer songwriters that would hang out in the Village — but she was certainly aware of the phenomenon that was taking place as agents, managers and record companies rounded on her. It was Dylan who had told her to sing at The Gaslight, and with The Highwaymen trying to record her remarkable protest song, Universal Soldier, which became a massive 1965 UK 1 for Donovan, she signed away the publishing rights for $1, buying the song back for $25,000 ten years later. ‘’I didn’t have a great manager like Albert Grossman to guide my career like Dylan,” she remarks, but the growing press ‘notices’ from the New York Post, Bob Shelton, brought Vanguard Records’ Maynard Solomon rushing down to see her.
Out of money, part disillusioned by the derisory offers she was receiving, and needing time to think, Buffy Sainte-Marie returned to Maine that summer, but after reviewing the options she duly signed for Vanguard.
Depicted on the cover of It’s My Way with the legendary mouthbow that was to become her trademark, she recalls of that classic first album: ‘’They used a big hotel ballroom for the session and I just put the songs Straight down. I was a complete virgin; I didn’t know you were allowed to do a song three or four times and combine the best takes.”
Nevertheless the result was explosive. Major magazine coverage followed, Glen Campbell also recorded Universal Soldier and Bobby Darin headed the queue of people wanting to record the beautiful Until It’s Time For You To Go, which appeared on her second album Many A Mile, calling her up and sending two dozen yellow roses. She was especially thrilled by the Darin connection as he hailed from a genre that she instintictively felt more at home with.”My heart was really in the ‘5Os — that whole flashy thing with sequins — yet I was becoming folk star and being treated like a goddess. But she remained very much an isolated figure on the scene — and one with an identity problem. Nobody told me that you were not supposed to write songs like Cod’ine and then immediately a love song Like Until Its Time For You To Go,” she laughs at the irony. But she’s done precisely that throughout her career, always remaining in many modes at one time, and upsetting the narrow-minded among her fans. She played the Newport Folk Festival and toured the UK with Rambling Jack Elliott, who had broken his leg and the Rev Gary Davis, (a Cree Indian on tour with a lame cowboy and a blind preacher, as some wag observed at the time). But it was at the Royal Festival Hall on this tour that Donovan first heard Universal Soldier, and for a long time after everyone assumed he’d written it.
It was a long time before she realised that not only Soldier Blue but much of her political work was being suppressed in the United States. Solo performers who held strong human rights stances (but lacked Strong management found themselves suddenly blacklisted).
“When Johnson came to power the lid came down ... and a letter campaign from the White House ‘advised’ TV networks against work by people like me, Eartha Kitt and others, stating that they ‘deserved to be suppressed’. On the Tonight show I was told not to sing anything to do with Indian people. She realised finally that the Kennedy era of free speech was indeed over and the need to take her music and message worldwide as a social ambassador, where she could talk with, and about native people and issues, grew stronger.
Eventually she left the record company whose UK distributor she accused of “tinting my covers red and getting involved in a whole lot of gimmickry about Red Indians” and signed for MCA, cocking a snook at authority with revealing pose on the cover of the Buffy album. “It stood for a woman’s right to take her own shirt of” she explained. “I was having trouble with my own reputation for being a ‘serious’ artist” Her departure from Vanguard was tinged with acrimony. They reluctantly released what should have been her final album, the wonderful Moonshot, immediately on the back of Ballerina.
Then, after her departure, they released her second Nashville collection, Quiet Places, pictured against the Hawaii landscape that is still home. Nashville has always yielded fruitful pickings for her. The first country record had been the spectacular I Wanna Be A Country Girl Again. She had been invited to go to Nashville by Chet Atkins, who had reached her via Vanguard, and got to work with great artists like Grady Martin and Floyd Cramer. The title track was to give her another much recorded hit. She met Dottie West, Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury and, the Everly Bros’ songwriters, from whom she learnt for the first time the principles of song publishing.
