Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie turns 79 today.
Happy Birthday, Buffy!
As regulars readers will know, I’ve long admired Buffy Sainte-Marie and enjoyed her music. Indeed, I find her to be a very inspiring figure. (I even chose her song "It's My Way" as my theme song when I turned 50 in 2015!)
Left: With Buffy after her August 26, 2016 performance at The Dakota in Minneapolis.
I particularly appreciate and am inspired by Buffy's passion and purposefulness – and by the way she blends her art and social activism. I’ve seen her four times in concert, and had the privilege of meeting and talking with her on three of these occasions. She’s creative, articulate, warm, and funny – a very human human being.
Buffy's most recent album is the award-winning Medicine Songs (2017), about which Buffy says the following.
[Medicine Songs] is a collection of front line songs about unity and resistance – some brand new and some classics – and I want to put them to work. These are songs I've been writing for over fifty years, and what troubles people today are still the same damn issues from 30-40-50 years ago: war, oppression, inequity, violence, rankism of all kinds, the pecking order, bullying, racketeering and systemic greed. Some of these songs come from the other side of that: positivity, common sense, romance, equity and enthusiasm for life.
[. . .] I really want this collection of songs to be like medicine, to be of some help or encouragement, to maybe do some good. Songs can motivate you and advance your own ideas, encourage and support collaborations and be part of making change globally and at home. They do that for me and I hope this album can be positive and provide thoughts and remedies that rock your world and inspire new ideas of your own.
For The Wild Reed's special post featuring highlights from a number of reviews of Medicine Songs, along with an insightful interview with Buffy, click here.
Above: Buffy and guitarist Anthony King performing at the Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI on Saturday, August 27, 2016. (Photo: Michael J. Bayly)
article which revisits Illuminations, Buffy’s "cosmic, groundbreaking 1969 album, an ecstatic invocation of pain, pleasure, and divinity."
In 1977, on an episode of Sesame Street, Buffy Sainte-Marie became the first person to breastfeed on national broadcast television (“Lots of mothers feed their babies this way,” she explained to a very curious Big Bird.) She was the first person to record a song by a then-unknown songwriter named Joni Mitchell (“The Circle Game,” on Sainte-Marie’s 1967 album Fire & Fleet & Candlelight, released almost a year before Mitchell’s own debut). When she decided she’d rather record her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories at home in serene Hawaii than travel to her producer’s studio in chaotic London, Sainte-Marie became the first person ever to make an album by sending files across what was then still being earnestly called “the World Wide Web.”
Being one of the mainstream’s most visible indigenous entertainers in the 1960s and beyond, Buffy Sainte-Marie was the first Native woman to do quite a few things, among them win a Golden Globe and an Academy Award. She is presumably the only person to have written songs that have been covered by the unholy trinity of Elvis, Morrissey, and Courtney Love. And in 1969, when she unleashed her astounding, trailblazing sixth LP Illuminations, she became the first musician not only to release an album with vocals processed through a Buchla 100 synthesizer (the very same unit that the electronic music legend Morton Subotnik had used to compose his landmark 1967 album Silver Apples of the Moon), but the first person ever to make an album recorded using quadraphonic technology, an early precursor to surround-sound.
Here is a brief pause, to let your brain try to catch up with Buffy Sainte-Marie.
And yet, Sainte-Marie has always been suspicious of “firsts” – something about the word itself connotes a narrow-sighted narrative of conquest. She still dismisses hierarchies and what she derisively calls “pecking orders” as rigidly Euro-centric, reeking of colonial absurdity and woefully lacking in imagination. Over and over, she has learned that being ahead of one’s time can be a liability when one does not look the way a vanguard is “supposed to,” which is usually like a white man. “I was real early with electronics, and I just got used to this typical music-biz resistance,” she recalls in Andrea Warner’s 2018 book Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography. “Most of these boys—whether musicians or record company guys – did not want to seem old-fashioned or out of the loop. They didn’t want somebody else – a girl like me – to be ahead of them.”
Giorgio Moroder’s first Moog-driven hit, “Son of My Father,” was not released until 1972.) Illuminations would have been a tough sell in 1969 regardless, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that Sainte-Marie learned another factor in its commercial failure: Because of her activism with the recently formed American Indian Movement (AIM) and her outspoken Vietnam-era pacifism, the Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon administrations had both led campaigns to blacklist her music from American radio stations and record stores. “Buffy thought that the decline of her record sales was just part of legitimate changes in American public taste,” her biographer Blair Stonechild wrote in 2012’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s My Way. But years after the release of Illuminations, when an American radio DJ was interviewing Sainte-Marie, he shocked her by apologizing for abiding by a government mandate to stop spinning her tunes. She recalled, “He had a letter on White House stationery commending him for suppressing this music, which deserved to be suppressed.”
