After spending her lifetime being ahead of her time, Buffy Sainte-Marie is arguably the most oxymoronic figure in the history of popular music, indisputably iconic yet often overlooked, even ignored. “Her omission from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is galling,” wrote Andrea Warner, her official biographer, in The Globe and Mail in 2021, and it’s difficult – millions would say impossible – to disagree.
In equal measure a singer, songwriter, musician, educator, activist and visual artist, Sainte-Marie’s extensive list of pioneering achievements includes being the first Indigenous person to win Billboard’s Best New Artist award (1964); the first singer to record a quadraphonic album (Illuminations, 1969); the first Indigenous person to win an Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award (for “Up Where We Belong,” 1983); the first person to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Massachusetts (1983); the first recording artist to deliver an entire album using file-sharing software (Coincidences and Likely Stories, 1991); and the first septuagenarian to receive the Polaris Music Prize (for Power in the Blood, 2015).
Known as much for her political engagement as for her superb songwriting, unique melodic approach and compelling vocal style, Sainte-Marie’s tireless championing of Indigenous people’s rights over the past six decades is at least as impressive as her musical legacy. As Herbert Kupferberb wrote in The Boston Globe in 1970 – using language many modern ears would deem unsuitable for publication – “the best-known fighter for the American Indian since Geronimo is a spunky, sexy, 100-pound girl named Buffy Sainte-Marie” and as NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in 2015 – using language considered more appropriate in the 21st Century – she’s “more Bjork than Baez, more Kate Bush than Laurel Canyon…a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds, and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics.”
As for music, Sainte-Marie has recorded 16 studio albums with consistent lyrical themes of love, war, religion and mysticism and her best-known song, “Universal Soldier” (written in 1963), has inspired 157 cover versions, according to a feature in The Guardian in November 2022, by singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Donovan, Janis Joplin, Barbara Streisand, Glen Campbell, Courtney Love and Neko Case.
Born on Piapot (Cree) Indian Reserve No. 75 in Saskatchewan, Canada, Sainte-Marie was adopted before age two following the deaths of her parents, according to the book A to Z of American Indian Women (Facts on File, 2008). All records of her birth parents were sealed and Sainte-Marie’s adoptive parents were Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie of Wakefield, Massachusetts, who named her Beverly.
Her adoptive mother, an editor at Houghton Mifflin in Boston, was part Mi’kmaq, her adoptive father was Italian-American and Sainte-Marie has said her family was “more The Sopranos than Dances with Wolves.” Sainte-Marie completed her K-12 education in Wakefield, spent summers in Maine and graduated with honors from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she launched her musical career before gigging in the folk clubs of Boston, Cambridge and New York and achieving global renown by age 25.
By around age 25, that is, since Sainte-Marie has never known her actual date of birth. “What happens to children who are kind of lost in the system like [I was], they’re assigned a birthday, they’re assigned kind of a biography,” she told NPR in 2018. She was given February 20th, 1941 – essentially a rough guess – as her birthday. “I’m told that I was born in 1940, 1941 or 1942, but probably 1941,” she explained in 2006.
At age three, Sainte-Marie, started teaching herself how to play piano. “And when I say that ‘I taught myself how to ‘play,’ I’m not kidding because to me it really was play,” she said in 2015. “And to this day it’s play and that’s why it’s still good.” By age four, she was writing poems and putting them to music. At age 16, by then nicknamed “Buffy,” she taught herself guitar and ultimately found 32 different ways to tune the instrument, she’s said, part of her lifelong draw to constant musical experimentation. “As a little kid, I banged on pots and pans, I’d play with rubber bands, I’d blow on grass, I played the mouth bow,” she said in an interview with Vogue. “Later, I was using a Synclavier and a Fairlight, which were the earliest standing music computers.”
In 1958, Sainte-Marie enrolled at UMass Amherst, two years before Taj Mahal did the same. “She had a great fan base there at the university,” Mahal said in 2006. “And wherever she was gonna play, man, we were there.” While performing in her dorm, the university’s Student Union and Bowker Auditorium, the Saladin Tea House in Amherst and other venues, she majored in both Eastern Philosophy and Education and graduated in 1962 with a GPA that put her among the top 10 students in her class.
With no intention of becoming a professional musician, Sainte-Marie planned to continue her studies in India and return to Saskatchewan to be a teacher, but first she headed to Boston where, in the fall of 1962, began playing at folk venues like Café Yana and Someplace Else. In 1963, she started gigging at venues including The Second Fret in Philadelphia, San Remo Coffee House in Schenectady and Toronto’s Purple Onion Coffee House, where she wrote “Universal Soldier” that year as a protest against the rapidly escalating Vietnam War.
