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Legendary Native American Singer-Songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie on Five Decades of Music, Activism

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As we head into the Memorial Day weekend, Buffy Sainte-Marie returns to the Democracy Now! studios. Her song “Universal Soldier” became one of the classic antiwar songs of the 1960s. Buffy Sainte-Marie once said, “It’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.” Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote the song in 1964. A year later, just months after U.S. ground forces invaded Vietnam, the British singer Donovan turned it into a hit. She has also written and sung about the struggles of Native American and First Nations people for decades. She worked with the American Indian Movement and began the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education. Her political activism would lead her to be largely blacklisted from commercial radio in the 1970s. On her new album, she re-records two songs from what’s become known as her “blacklist years.” Five decades later, Buffy Sainte-Marie is still making powerful music. She has just released “Power in the Blood.” It’s her first studio album since 2008.

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Video squareStoryNov 26, 2009Democracy Now! Special: An Hour of Music and Conversation with Legendary Native American Singer-Songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie
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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The legendary Native American folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie singing in our Democracy Now! studio in 2009. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, today, as we head into the Memorial Day weekend, Buffy Sainte-Marie returns to the Democracy Now! studios. That song, “Universal Soldier,” has become one of the classic antiwar songs of the 1960s. She once said, “It’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.” Buffy Sainte-Marie wrote the song in 1964. A year later, just months after U.S. ground forces invaded Vietnam, the British singer Donovan turned it into a hit. Five decades later, she is still making powerful music. She has just released Power in the Blood. It’s her first studio album since 2008.

AMY GOODMAN: Buffy Sainte-Marie has led a remarkable life. She was born in 1941 on the Piapot Cree First Nations Reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. She grew up in Massachusetts after becoming an orphan. In the early '60s, she became a leading figure in the Toronto and Greenwich Village folk scenes. Her song “Until It's Time for You to Go” was recorded by everyone from Elvis Presley to Barbara Streisand to Neil Diamond. She has also written and sung about the struggles of Native American and First Nations people for decades. She worked with the American Indian Movement and began a foundation for American Indian education. Her political activism would lead her to be largely blacklisted from commercial radio in the '70s. On her new album, she re-records two songs from what's become known as her “blacklist years.”

Buffy Sainte-Marie, welcome back to Democracy Now!

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell us about your new album. It’s great to have you back in our, well, for you, new studio.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Thanks.

AMY GOODMAN: And how you incorporate the past into the present.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, the new album is called Power in the Blood. And after I last saw you, I had put together a band, and I told them that we were going on a two-year world tour, and all of a sudden it was like five or six years into a two-year world tour. And True North Records came to me and said, “Do want to make a record?” So we had been doing all these songs, new ones, old ones, songs that either had been forgotten or had never made it to airplay in the first place, and a lot of new ones, as well. So I was just ready to record. So that’s what this album is about.

“Power in the Blood” itself is—has some very, very strong words about contemporary issues: GMOs and fracking and war. And it was actually a song written and originally recorded by a group called Alabama 3, who you might know for the theme song from The Sopranos: “Woke up this morning, got myself a gun.” And it was saying, “And when that call it comes, I will be ready for war.” So they’re friends of mine. I said, “This would make a great peace song.” So I changed the words, updated it. And I said, “And when that call it comes, I will say no, no, no to war.”

Another song on the album is called “Carry It On.” It’s super positive. It’s about contemporary stuff. It says, “Hold your head up. Lift the top of your mind. Put your eyes on the Earth. Lift your heart to your own home planet. What do you see? What is your attitude? Are you here to improve or damn it? Look right now and you will see, we’re only here by the skin of our teeth as it is, so take heart and take care of your link with Life. It ain’t money that makes the world go round. That’s only temporary confusion. It ain’t governments that make the people strong. It’s the opposite illusion. Look right now and you will see, they’re only here by the skin of our teeth as it is, so take heart and take care of your link with, Life is beautiful, if you got the sense to take care of your source of perfection. Mother Nature, she’s the daughter of God and the source of all protection. Look right now and you will see she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is, so take heart and take care of your link with Life. And carry it on. And keep playing. And keep praying. And carry it on.”

