Canada 1977: Buffy Sainte-Marie – Chatting With A Trailblazer

With my first day of school and my fifth birthday both fast approaching as September 1977 drew near, my daily doses of The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dress-Up and Sesame Street were slowly coming to an end, but not before I would meet an iconic Canadian singer who would spend six seasons with the original Sesame Street cast.

Buffy Sainte-Marie had already released sixteen albums, toured extensively across North America, and woven her way into the songbook of humanity with such memorable, outspoken and unapologetic creations as “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” “Universal Soldier” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying.”

But when I discovered Buffy as a pre-schooler, she was introducing aboriginal culture and customs to the Muppets on a daily basis while doting on her real-life baby son, Dakota Starblanket Wolfchild. (I somehow managed to miss the groundbreaking Sesame Street clip in which she’s breastfeeding her son in front of an inquisitive Big Bird – you can check it out here).

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Three decades (and an Academy Award) later, as Buffy prepared to make her first trip to the Stan Rogers Folk Festival in Canso, Nova Scotia, I got the chance to interview her for my newspaper job at The Reporter. Engaging, enlightening and often just plain fun, Buffy delivered such a great interview that I saved the original transcript. So here’s that June 2008 phone chat in its entirety:

Q: What did you think when you found out you were confirmed to play the Stan Rogers Festival in Canso? Does that have a special meaning for you?

A: “Oh, definitely. I’ve always been a fan of his music, and I think it’s just wonderful that a small place like Canso would be doing such a big event. It’s not easy to put on a folk festival, you know.”

Q: You’ve done the circuit, you’ve been to so many of these types of shows, so what does it mean for you to play at this festival that’s grown from this little fishing town to earn worldwide recognition? Is that exciting for you?

A: “It sure is. The way that my life has been in ‘Le Showbiz’ (laughs) has been to combine big fancy concerts in Sydney, Australia or Stockholm, Sweden, and then I get on a plane and I’m out somewhere in the Arctic, or I’m out in the bush with aboriginal people. For me, it’s always nice to combine smaller places with the cities that I get to visit. It’s just beautiful, and it’s always different. And I think if you’re at a certain level as a pop star, you don’t necessarily get to do these types of things.”

Q: That comment reminds me that, when I recently checked out your website, it said that you had scaled back your performing to about 20 performances a year. Is that right?

A: “Actually, that was true for a couple of years, and now I’m back just running around the world again. I’m doing twice as many shows now, and I have an album coming out.”

Q: Running For The Drum,’ right?

A: “That’s right. But we decided to change the release date because my bio-documentary, A Multi-Media Life, is coming out in the fall, and we had to wait until it was finished with its run on Bravo and it’s currently running on APTN. Those runs will be finished in the fall, so we’re putting out the album and the DVD out at the same time.”

Q: So what can we expect on this new album?

A: “Well, I’ve always had albums that are really diverse in style – there’s a country song next to a protest song, and then there’s a big love song, so this next one is also a real diverse collection of songs, as will the (StanFest) concert be. There’s a lot of songs you can dance to, and a lot are hard-hitting songs about social issues, and a lot are just big fall-in-love-with-whoever-you’re-dancing-with love songs.”

Q: You’ve had that versatility all through your life, from “Universal Soldier” to the more pop-oriented songs in the ‘90s, “Fallen Angels” and “The Good Ones Get Away” and things like this – it seems like whatever style of music you pick, you throw your heart into it, so I’m not surprised to hear there’s a good mix in this album and in this performance.

A: “Thank you. Somebody did his homework! You get an ‘A’!” (laughs)

Q: “Somebody” has remembered Buffy Saint-Marie from when he was just a little boy, watching her on Sesame Street

A: “Oh, did you? (laughs) You know, I just came from Ottawa, and I did WestFest there and we had 15,000 people, and the street newspaper – the free newspaper you get at the little kiosks – they had a full front-page photo of me with Grover! It was just so cute blown up like that!”