Nashville had also introduced her to Norbert Putnam, with whom she had struck up a special relationship, and co-produced Moonshot, and once with MCA she lost no time in renewing the friendship; Putnam subsequently produced both Buffy and Changing Woman, her own two favourite albums. But the Vanguard chapter would not be complete without a special reference to the 1969 proto electronic work Illuminations, which has had a seminal influence on sound recordists, and does much to explain her love of technology as a creative communications tool today. Illuminations was the first quadraphonic electronic synthesiser vocal record ever and way ahead of its time. A collaborative piece of electronic scoring with Michael Czajkowski at the NYU School of the Arts, in which all the electronic sounds were synthesised from Buffy’s fierce vibrato voice and guitar; it remains a milestone for collectors and electronic musicians alike. Illuminations was utterly haunting, nothing more so than her synthesised reading of God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot. I’d just read Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers,” she explains, “and I made up the music for it on the spot....
....Her final album, Sweet America before the 14-year lay off was for the ill-fated ABC Records, which collapsed shortly after she had signed. As copies quickly went out of circulation she re-recorded Star-walker, the song she dedicated to the American Indian Movement and which has become an anthem for native people worldwide.
So in 1976 her career was now at a crossroads. Returning to a country with its head buried in the sand she entered a period of transition, deciding it was time to carry her message to a new, unblinkered generation. For she had given up trying to change adult attitudes. Buffy joined the cast of Sesame Street where she appeared with her new son for the next five and a half years, teaching Big Bird and all the children about breast feeding and sibling rivalry; and that Indians have language, numbers, families, music and a lot of fun.
She was living with Dakota’s father, Sheldon Wolfchild, in Hawaii and Sesame Street also came there for a two-week visit, exploring multi-racial and what it is like to live in the country. They also visited reservation locations in New Mexico before the Reagan administration cut the grants to the arts, reducing the travel budget so all programmes had to be made in New York. The family decision was to stay in Hawaii and so the family`s residency on Sesame Street came to an end. During this time Buffy wrote and illustrated her first children’s book, ‘Nikosis And The Magic Hat’ and scored the music for the feature film Spirit Of The Wind. She also received Europe’s Premio Rorna Award and a medal from Queen Elizabeth after a Command Performance in Canada. She continued to tour, taking her young son with her onto the reservations, and leaving him to sleep in her guitar case during the concerts.
By now Buffy was investing her money into bringing a more positive atitude to the Reservations in the form an upbeat rock n’ roll show. She has continually performed on reservations at home and overseas, playing benefits on behalf of Leonard Pettier and other American Indian Political prisoners. Her reservation work in the States can best be described as ‘medicine shows’ — rallies for the poor using inadequate sound systems — local amateur fundraisers. These she did hoping to give grass roots people an opportunity to do it for themselves, thereby gaining the first time experience in concert promoting. Urging young people to find their own path and self-respect has long been her rallying cry. “Put down the story that I`ve known, you’re bound for glory on your own”.... In 1982 Buffy scored the short subject Indian film Harold of Orange and in 1983 The Great Spirit In The Hole. But by then her public career had taken another quantum leap. In the Spring of 1980 she wrote a melody sitting at her piano in Hawaii. Her friend, Jack Nitzsche, was at the time scoring the movie An Officer And A Gentleman and when he played Buffy’s melody to the director they agreed that this should be the main theme for the film. Up Where We Belong, recorded by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, became the most played song of the year and won Buffy, Jack Nitzsche and lyricist Will Jennings Academy Award Oscars for Best Song from a Motion picture. Another remarkable milestone.
Despite the absence of recorded output in the 14 years her commitment to performance has hardy declined and she continued to work in a variety of live configurations. She used a 15-piece band to showcase her two MCA albums white an all-electronic concert in Belgium featured only Buffy and her friend, synthesist Jill Frazer, who builds her own instruments, (Harry Parch style) and had collaborated on the scoring of Spirit In The Wind. They drew 30,000 people — and in Paris she appeared solo before 90,000 people, using a Roland Midi guitar synth and a computer on the floor into which she’d pre-programmed her backings....