In early 1964, she relocated to Greenwich Village, staying at the YWCA on 14th Street, and within a few days of arrival she appeared at Gerde’s Folk City, where 22-year old Bob Dylan was in the audience. “He heard me play, he liked it and he said, ‘Go see Sam [Hood, owner of The Gaslight Café]’ and within a week or two [New York Times music critic] Robert Shelton came to see me play and wrote a glowing review,” Sainte-Marie said in 2006. Hood posted an oversized copy of the review – headlined “Old Music Taking on New Color: An Indian Girl Sings Her Compositions and Folk Songs” – at the Gaslight’s front entrance, and Vanguard Records signed Sainte-Marie less than two weeks later.
In April 1964, her debut album, It’s My Way!, hit the shelves. A 13-song collection including 11 originals that critic William Ruhlman called “one of the most scathing topical folk albums ever made,” it established Sainte-Marie as the first female on the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene, years ahead of the debut album by Janis Ian (1967), Laura Nyro (1967), Joni Mitchell (1968) and Carole King (1970). “I didn’t know I was ahead of the pack at the time because I didn’t know there was going to be a pack,” she told The Guardian in November 2022.
Propelled by the popularity of songs like “Universal Soldier,” “Cod’ine” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” Sainte-Marie began headlining at clubs across North America and in September 1964, after appearing at Wakefield Memorial High School (her alma mater) in June, she debuted at Club 47 in Cambridge, where The Charles River Valley Boys, Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Mitch Greenhill, Tom Rush, Eric von Schmidt and Taj Mahal also appeared that month. Later that year, she traveled to Saskatchewan and, according to tribal custom, was adopted by a Cree family that said they were related to her biological parents.
In 1965, between appearances on American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Johnny Cash Show and The Tonight Show among others, Sainte-Marie recorded her second LP for Vanguard, Many a Mile, which included “Until It’s Time For You To Go” – covered by Bobby Darin, Roberta Flack, Elvis Presley, Barbara Streisand, Neil Diamond, Sonny & Cher, Bette Davis and others – and in 1966 she debuted at the Newport Folk Festival. Vanguard issued four more of her albums before the end of the ‘60s, Little Wheel Spin and Spin (1966), Fire & Fleet & Candlelight (1967), I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (1968) and Illuminations (1969), the last of which was hailed as a creative tour de force – recorded in quadrophonic using a Buchla synthesizer – but was a commercial nonevent.
The first half of the 1970s was relentlessly busy for Sainte-Marie, playing shows from Toronto to Tokyo while releasing three more LPs on Vanguard, She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina (1971), Moonshot (1972) and Quiet Places (1973), two on MCA, Buffy (1974) – which outsold all of her Vanguard albums combined – and Changing Woman (1975) and Sweet America (1976) on ABC. From 1975-1980, she made regular appearances on the children’s program Sesame Street and in a 1977 episode of the show she became the first person to breastfeed on American television.
In the 1980s, Sainte-Marie stayed comparatively out of the limelight musically with the exception of co-writing (with then-husband Jack Nitzsche) “Up Where We Belong” for An Officer and a Gentleman and winning Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for Best Original Song. Sainte-Marie has said that in the ‘80s she learned she had been blacklisted by the US government going as far back as the mid-1960s. “[1963-68 US President Lyndon B. Johnson] had been writing letters on White House stationery praising radio stations for suppressing my music,” she said in 1999.
In mid-1991, she recorded Coincidences and Likely Stories, her first album in 16 years, issued in January 1992 by Ensign/Chrysalis/EMI. In 1995, she was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, in 1997 she was awarded the Order of Canada and in 1998 she received a star on Canada’s Walk of Fame in Toronto.
In September 2008, after Sainte-Marie took another 16-year hiatus to focus on educational projects, activism and her visual art, Gypsy Boy Music issued her 14th album, Running for the Drum, followed by True North releasing her most recent LPs, Power in the Blood (2015) – which won Canada’s Polaris Music Prize – and Medicine Songs (2017).
In September 2022, the 90-minute documentary Buffy Sainte-Marie: Carry It On premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. An in-depth review of her life and career both as artist and activist, it includes interviews with singer-songwriters Robbie Robertson, Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne, Steppenwolf frontman John Kay, broadcaster George Stroumboulopoulos and Andrea Warner, author of Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography (Greystone Books, 2018).
Speaking with Point of View magazine upon the film’s release, director Madison Thomas cited Sainte-Marie’s remarkably forward-thinking vision throughout the decades. “Buffy is 50 years ahead of us. Hands down,” she said. “It’s across the board in every facet of her life.”
“It’s not too late for the rest of us to catch up,” she added. “And I think a good start is hearing her story and listening to her music and message.”
(by D.S. Monahan)
Published on March 17, 2023