A Conversation With .. Buffy Sainte-Marie

When publicist Eric Alper asked if I wanted to interview Buffy Sainte-Marie, my only thought was, “hell yes”! I’ve got this thing about history, especially the part where one finds themselves a phone call closer to a person with great integrity and grand history. A person who walked steps ahead and you kept trying to catch up. It’s that transformation from a high school geek to young adult when you first discover a world beyond eight-hour day classrooms, childish gossip, family matters and now face an uncertain future. That’s where we were in 1964 – graduation and war hovering over us – college, then being unexpectedly moved by protest songs such as Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier.”

I played Dylan endlessly, graced my flat with the heavenly voice of Joan Baez (“Farewell Angelina"), Barry McGuire (“The Eve of Destruction"), and Country Joe and the Fish. There was a sense of community and connection to those singing prophets who spoke our inner thoughts.

Throughout my conversation with Buffy, my brain kept switching from black & white to Kodachrome – to present-day artificial digital colours. This came the same day Keith Richards posted an endearing photo of him and Marianne Faithfull sharing drinks – him, sipping a rose and her, an English tea. Fifty plus years have passed since we were haunted by the Vietnam War and the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and we have still barely begun to rectify the colonialist wrongs on Indigenous people generations before us. Buffy reminds us that there’s plenty of good-fight left in all of us.

It was only a few months back, and the discussion was, where are the songs or recordings that speak of now?

I tell you, I had the same thought, Bill. I was wondering with all of the great songwriters, are they deaf to what’s going on? Or are they blind to how they could help? Where are those songs? I don’t know? They are out there. My intent with [new album] Medicine Songs was to corall all of the songs; whether super positive or outright protest songs – songs addressing today’s issues. It doesn’t matter if somebody was writing the truth – pick a time – in the 1300s with Rumi telling the truth. It doesn’t matter where the songs come from when you are dealing with the classic issues of history, especially colonialism. Those issues have remained the same. Oppression, war, greed, one-upmanship, the pecking order – these things are not human nature. They are choices we make with every generation in every country, in every day. We can make things better if we try.

Back in 1980, I was on a cross-country plane flight and sitting next to me was civil rights activist and folksinger Odetta. Ronald Reagan was recently elected president. The next few hours were spent discussing our fears and recent gains made in the spheres of human rights and the war on poverty and how they could suddenly be rolled back. There was this sense of doom - going from a Jimmy Carter to Reagan,  as there is now, from Obama to Trump. 

In your story, there is a real good lesson right there. These things are cyclical. We have been through bad leadership before. We have been through confusion, and we’ve seen people come out of ignorance and be very surprised at what has been going on under the table and behind our backs. We have done this before, been through it before and we will survive and survive again.

What I say to wrap the whole thing up is that the good news is, more people know about the bad news now, and that’s good. It’s upsetting to hear troubling news and plenty 's troubling, but the news that is not being reported is the good news that is also going on in the world. So, don’t ever forget that. If it bleeds, it leads in media. Flag waving, bad news, blood, scandals, politicians; these are all lead headlines. Besides all of that, there are incredible things going on in communities.

One of the best things going on in communities today is that people are opening their eyes and ears and finding out what’s going on. I’ve dealt with a lot of that in my life.

I think we are having a real conversation now. Gloria Steinem recently said she couldn’t believe the level of activism out there. Do you see this differently than, let’s say, 1964?

That’s right, and it’s good, and yes, things do come to a resolution. It does take a village. It’s not as though the media or politicians are going to do it. Or the bankers are going to stop being greedy, or people who like war are going to stop making flags and boots and uniforms. Those things are only contributions to the perfect storm. If you have ever read John Horgan’s book, The End of War – it’s a skinny little book – 4” X 5”, it’s incredible. It points out that it takes a whole lot of people not paying attention for corruption to truly take over. And there’s a lot of corruption right now. We see it in the way women have been treated in Hollywood. Everybody’s known all along. But there’s a big wave of unity in making changes to how women are being treated. There was a time, don’t forget, when everyone said women would never get to vote and they also said you’d never put an end to slavery. They said you’ll never get businessmen stop smoking on airplanes. It can’t be done. You know, we can do these things.

It’s surprising if you haven’t been watching. It’s not that surprising if you have been paying attention. The long and short of this is, we can do this. We can make our countries better in a day and age of maybe too much media. We are all publishing and broadcasting on the Internet. We are all the same human race and have come through bad leadership before, and we can do it again.

More about Medicine Songs.

It’s my attempt to put all of these songs on one album. It’s all new recordings except for one song. It’s kind of a generous album in that I wanted a 20-song album and of course that’s not going to fit on vinyl. There is a vinyl release too. So, what we did was for the CD we put twelve songs on and there’s a link for the rest. You buy the CD and it comes to you. There’s tremendous positivity in this recording like, “Carry it On,” “You’ve Got To Run,” “Star Walker,” “Soldier Blue." It is another way of looking at North America through indigenous eyes which is quite different from that kind of Nazi chant of nationalism that is quite different from what I call ‘matriarchism’ or loving your mother country. There are also very strong songs, not only “Universal Soldier”, all newly recorded. "Now That The Buffalo Is Gone – in your neighborhood people might remember the building of Kinzua Dam and flooding of the Seneca Reservation. There are songs that go all the way back to the sixties, through to songs I wrote recently. “War Racket” – that’s going to stand your hair on end because that is about what’s going on today. We live with the ‘war racket’ everyday and we tolerate it.

I was taken with your version of “America the Beautiful” and of course the version that comes to mind is Ray Charles. What came first, the vocal or the concept of instrumentation?