Q: That’s adorable! Do you still have good memories from the Sesame Street years?

A: “Oh yeah. I still keep in touch with some of the cast – I’m real good friends with Sonia Manzano, who played Maria, and I have very good memories. I was on Sesame Street for five and a half years, and I’ve got all the respect in the world for them.”

Q: The fellow playing Big Bird, Carroll Spinney, is 74 this year (2008).

A: “I can’t believe it! And not only did he play Big Bird, he played Oscar as well. And he always used to joke that it was two sides of his own personality – he’s really a sweetheart.”

Q: A&E in the States did a big two-hour documentary about Sesame Street, and they spent about ten minutes just talking to Carroll Spinney, so it was a great time.

A: “Between that show and Laugh-In…It was such a special time. Even radio playlists were very diverse, and you could hear Mississippi Delta Blues recorded in the ‘30s next to flamenco and next to 400-year-old Welsh folk songs, and next to contemporary songwriters. I think people who lived through that kind of diversity were very lucky – it was very healthy and we had a lot of fun.”

Q: I wanted to ask you about those days, because before I called you tonight I got a call from a friend of mine in Vermont who is also a musician and a music journalist and writer, and he played a coffee house in Greenwich Village years ago. Some young lady named Joni Mitchell happened to come up after him after he played – I don’t know whatever happened to her, of course…

A: (Laughs) “You know, I carried her cassette tape in my purse for about two years to get someone interested in her, and finally, a young fellow who worked in the agency that I worked at listened to her tape and fell in love with it – that’s Elliott Robertson and they made a career together.”

Q: That’s incredible! Just to get back to that show in Greenwich Village – he and Joni Mitchell were singing that night, but he told me “Buffy Saint-Marie was in the audience at that coffee house.” His name is Tom Hill – I don’t know if you would remember the name, because it was 40 years ago – but I thought it was just bizarre that he wound up being at that show with you and Joni back in the ‘60s.

A: “Isn’t that something!”

Q: It’s incredible, really. But let’s go ‘back to the future’ and talk a bit more about the Stan Rogers Festival. Have you made many appearances in the Maritimes over the years, or is this a rare one for you?

A: “No, I’ve been to Nova Scotia many times. I’ve also been to PEI, and to Newfoundland and Labrador. I was raised in Maine, so the whole feel of the Maritime scene – the forests, the people, the smell of the ocean, the lobster and fried clams – always appealed to me. (Laughs) So anytime I get a chance to come to Atlantic Canada, I’m there.”

Q: Have you already planned for your feed of lobster and fried clams when you get to Canso?

A: “I haven’t got it planned out. You wanna be my conspirator?”

Q: My pleasure. I’ll make sure you get seconds!

A: “You might want to think that over. I can demolish a lobster in seconds – now you see it, now you don’t, it’s gone!”

Q: (Laughs) Well, I can’t imagine you get lobster like that in Hawaii…

A: “No, we don’t. It’s totally different here, because the water is so warm. I mean, we get a lot of nice seafood, but not that. That’s something special. But, besides the lobster and besides performing, I’ve also been to your part of the world as an educator, doing aboriginal teaching projects, and I also had my paintings appearing at Dalhousie University. My paintings went on tour – they were at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and then they went to Dalhousie. So people may know me for wearing more than just one hat.”

Q: Well, I’m glad you brought all that up because it’s obvious that you’ve had a wide-ranging impact on the promotion of aboriginal music and culture across North America, to the point where the Junos put in an Aboriginal Album category just before they inducted you into their Hall of Fame in 1995. What are your impressions of the current aboriginal music scene in Canada and how it seems to be accepted into mainstream musical culture? How do you think things have gone, even in the last 15 years since that Juno category came in?