So this is an album of contemporary issues, involving some updated songs, some new songs, some songs by me and some songs by other people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, since your last album, the music world has been changing quite a bit. Could you talk—I’m wondering your sense of how music has been changing, the production of albums. And, you know, now with Taylor Swift and Beyoncé becoming the big names these days, what’s happened to the music world?

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I don’t know. I don’t think the music industry changes a whole lot. Stars may rotate, but it’s—there’s an awful lot of corporate push between some people and not other people. I think there’s always an undercurrent of artists who are really truly unique, and there’s only—you know, and 80 percent of people who are following whatever’s hot at the moment. But I think writers continue to write, sometimes addressing contemporary issues and sometimes not.

I just think the whole world in general has come a long way since I saw you last, in that I think the general population is more awake now. There are a lot more people who are afraid right now, but it’s because they’ve opened their eyes, you know, thanks to a lot of people like yourselves. People are acknowledging what the issues are. But still, you know, as in the case of “Universal Soldier,” still, if you look at our world today, we have five heavily funded colleges of war, and we don’t have one such serious, properly funded college that teaches alternative conflict resolution. I mean, in India, people made changes because Gandhi taught them about alternative conflict resolution. There are a lot of things that people ought to be learning right now, because people are awake, but they don’t have the tools, the true tools, for making change right now. And I am always telling people, don’t put yourself in the position of suicide by going up against somebody who’s going to outgun you, whether it’s an army, a security force, a police force. We have to learn how to do things in a different way, in order that we’re not just killing ourselves while we try to make change.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play something from the new album, Power in the Blood. This is your song, Buffy Sainte-Marie, “It’s My Way.”

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I’m cutting my own way thru my own day
and all I dare say is it’s my own
I got my own seeds I got my own weeds
I got my own harvest that I’ve sown
Now I can tell you things I’ve done
and I can sing you songs I’ve sung
But there’s one thing I can’t give
for I and I alone can live
the years I’ve known and the life I’ve grown
I got a way I’m going and it’s my way

AMY GOODMAN: “It’s My Way,” from Power in the Blood, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s new song. Talk about using a song you recorded 50 years ago and incorporating it into this new song.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, it’s a song that we were doing on the road all the time anyway, and I decided to re-record it. Really, that song is about self-identity. And although I’m talking about myself, I’m really hoping to encourage the self-identity of people in the audience to explore their own uniqueness. And there just doesn’t seem to be very much that encourages a person’s continual growth, continual exploration of their own world. So really it’s encouraging other people’s uniqueness. I mean, that’s what we really need. And yet I think there’s so little encouragement given to what I’ll call positive mutation. And I think, really, every single person is ripening all the time. I mean, you and me, the guys we’re not so sure about, I think everybody is ripening just little by little.

And when I look back 50 years, we’ve made a lot of great changes. A lot of things are really good right now. But you’re always going to have racketeers at any—you know, racketeers have been going on since before the Old Testament. But at the same time, there have always been people like Jesus. There have been people like Gandhi. There have been people like Martin Luther King. There are people out in the audience right now who have—who are the hope of the future. We’re not hearing about them yet. But really, I think all of us, that’s the one thing we can do: We can encourage it in ourselves. New thinking.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of what can be heard and what can’t be heard, can you talk about being blacklisted during the '60s? I mean, on Monday, we're going to be playing this extraordinary panel that Juan moderated in Washington, D.C., with Ron Dellums, who was head of the House Armed Services Committee, Oakland congressmember, former Oakland congressmember; Pat Schroeder, one of the youngest women to be elected to Congress, from Colorado; and Tom Hayden; Wayne Smith, who was a Vietnam medic. So, it’s the 40th anniversary of the end of the war, 50th anniversary of the U.S. invading South Vietnam. When you were singing about it, what happened? Why was it difficult to hear your songs?

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, I didn’t know at the time, but I found out 20 years later that apparently the Johnson administration, the Nixon administration, apparently, they drowned my career, the career of Eartha Kitt. Taj Mahal had problems. And I was told by a radio broadcaster live on the air at the beginning of an interview—this was in the ’80s. I mean, Lyndon Johnson was and Richard Nixon were gone. A Democratic administration and a Republican administration apparently had drowned a lot of careers for being outspoken.

