An Interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie – HuffPost 8.13.09

You most likely know Buffy Sainte-Marie from her many Vanguard folk albums or instantly identifiable hits. She’s penned An Officer And A Gentleman‘s Academy Award-winning theme song “Up Where We Belong” (released by Joe Cocker & Jennifer Warnes), plus the classics “Piney Wood Hills” (recorded by country legend Bobby Bare), “Cod’ine” (covered by Donovan, The Charlatans, and Quicksilver Messenger Service), and “Until It’s Time For You To Go” that was immortalized by Elvis Presley then later, Neil Diamond. But Buffy Sainte-Marie is a part of our culture beyond music, having appeared on Sesame Streetsemi-regularly between 1976 and 1981, having been married to creative powerhouse Jack Nitzsche, and having promoted and campaigned for environmental and social issues as well as the collective interests of Native Americans and First Nations for at least four decades. To this day, her peace anthem and hit from the sixties, “Universal Soldier”–also covered by the likes of Donovan, Glen Campbell, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, The Highwaymen, and even Chumbawamba–enjoys continued airplay (especially as a bumper) on NPR and Pacifica stations, it originally having been written as a reaction to the Vietnam War. This being Woodstock Week and with topics on Buffy’s newly-released album Running For The Drumranging from activist anthems to mature love songs, it seemed a perfect time to catch-up with the artist, her music having directly or indirectly influencing many of those that appeared at the culture-changing event.

Mike Ragogna: Buffy, you’ve always been associated with a class of folk artists that includes Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Eric Andersen, Fred Neil, and many other mid- to late-sixties troubadours. But your influence reaches beyond that genre, to those acoustic artists that later became pop music’s “singer-songwriters,” many of them moved by the depth and commitment of your material.

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Thank you, I always thought that the art of the three-minute song is almost like journalism. Sometimes you can say something in that amount of time that would take somebody else a four-hundred page book that would just wind up on some shelf. It’s so direct and immediate.

MR: That passion they admired is very strong throughout your new album, a perfect example being its socially-charged opening track “No No Keshagesh.”

BSM: I’m writing all the time, and as a songwriter, I always think of myself as somebody with a camera taking snapshots of what’s going on. The spirit behind “No No Keshagesh” and “Working For The Government” is the same that inspires the songs on my albumCoincidence And Likely Stories which are very much along the same lines politically. They’re kind of crystal clear photographs with a unique perspective because I’m so fortunate to have airplane tickets in my life, and I get to travel to reservations, to cities, and from one country to another. So the spirit behind some of these songs–you know, there’s really not a good name for it, “social consciousness” just sounds so stuffy and “protest” is not quite right. But these songs are always around because things like environmental greed are always bubbling under the surface.

MRRunning For The Drum is pretty clear on its politics, but it also has many different styles with a nice balance of love songs.

BSM: Though I’m writing in that vein, I’m also still writing those love songs, country songs and fun songs–like the one that sounds like an Elvis Presley tune (“Blue Sunday”), and the one I did with Taj Mahal (“I Bet My Heart On You”). It’s always a big mix with me but I’m always seeing that socially conscious, environmental protection point of view.

MR: Some complain change is coming too slowly, but do you feel like we’re on the verge of some major changes?

BSM: Absolutely! And what’s beautiful about it is we’re all a part of it. You know, I campaigned for President Obama, so you’re preaching to the choir here. [Laughs] What impressed me is not that he was from my home state of Hawaii or that he’s half black/half white, but that he’s a professor of constitutional law with great experience in communities. To me, that’s a very, very significant qualification. I think he’s the most highly qualified person to ever be in the White House…I mean, a professor of constitutional law…who’d a-thunk it, you know?

I know about our own impatience and about how slowly it takes to do things right, but I’m as hopeful as I was before the election, in spite of the ups and downs and daily life. I think things are getting better everywhere, even though we had eight years when we didn’t hear anybody’s really heartfelt, well thought-out viewpoints. Everyone was kind of muffled and quiet and a little sacred. During those campaign days, I met thousands of people who’d been holding their enthusiasm and their positivity in check out of fear. So to have campaigned among people who really had it together and who were just waiting for the right moment said so much to me.

MR: And with the exception of folks like Jon Stewart, Keith Olbermann, and some talk show hosts on Air America, the media mostly let those guys do what they wanted without challenging them.

BSM: Yes, yes, yes! Isn’t that something? If you’re lucky enough to be going back and forth between Indian reservations and the city, and if you travel to Europe, you can see the discrepancy between the American press during conservative administrations and the rest of the world’s take on us. It kind of stretches your mind. But to see the window shades open and the sun coming in…people who had once been huddling in the dark in fear in America are now vital and positive, willing and able to express the hopes and dreams of what came out of that election.

