A FEW MINUTES WITH… Buffy Sainte-Marie
By Don Wilcock
Some might say that at age 74 singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie is entering her second childhood. She would argue that she never left her first. “I would say as a songwriter and an artist I’m kinda like the three-year-old I was way back then when I first discovered music and consequently creativity, how good it feels and how it’s not something you learn in school, but it’s real natural,” says the Canadian Cree Indian who was named Billboard Magazine’s Top Artist of 1964, the year the Beatles first conquered America.
“For me it’s always been a real natural development from the time I was three to right now,” explains Sainte-Marie, who returns to the spotlight at the Eighth Step at Proctors in Schenectady on Saturday night. “The ’60s when I first got into show business were restrictive in a lot of ways if you’re thinking about careerism, but that’s not how I think of myself and never have. I really do relate to the three-year-old. As an artist I really do, and I think if you take the careerism away from artistry, careerism was harder, but it’s not really where I live anyway.”
She was one of Vanguard Records’ cadre of folk revival artists in the mid-’60s, but while Joan Baez and Judy Collins were singing traditional American folk songs in long flowing dresses and strumming on acoustic guitars, Sainte-Marie’s quivering pow wow chants came across like she was scatting lyrics from another planet and using electronic music to add even more texture to her sound.
Like the other folk singers of the day, she did protest songs. Her “Universal Soldier” pointed the finger at the public in general for allowing our government to get us involved in war. “The Highwaymen came to hear me at the Gaslight Café when I was just a young unknown singer,” she recalls, “and they were coming off a huge hit ‘Michael Rowed The Boat Ashore.’ They wanted to record ‘Universal Soldier,’ and I said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’ They said, ‘Who’s the publisher?’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s that?’ And my manager at the time was sitting with a guy named Elmer Gordon who said, ‘Oh, I can help with that,’ and he wrote a little contract on a napkin. I signed it, and he gave me a dollar, and that’s what happened.
“It took me 10 years to make enough money to buy the thing back. I bought it back for $35,000, and of course the song had already made its huge moneys. So I didn’t get to participate in that, but at least it got to be my song again. The big lesson was I never did it again. When Elvis Presley’s people came to me and wanted the publishing on ‘Until It’s Time for You to Go,’ I had the sense to say no.”
Elvis Presley had a Top 10 hit with the plaintive love song in 1972, and Neil Diamond charted with it in 1972. It was covered by artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, the Boston Pops Orchestra, Roberta Flack and Paul Anka.
Half a century later, Sainte-Marie is still touring and performing blistering rock and roll as powerful and out of left field as anything Patti Smith or Laurie Anderson might do. She has a new album, Power in the Blood and still believes the secret to one’s muse is to think like a three-year-old.
“I think a lot of people start out as artistic and creative, but it kinda gets stomped out of
them when they go to school. The lucky ones, we retain that sense of a three-year-old wonder and three-year-old creativity, and if you took any of those bozos you’re talking about at age 65, if when they were five, you took them to the beach, they all would have been artists. They’d be making drama. We wouldn’t call it drama, but they’re using their imaginations and talking in different character voices. They’re making pictures. They’re dancing. They’re
making up songs. They’re making sculpture and architecture in the sand.”
Her Artist of the Year award in 1964 still has her shaking her head 51 years later. “Oh, my gosh. I was totally surprised. I’m always surprised ’cause my first college degree was in education and philosophy. I had a double major. I had a teacher’s degree. So when I graduated college I was on the way to becoming – my real major was philosophy, Oriental philosophy and religion, world religion.
“So I thought I was going to India, and I just kinda stopped in in Greenwich Village and sang a bunch of the songs I’d been writing, not because I was trying to have a career as a singer, ’cause I didn’t think I could sing my way out of a paper bag, but because of the songs, and if I could’ve gotten somebody else to sing the songs, I would have. So for me it’s always been about the content, and I certainly didn’t expect to have a hit, especially that was the year the Beatles came to America. You know, 1964!
“So, yeah, I was very, very surprised. I never thought I was gonna last in show business, and I really never have taken the career side of my career very seriously. I took 15 years off the raise my son. I’ve never gone along with record companies pushing me to make an album every nine months. You know how it is in reality. So I’ve had kind of a career on the peripheral of show business and done things pretty much my own way. So I’ve had it both ways.
“I’ve had the incredible privilege of airplane tickets and being able to see the world from a
global perspective, but at the same time I’ve continually taken off as much time as I’ve felt like taking off, and I really do live on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I live in the mountains on an obscure island in the Hawaiian chain. I think it’s been nice to have somewhat of a career. I’ve never had a career like a Michael Jackson or Madonna kind of career. I’ve never had a career of some of the big artists who were receiving a lot of payola in the ’60s and ’70s.”