And I don’t think it was just that I had written “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” I think it was because I had gotten famous and was shooting my mouth off on The Tonight Show. It was because I had magazine covers. I mean, Billboard magazine had named me Best New Artist on the year that The Beatles came to America. So there was—I had a lot going on. But I did. I spoke out. And when “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” which is just a pop love song, when it was being recorded by, as you mentioned, Elvis Presley and everybody, I was getting big-time publicity, and I was talking about the fact that there was a war in Vietnam. And later on, during the Nixon administration, I was talking about what was going on at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, and in the American Indian movement.

So sometimes people will ask me, they say, “Well, doesn’t that make you hate the U.S. government?” And it doesn’t. It has nothing to do with the U.S. government. It’s not as though an act of Congress is passed and Eartha Kitt and Buffy Sainte-Marie get wiped out of airplay forever and ever. No. It’s a few guys in the administration who make nasty phone calls from the back room. It’s networking. It’s personal phone calls to the media. I mean, I was never allowed to play in Indian country, you know, because who owned the newspapers? Who owned the theaters? Who owned TV and radio? The same guys who owned the big resource companies who were exploiting Native American people and lands.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And yet, thanks to PBS and Sesame Street, at the same time that some were trying to silence you, they gave you the opportunity to speak to a whole generation of folks. I think we may actually have a clip of when you were on Sesame Street. You were a regular there from '76 to ’81, including a week of shows from your home in Hawaii. This is a clip from one of those episodes, when you sing, “I'm an Indian Wherever I Go.”

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, first there was the Hawaiian land,
the Big Blue Ocean and the sunny sand.
And then in boats that they made by hand came the Hawaiians.
And they brought the aloha.

I’m an Indian wherever I go,
Hawaiian sun or Canada snow.
And when I’m in Hawai’ine,
I’m still in Indian. Eya Eya.

In Hawaii, the Hawaiians are the kings and queens,
or anyway, that’s what I’ll sing.
They welcome everybody so fine,
and I respect them. Eya Eya.

Now you got one grandmother from the coast of Asia
and another from a South Seas bay.
You got one grandfather from right here
and another from the U.S.A. Hey, hey, hey.

That’s the way in Hawai’ine
Everybody come, and some folks stay.
Bring a little aloha to Hawaii.
I’m an Indian wherever I go,
Hawaiian sun or Canada snow.
And when I’m in Hawai’ine,
I’m still in Indian. Eya Eya.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Buffy Sainte-Marie singing “I’m an Indian Wherever I Go” on Sesame Street. The impact that your performances there, your appearances there, had in terms of young people in America, and in the minute that we have left, where you’re going to be performing next?

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, we’ve been on—this is the—we have one more concert in Schenectady, New York. This is the very end of a month-long tour. Last month we went all the way around the world. And next month we’re going across Canada.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact of Sesame Street in terms of—

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Well, Sesame Street was a place that I could go and take the same positive message about Native American people to 72 countries of the world three times a day. They never stereotyped me. We did things about Native American culture. We also did things on breast feeding, on sibling rivalry, on raising kids—

AMY GOODMAN: You had your son Cody on.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yes, my son Cody was on, yeah. He’s a big grown-up guy now.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you hope to be doing now, as you go on this tour, the message you’re spreading? You were fighting the Vietnam War. You were blacklisted. We’re now in the midst of—well, I don’t know if we can count the number of wars we’re involved with in the Middle East.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah. I really am on a campaign to appreciate the good things that we have going on right now, which is really being awake. I have been to the Alberta tar sands, where fracking—you know, it’s fracking central. I’ve seen it. It’s much worse than I could have imagined.

AMY GOODMAN: We have five seconds.

BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE: I live in Hawaii. GMO is everywhere. They’re spreading pesticides, spraying them all over us, and it’s very, very serious. So, thank you, people, for being awake. Please stay positive. Please put down violence. Step up. Learn alternative conflict resolution.

AMY GOODMAN: Buffy Sainte-Marie, thanks so much for being with us, Canadian First Nations singer, songwriter and activist.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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