MR: In the past, you’ve received grants to educate the public on Native American issues, you’ve instituted various successful social programs, and served as a positive role model while appearing on Sesame Street. What are you up to these days and have the issues for Native Americans changed between then and now?

BSM: Actually, they’re the same. Regarding environmental and Native American issues, it used to be, like fifteen years ago, that you’d see Native American people standing on the side of the road with signs that said “Protect Mother Earth” and people would drive by and smirk. On Coincidence And Likely Stories, there are songs called “Disinformation” and “The Priests of The Golden Bull.” They point out things like how uranium waste is dumped onto Indian reservations, and the rest of the population doesn’t see it happen. But when you go to your kitchen and turn on your water tap, quickly you realize that we all belong to that same river. So very often, Indian reservations are the front line of things that will impact the general population later, whether it’s race issues, neglect, cheating, thievery done by people in office and, of course, environmental issues.

You know, when I first started out in the sixties, I was a young singer with too much money. I had all these airplane tickets connecting me with the great stages of the Americas, Asia and Europe. After I got done with a concert, I would fly up to the Arctic, to Scandinavia, and spend time with the Sami people there, or if I had a concert in New York, I’d be up at a Mohawk reservation. Same thing in Canada, New Zealand and Australia. So for a long time, I’ve used my concert career to connect me with indigenous people…just for the fun of it! I started an organization in the sixties called the Nihewan Foundation, and over the years, I developed it into something called The Cradleboard Teaching Project. We write core curriculum in science, geography, social studies, etc. from a North American Indian perspective. We offer it free online to educate everybody about us, mostly because it presents the Native American identity directly to students and teachers. And we were taking kids on the internet–before anyone knew the word “internet”–in the eighties. We connected a school in Hawaii with a school my cousin was running in Saskatchewan. We were setting up study partnerships between classes even then.

MR: So in addition to music, you spend an enormous amount of time on the project.

BSM: That’s my other job! I enjoy writing curriculum as much as writing songs only it’s multi-media. It’s all interactive multi-media curricula about Native American perspectives. They’re real school subjects, so they match national content standards. It’s not one of these deals where you study about how these Indians lived here and those Indians lived there, and it’s all beads and feathers and shallow, and not about anybody. This is about real subjects through Native American eyes. We’ve had tremendous support from the Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation and others over a ten-year period. Two years ago, our dream came true and we got to put it online free.

MR: Getting back to the album, so many records these days are made from a “one sound” generic approach, but on Running For The Drum, you use many different styles.

BSM: All of my albums have been real diverse, from my very first album all the way through since they’re made up of all the songs in my head when I’m putting it together. I think that came up in the sixties before everything got “genrefied,” you know, when record companies had to know which bin to put it in.

MR: The song “Little Wheel Spin And Spin” is a great example of our interconnectedness you spoke of earlier.

BSM: Right, and we’re all a part of it (the wheel). If we’re going to petty thieve the Five & Tens, at the same time, shouldn’t we be looking at politicians and corporate thieves? I mean, isn’t it all the same thing and shouldn’t we all be keeping an eye on that too? It’s all about individual responsibility, but so was “Universal Soldier.”

MR: “Universal Soldier” is considered one of the great “protest” songs. You really dig in when you write this kind of material.

BSM: When it comes to writing a song like that as opposed to “Up Where We Belong” or “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” it’s like writing a thesis for a professor, and I really want to get an “A” and she doesn’t like me very much. [Laughs] So I really try to make them thoughtful.

MR: What’s the story behind your rework of “America The Beautiful” and your singing it to Nasa’s Commander John Herrington?

BSM: That was fun! Nasa flew a lot of people from his tribe and me in for his ride. He’s a friend of mine and I’m very proud of him. Now, if you look that song up online, you’ll see that many people have written different verses, so I wrote my own and added that additional introduction and middle section. Our country is more than just nation states, it really is our country.

MR: In your notes for “Still This Love Goes On,” you say how you remind yourself of nature whenever you’re in a situation that removes you from it.

BSM: That’s my medicine. On Hawaii, we have this local navy base, and I have security clearance to go and use their telescopes. I’m an amateur astronomer, and when you look at the stars…or even when you spend time with your kitty cat in your lap…to me, it’s the most beautiful, natural phenomenon…the earth. It’s what connects us all together with everything and each other. Wherever you are in the world, nature is always there, even if it’s hidden for the moment. It’s a part of us and never goes away. To me, it relates person to person and people to people…we really have a lot in common.

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