A: “Well, it’s kind of a dream come true for me in a way, because I was doing ‘powwow rock’ since the ‘60s, and combining traditional music and traditional subject matter with contemporary feels of all kinds. So to see other people doing it as well is really a thrill, and also to see the diversity on the aboriginal music scene. They’re playing in country genres, hip-hop, rock and roll, protest music, spoken-word – it’s really great to see. The concert I just did in Ottawa was all aboriginal women, and it was really nice.”

Q: Who else were you playing with?

A: “Oh, let’s see…Lucie Idlout, Leela Gilday, Kinnie Starr, Holly McNarland…It was really nice.”

Q: It seems like it has meant so much to you, when you talk about heading over to schools and speaking to young artists and young students – this sounds like something that excites you and still brings such passion to you.

A: “It does. I mean, the songs are all about whatever happens in life and whatever happens to me – they’re kind of like a camera, I guess. And it’s always been that way for me, but now I can use the technology to my advantage. I’ve been concentrating on acoustic music, art and writing since the ‘60s – I mean, there was nowhere to go with electronic music except for film scoring. But then, when the MacIntosh came along, it was just such a blessing for me because I could take my work – whether it was my visual art, my music, my writing, or my business – and put it onto a little floppy disk and leave Hawaii and fly to Toronto and go to one of the MacIntosh or Apple stores and rent a computer and keep going. So it’s really been a great development for me to have those options.”

Q: You mentioned earlier that you were a fan of Stan Rogers. What were your impressions of his voice and his style?

A: “I loved his voice. It’s just beautiful – his sense of pitch and timing and clarity. It’s so communicative, and just warm and listenable. But as a songwriter, we shared some things in common.”

Q: What were the common threads between you and Stan?

A: “Well, I was called a ‘folk singer’ even though I wasn’t – I was a songwriter. But what we have in common is that not only are we both songwriters, when you look back on our work, but we’re also influenced by the very best of folk songs. People don’t think about it, but what makes a folk song last for generations? Why is ‘Greensleeves’ always so great? You can hear it in any language and on any instrument, and it’s always going to be great, it’s a classic. To be influenced by real folk songs that have been cared for, generation after generation – kind of like an antique chair is cared for, generation after generation, because it’s both useful and beautiful – it was such an example for me. And listening to his music, I get the same feeling. He might be writing songs about some historical event, or it might be a story song, or it might be a folk song, but you just get the idea that you understand what it’s about, it’s very well-crafted, and it’s going to last for a long, long time. And, of course, you’ve got ‘Rolling Down To Old Maui,’ and even though he didn’t write it, he sang it so well. And he had the Celtic style down pat.”

Q: Are you naturally drawn to Celtic music?

A: “Oh yeah, I like Celtic music. In the ‘60s, before anybody had ever heard of me, I was travelling around in a car throughout Wales and England and Scotland and Ireland, sometimes with Paul Simon and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Gary Davis, and we’d be travelling around doing concerts. And in my off time, I would seek out obscure folk songs. Some of the most beautiful Celtic harmonies sounded a little bit like what I was doing in North America, because I tune my guitar all upside-down and inside-out. So there’s a lot for me to like in Stan’s music.”

Q: Listening to you talking about how folk music can be like an “antique chair,” I’m just wondering if you’re excited about coming to the Stan Rogers Festival and seeing so many singers and players from across the continent and around the world, and just basically getting in on the ground floor and seeing what so many other people are writing and singing these days.

A: “Always, always. Sometimes it’s hard to be well-known – you’re wishing you had a bag to put over your head, because you’re watching the show and you’re enjoying the music, and someone comes up and they want to chat.”

Q: “You’re Buffy Saint-Marie!”

A: “(Laughs) Yeah, exactly. But that’s really the great pleasure of coming to a folk festival where there are a lot of artists, is hearing what everybody brings to the festival.”

Q: Exactly. Well, we’ve covered a lot of ground here, Buffy, but the only other thing I wanted to ask you about is the fact that you’ve actually increased the number of shows you’ve been doing over the past couple of years. What is performing like for you these days? I get the feeling that you’re almost rediscovering yourself at this point – what does this crazy journey mean to you right now?

