Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Happy Birthday, Buffy!

Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie turns 78 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, in other words.

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)

In celebrating Buffy today at The Wild Reed I share the music video for her song, “The War Racket” (from Medicine Songs), along with Maggie Rahr's review of Andrea Warner's Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, released last September. Rahr's review, entitled “Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Merriment and Perseverance Shine Through in New Biography,” was first published September 26, 2018 by The Glode and Mail.

Ooo, you’re slick – you investors in hate
You Saddams and you Bushes,
you Bin Ladens and snakes
You billionaire bullies,
you’re a globalized curse
You put war on the masses
and then you clean out the purse

And that’s how it’s done, war after war
You old feudal parasites
you just sacrifice the poor
You got the cutting edge weapons
but your scam’s still the same
as it’s been since the Romans:
It’s the patriot game
Well, that's the war racket
That’s the war racket

You twisters of language,
you creeps of disguise
Your disinformation –
it's like worms in your eyes
You privileged bankers,
you gambler thieves
You profit on war, you think
there's just less money in peace.

That’s how it’s done, time after time,
In country after country
and crime after crime.
You pretend it’s religion
as if there’s no one to blame
for your dead and impoverished
in your little patriot game;
Honey, that's the war racket.

We got the world's greatest power
and you team up with thugs.
Make a fortune on weapons,
destruction and drugs.
But your flags and boots and uniforms
they start to all smell the same
when both sides are killing
in your little patriot game..

And that’s how it’s done
and you’ve got our sons
in the crosshairs of horror
at the end of your guns
But your national anthems
they start to all smell like shame
when all sides are dying
in the patriot game

And war is never, ever holy
It’s just a greedy men’s dream
And you two-faced crusaders –
both sides are obscene.
War is not made by God,
war is just made by men
who misdirect our attention
while you thieves do your thing

And that’s how it’s done
About every 30 years
The rich fill their bank accounts
The poor fill with tears
The young fill the coffins
The old hang a wreath
The politicians get photographed
with their names underneath.
It’s the war racket
It’s just the war racket

– Buffy Sainte-Marie


Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Merriment and Perseverance
Shine Through in New Biography

By Maggie Rahr

The Globe and Mail
September 29, 2018

At just 22, Buffy Sainte-Marie was boarding and disembarking flights across North America, performing for intimate crowds in not-yet legendary folk coffee houses of the sixties, when she made a preternatural decision.

In her purse she began carrying with her, recorded on cassettes, the voices of then-unknowns: Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Sainte-Marie, only just coming to prominence in the United States, hoped to deliver the urgent and bursting poetry of her young peers to gatekeepers she’d earned access to, who might open doors for them.

This is just one of many quietly revealing moments readers ought to pause to consider in Andrea Warner’s new authorized biography, which illustrates how the iconic singer-songwriter, activist and educator changed the landscape of modern music not only with her idiosyncratic voice and self-taught, compositional style, but with her ears – and her capacity to lift others.

Mitchell, decades later, would go on to write the foreword for this very book: “Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of folk music’s unsung heroes and her inspirational life is a story that deserves to be read.”

Longtime fans and careful listeners of Sainte-Marie’s will find details that are charming and relatable, as well as heartbreaking and never before discussed in previous interviews.

The book doesn’t read like your typical sixties music biography, as such tropes wouldn’t match Sainte-Marie’s ascension: There are no lurid tales of adultery or drug-fuelled parties either legendary, regrettable or both. The collection’s selling point isn’t in the salacious or tragic, but instead may be found in a direct pondering and revisiting of years past, in the way a long conversation over a cup of tea might be absorbed.

Those who are familiar with Warner’s work as a CBC music journalist, will recognize her writing tone – one that welcomes us to imagine what the 60-some hours of phone conversations between Buffy Sainte-Marie and the author that preceded the book itself, might have sounded like.

"We talked twice a week, for two hours each time,” Warner says. The two spoke on the phone regularly over the nearly two-month stretch, with Warner calling from Vancouver and Sainte-Marie based in Hawaii.