...Another film, Stripper, by Jerome Gary, about five contemporary dancers, Buffy composed entirely on the Syndavier Digital Computer, which she had first experienced at Jack Nitzsche’s house in LA. She also played the mouthbow in the soundtrack of Performance and on the subject of films, the movies Starman, Jewel Of The Nile and 9 1/2 Weeks all have one thing in common — a breathtaking, other-worldly vocal sound, which is Buffy (although she is not credited). She scored another movie, Where The Spirit Lives, shown on BBC television, but more significantly it introduced her to Rick Marvin, who co-produced, with Buffy and Chris Birkett, three tracks on the new album: Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Bad End and I’m Going Home (the theme song from Where The Spirit Lives). The 1986 Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary was won by the film Broken Rainbow which focuses on the Government’s plan (aided by the big coal/uranium companies) to forcibly remove 15,000 Navajos and Hopis from their reservation. The Indian narration was done by Buffy Sainte Marie.
Founder of the Nihewan Foundation for Native North American Scholarships in the late ‘60s she has regularly distributed large sums to Indian students in the fields of law, business, medicine and the arts. And with films like Dances With Wolves, further bestowing historical awakening to the Native North American plight, finally, it was all coming true for the enigmatic traditionalist who sings the ethnic music of the Canadian Plains and has endless Indian alphabets, incantations — and a palate of earthtones down-loaded in her beloved Apple Mac. Samples from her home demos received via compuserve down the telephone line (from Hawaii to London) to Chris Birkett of Ensign and producer of Concidences and Likely Stories, which he then rebuilt to regain the ‘demo‘ atmosphere and as a result of adding new vocals produced a totally brilliant album.
Ensign`s interest in Buffy Sainte-Marie was sparked by then head of A&R on the West Coast, Kate Hyman, who sent a tape of songs she thought might be of interest to Sinead O`Connor. Sinead had finished recording her (second) album and Ensign contacted Buffy Sainte-Marie......the result was Concidences and Likely Stories.
In 1996 Up Where We Belong was released. A collection of most requested songs at Buffy Sainte-Marie`s concerts re-recorded for today and including two bonus tracks. In 1997, Sainte-Marie won a Canadian for her 1996 variety special, Up Where We Belong.
In October 2002, Regina, Saskatchewan, Buffy received a Queen's Jubilee Medal, presented to her by The Lieutenant Governor of her home province of Saskatchewan. This is Buffy's second medal. The first was presented by the Queen herself in Ottawa in the late 70s after a concert Buffy had given. The first blew away in Hurricane Iniki, in 1992 when Buffy's house was destroyed.
In 2003 Vanguard released another `best of’ album. Best of The Vanguard Years, re-mastered and reissued with two previously unreleased tracks.
2008 and a two cd album called ‘Buffy Changing Woman Sweet America’ and sub-titled ‘The Mid Seventies Recordings’ containing all the tracks from the MCA albums Buffy and Changing Woman and the ABC album Sweet America is released.
“Running For The Drum,” 2009, Buffy’s first album since the 1992 release “Coincidence
and likely Stories,” contains twelve new inspired songs and stories about current
events, art, politics and the aboriginal people, that showcase her emotional integrity
and thrilling voice!
In 2009 a new DVD, “A Multi-Media Life” tells for the first time Buffy's extraordinary life story is told on screen - from her early days bursting onto the Greenwich Village folk scene in the 60's, to becoming an Oscar-winning songwriter, a Sesame Street regular, an international Aboriginal spokesperson and a pioneering digital artist". The hour long documentary also features interviews with several well known musicians and includes archival footage and music from a dozen or so songs of hers including the Oscar winning "Up Where We Belong", the anti-war anthem "Universal Soldier" and more.
May 23, 2012 she received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia.
2012. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s new biography written by Blair Stonechild, is titled ‘It’s My Way’ .