A: “It’s always the same for me – I’m always writing, I’m always recording at home, I’m always doing paintings. The only difference is that when I open the blinds and let other people look in at my work, then I get on a lot more airplanes and make a lot more appearances. But it’s not like I’m more productive now or that I’m working more now, just because I have this album coming out or the documentary DVD.”

Q: What else have you got on the go, after StanFest?

A: “In the summertime I’m appearing with the Detroit Symphony and I’m also doing the Montreal Jazz Festival and a whole bunch of concerts around them, in neighbouring areas, and some things in Prince George and Prince Rupert. Then I’m going to England and doing a few preview concerts of the new album, and then I’ll be coming back and doing 14 concerts across Canada with Richie Havens, and then the real work begins. I’ll go back to Europe for more concerts and then hit the States. So I’ll be very, very busy in the next year or so.”

Q: You’re not slowing down at all!

A: “No way! Uh-uh!” (Laughs)

Q: It strikes me that, in addition to your own success, you’ve played with some incredible people in your career – Richie Havens, Paul Simon – is there anybody left that you’d like to play with that you haven’t played with in your lifetime?

A: “You mean besides Elvis?” (Laughs)

Q: Besides Elvis. Well, we’ll find him somewhere. I think he’s working at a gas station in Guysborough, on the way down to Canso, so you might catch him there.

A: (Laughs) “Well, I think apart from my dream people who I’ve already worked with – Chet Atkins is a real good friend of mine, and it’s great to play with him – I wish I could have spent more time than I did around Miles Davis. Harry Belafonte and I worked together a few times, and that was just wonderful. He’s still such an incredible international ambassador.”

Q: And he just turned 81 a few months ago (in the spring of 2008).

A: “I know! And he still looks great – he’s such an example of being a good person and being productive and being helpful to the world. I just love him. But for the most part, I haven’t collaborated very much with people. It was different with ‘Up Where We Belong,’ because the movies are so collaborative – you’re working with different people, the director, the producer, and all the musicians, and co-writers. And Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes really took it to the bank. But for the most part, I’m just kind of a recluse and a one-man band. It’s just me and the goats.” (Laughs)

Q: (Laughs) You mentioned “Up Where We Belong” – 25 years ago you shared in that song and won an Oscar for that. It still holds a special place in so many hearts these days – what has it meant to you to be part of a song like that, where even singing a few notes of it on a stage somewhere, the crowd goes crazy?

A: (Laughs) “It’s great! It’s major, you know? (Giggles) Somebody who’s never heard of me before and they’re sitting next to me on an airplane, I mention that song, they know exactly who I am. That’s really nice. But that song was funny, because the music was just a little melody that I wrote at my piano one day. And Jack Nitzsche, who was scoring An Officer And A Gentleman, didn’t have a main theme – he couldn’t come up with a song or a main theme – so he asked me what I had been writing, and I played him that. And then, of course, Will Jennings is the one who really put it all together, piecing it with Jack’s music and the rest was my melodies. So it really was a collaboration.”

Q: And what a collaboration!

A: “You never know what can come from that one little melody.”

Q: Exactly – those first few notes can make all the difference. Well, I can’t thank you enough for giving me some time today, Buffy – this has been absolutely delightful and it’s an opportunity I honestly never thought I would ever have.

A: “Well, thank you, Adam. Thanks a lot!”

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Footnote: I caught up to Buffy at the Stan Rogers Folk Festival grounds in Canso shortly after her second of two workshop stages; she was every bit as gracious and energetic in person as she was on the phone. Today, as she prepares to celebrate her 76th birthday on February 20, she’s still touring across North America.

By the way, apart from this picture and the Sesame Street photos, all the other pictures in this blog post are from Buffy’s official Web site, which you can visit here.

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