Eventually they met in person, on tour, and in Warner’s neighbourhood, at a cat café, where Sainte-Marie quickly settled in on the floor, instantly connecting with a handful of cats, as naturally as if she were at home.

For Sainte-Marie, the experience of revisiting the story of her life (up to now – it’s by no means slowed down) has been akin to this: “Confirmation. Like a movie of your wedding. It’s such a blur while it’s going on that seeing it later kinda anchors it down to reality.”

“For working musicians on the road, we don’t experience the calendar rhythms of weekdays-weekends work-rest around which most people build their lives and snapshots,” Sainte-Marie writes in an e-mail.

“So I kind of lack the usual life milestones and goal posts that would mark a personal linear ‘album.’”

This – being expected to divulge the most intimate details of one’s life, only to end up crunched into a headline – is nothing new for Sainte-Marie. But the conversations with Warner were different. More spacious. There was time to unpack the full story,

With each passing week, Warner became more enamoured with her subject.

“[She’s] so incredibly smart … so down to earth. ... That’s Buffy.”

The interviews (Warner was armed with “a lifetime of questions”) often fell into natural conversations and eventually passed the slotted two-hour mark every time. In one exchange, Warner found herself explaining the term “gaslighting” to Sainte-Marie, who she knew had likely experienced it herself without having a word for it.

In the book, Sainte-Marie describes the core of her activism, “decolonization,” the same way. “We knew what it was, we just didn’t have a word for it.”

The musician’s quotes lift off the page. On the subject of being an educator, Warner writes that the artist is, “Gentle, but firm. Her words are an education, not a lecture.”

Buffy’s version: “You don’t give it to people in an enema.”

Warner’s narrative tracks Sainte-Marie’s life from birth on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Qu’Appelle, Sask., her childhood with her adopted family in the United States – the exact date and circumstances surrounding her adoption are unknown, a painful and common casualty of the time – and some five decades spent both in and out of the spotlight in good measure, across the United States and the world.

Born under the name Beverly (and still called so, fondly, by some old friends quoted in the book) the musician showed great promise in both singing and composing by the mere age of three. By university, she was playing guitar with the then yet-to-be discovered Taj Mahal, who sought her out in the stairwell of the University of Massachusetts where she studied.

Sainte-Marie’s memories and observations, in her own words, are tidily and poetically inserted throughout the book, in interludes that appear between chapters.

“I’m surprised I get any credit,” one such interlude begins, a stunningly raw admission in itself, given that it’s coming from a legendary singular talent who has been largely overlooked in the North American cultural canon of musical heroes and activist groundbreakers.

Sainte-Marie isn’t digging for compliments. She’s simply sharing a straightforward personal take: demonstrating a rare, deep humility and groundedness from someone who has been famous since the beginning of her adulthood. It’s often been suggested in popular culture that celebrities who rise to fame at a young age are somehow fossilized at that nascent age, if not lost to the ravages of fame.

If anything, Sainte-Marie, or what we can conjure of her from the pages and from her music, seems to have manifested just the opposite – somehow spanning both youthful exuberance and wisdom in her 78th year.

Warner, for her part, explains her subject’s omission from our mainstream cultural touchstones in this way: “Music journalism was white, straight, male for so long,” she says plainly. “It’s not that people want to exclude her voice, I think they just didn’t understand . . . or listen . . . or analyze their own complicity in it.”

But Sainte-Marie holds no bitterness. In fact, she sees the arrival of this book as a kind of introduction.

“I’m pretty serious for somebody who has so much fun and I’m a lot of fun for somebody who has also engaged with tragedy.”

The admiration isn’t one sided either. Sainte-Marie has plenty of good things to say about Warner.

“Because Andrea captures that merry side of me that many writers either have not gotten in the first place, or have seen edited down in favour of a heavy-handed headline, it is kind of a public coming-out of my merry side.”

Merriment and perseverance together – the image Warner’s writing casts is one of an insightful leader, whose commitment to joy in learning has only grown over the years. This is at the heart of the biography – one which arguably is decades overdue.

– Maggie Rahr
The Globe and Mail
September 29, 2018


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: “Things Do Change and Things Do Get Better”
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)
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 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 SongsET 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).

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