As the years went by, Illuminations developed something of a cult following; in 1998, the experimental music magazine The Wire put it on a list of “100 Records That Set the World on Fire When Nobody Was Listening.” (“If Dylan going electric in 1965 would have turned folk purists into baying hyenas,” they wrote, “Buffy Sainte-Marie going electronic would have turned them into kill-hungry wolves.”) But, like Sainte-Marie herself, the bewitching, utterly transporting Illuminations has still not gotten a fraction of its due. It is a record overripe for reevaluation – for reasons not limited to but certainly including pissing off the ghost of Richard Nixon.
To read article Lindsay Zoladz's article on Buffy and her groundbreaking album Illuminations in its entirety, click here.
Following is a track from Illuminations, “Adam.”
Writes Lindsay Zoladz:
For an ostensibly forward-marching record, there’s quite a bit of ancient Biblical imagery on Illuminations: Song titles include “Adam,” “Mary,” and “Suffer the Little Children.” (The Smiths would, of course, write their own track bearing a similar title 15 years later, and Morrissey also covered a song from Illuminations on his most recent album, 2019’s California Son.) But this is one of those records that collapses the distance between seeming opposites. The mesmerizing aurora borealis of “The Vampire” and the shooting stars that streak across the coda of psych-rocker “Better to Find Out For Yourself” both depict the cosmos as something enduring and eternal, rather than just a lazy space-age motif. Where were the Magi looking for the Star of Bethlehem, if not on the astral plane? Again, Sainte-Marie is attuned to the interconnectedness of all things: Though they toggle from the Old Testament to New Weird America, the stellar sounds of Illuminations suggest that all these songs take place beneath the same sky.
For The Wild Reed's special series of posts leading-up to the November 10, 2017 release of Medicine Songs, see:
• For Acclaimed Songwriter, Activist and Humanitarian Buffy Sainte-Marie, the World is Always Ripening
• Buffy Sainte-Marie: "I'm Creative Anywhere"
• Buffy Sainte-Marie Headlines SummerStage Festival in NYC's Central Park
• Buffy Sainte-Marie, "One of the Best Performers Out Touring Today"
• The Music of Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Uprooting the Sources of Disenfranchisement"
• Buffy Sainte-Marie's Medicine Songs
For The Wild Reed's special series of posts leading-up to the May 12, 2015 release of Buffy's award-winning album, Power in the Blood, see:
• Buffy Sainte-Marie and That "Human-Being Magic"
• Buffy Sainte-Marie's Lesson from the Cutting Edge: "Go Where You Must to Grow"
• Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Sometimes You Have to Be Content to Plant Good Seeds and Be Patient"
• Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood
For more of Buffy Sainte-Marie at The Wild Reed, see:
• A Music Legend Visits the North Country: Buffy Sainte-Marie in Minnesota and Wisconsin – August 2016
• Two Exceptional Singers Take a Chance on the "Spirit of the Wind"
• Photo of the Day – January 21, 2017
• Buffy Sainte-Marie Wins 2015 Polaris Music Prize
• Congratulations, Buffy
• Happy Birthday, Buffy! (2016)
• Happy Birthday, Buffy! (2018)
• Happy Birthday, Buffy! (2019)
• Actually, There's No Question About It
• For Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Well-Deserved Honor
• Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
• Buffy Sainte-Marie: Still Singing with Spirit, Joy, and Passion
• Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
• Buffy Sainte-Marie: "The Big Ones Get Away"
Related Off-site Links:
Buffy the Truth Sayer: An Interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie – Mandy Nolan (The Echo, February 13, 2020).
Buffy Sainte-Marie Named As the Recipient of the Allan Slaight Humanitarian Spirit Award – Ian Courtney (Encore, February 14, 2020).
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Authorized Biography Serves As a "Map Of Hope" – Scott Simon and Ian Stewart (NPR News, September 29, 2018).
Buffy Sainte-Marie Tells Her Life Story, Her Way – Sue Carter (The Star, September 29, 2018)
Buffy Sainte-Marie, Jess Moskaluke, and The Dead South Lead Saskatchewan Artists Nominated for Junos – Spencer Leigh (The Independent, January 9, 2018).
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "I Constantly Ask Myself, Where Are the Great Protest Songs of Today? Are People Deaf and Blind?" – Regina Leader-Post, (February 6, 2018).
Music as Medicine: Buffy Sainte-Marie Talks Politics, Sex Scandals and Her Brand New Album – Rosanna Deerchild (CBC Radio's Unreserved, November 19, 2017)
Buffy Sainte-Marie Takes a Stand with Medicine Songs – ET Canada (November 30, 2017).
Buffy Sainte-Marie Makes Music for a New Generation of Activists – Tom Power (CBC Radio, November 17, 2017).
The Unbreakable Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Candid Conversation with the Resilient Songwriter and Activist – Whitney Phaneuf (Acoustic Guitar, January 18, 2017).
What Does Buffy Sainte-Marie Believe? – CBC Radio (December 30, 2016).
Opening image: The Canadian Press/Chris Young.