There is a man whose name is Commander John Herrington who is the first native American astronaut and years back he was to get his first ride, and NASA bussed in a whole bunch of people from the Chickasaw Nation where John is from, and they invited me to sing. I wanted to sing something that is inclusive of all the different kinds of Americans there are. Not the "Star-Spangled Banner," which is warlike. The bombs bursting in air. Everybody I talk to thinks “America the Beautiful” should be the national anthem. I added a middle part and an introduction that says there were Choctaws in Alabama. Chippewas in St. Paul - Mississippi mud runs like a river in me. America, you are like a mother to me. It’s just a whole other look at a legacy melody written by Samuel Ward and Katharine Lee Bates. There have been so many different versions online. Some are racist, others nasty. The other end of the gamut; some are about the nature part of America.

The folk music of the 60’s had a deep connection to Appalachia. It was that sound – mix of Irish, Scottish, Afro American and Indigenous peoples who found refuge in those mountains. They were on common ground there. Did that in any way connect with you?

I wish I could say yes. You know, when it comes to a lot of the people you mention, especially the people we associate with 1960s’ folk singing, like Joan Baez, Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger, they are really from that Scotch/Irish/ British Appalachian tradition. Just like in the history books, everybody thinks of Roots and Africans as slaves, but nobody knows the history of native Americans being enslaved. It was just a few. In 1500 years of North American contact with Europeans, millions of native Americans were either slaughtered outright or enslaved – women especially branded on the face. Tens of thousands of women. Little girls and boys being sent to the Middle East and the Philippines. There’s a book out called The Other Slavery by Andres Resendez, that is worth reading. It will break your heart. It’s about the history of native American enslavement. People aren’t aware of that.

I was on a Pete Seeger television show, and we were also supposed to come out for a European style finale and sing a version of “This Land Is Your Land, This Land is My Land." I couldn’t do it. It was such an obvious thing. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and all the other people who were participating in that had zero Native American conscience. They had no consciousness how that would affect the Native American people watching. No, this land used to be my land. This land is not my land anymore. It belongs to oil companies and the other great entrepreneurs. The thieves who have taken over native land the past 1,500 years. I wasn’t mad at Pete Seeger or Woody Guthrie. I just couldn’t sing the song. I did take the opportunity to let Pete know, right or wrong, why I was crying that day. It was about the fact Americans, by and large, haven’t had a chance to be educated, yet here it is many years later, and more people know or are aware of Standing Rock or aware of other issues because of Standing Rock. It never goes fast enough, but we do learn.

How are we doing here at home with Trudeau?

Well, certainly better than the last guy. There are still a lot of questions in the air as there will always be. I was just in Alberta and oil companies right now are having a hard time, and I used to go, yeah, but at the moment I’m kind of thinking twice about that. Oil companies are our brothers and sisters too, although I am divesting from all fossil fuels. As far as investments go, in fact, I am real green. When oil came down to a dollar a barrel people in Alberta and oil-rich places can no longer support what they used to support at the universities. Or in supporting music festivals. Or in supporting the hospitals. A lot of that loophole tax money was going to places that are now not going to have funding. The idea of green energy not being the enemy of fossil fuel and trying to get the oil companies turned around and no longer poisoning ourselves and future generations – they have to be a part of this. Those of us against fossil fuels and the further development of fossil fuels industries, we have to find ways to fess up to it. We are brothers and sisters to those people to and have to turn them around.

Did you catch any of Ken Burns' series Vietnam?

I did watch some of it but not it all.

Any thoughts?

It’s not as though I didn’t know. I was watching with people who didn’t know about the Vietnam War, and I was watching them. They were so surprised. It was so horrific and crooked and such a big money deal.

Both of us are of a generation whose lives were impacted by this, and it had a hand on us. From this view, I thought Burns backed-off on the influence of the activists and protesters. They are there but even those two or three exiled Americans who spoke, spoke as apologists and were not representative of the 150,000 Americans who crossed the border to Canada. I don’t think he captures the severity of the resistance.

I’m glad to hear you say that. I didn’t watch the whole series and wouldn’t be aware of that omission, but the fact that you are sticking up about is good. It was a resistance and aboriginal resistance too. It didn’t just start with Idle No More or Standing Rock. It’s been going on for five hundred years. Ken Burns - wake up.

I had a good look at his sponsors' list and could see why Burns omitted and softened parts. He’s planning for his next project. Vietnam is an expansive project and done magnificently as if Stephen Spielberg gathered all of the footage and edited together would give you a sense what it was like to be in those combat zones.

We helped end the war in Vietnam and put Lyndon Johnson out of business. So many miss the fact that war is business. A lot of people are invested in flags and boots, and uniforms like it says in my song “War Racket.” People don’t realize how the airplane companies, the uniforms companies, the boots companies, the energy sector, -all contribute to it. If we continue to raise awareness, things will change. If we go to sleep – we get that.

Lastly, going back to Reagan. He chose to shift tax dollars, the nation’s treasury, and finance a massive arms-build up and outspend the Soviets. In doing so, he robbed inner cities, and the country fell into urban decay.

He took the money out of Sesame Street, and it couldn’t travel anymore and became a New York show. Before Reagan, I took Sesame Street to Taos Pueblo. To Indian reservations. We did a lot of that kind of programming. Things changed. When Reagan came into office all of a sudden there were mental patients on the streets because they were closing down facilities. I’m glad you said that. People have forgotten how “Trumpish” the guy was regarding the things he was supporting.

We’ve got to find solutions, day by day and we can do it!

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