Buffy Sainte-Marie has been singing truth to power for more than 50 years now. From her start in the early 1960s onward, Sainte-Marie has written about the tough issues of war, addiction, governmental abuse, and cultural genocide in songs like “Universal Soldier,” “Cod’ine,” “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” But she’s just as often covered matters of the heart in ever-popular tunes like “Until It’s Time for You to Go” and “Up Where We Belong.” Artists ranging from Chet Atkins and Cher to Roberta Flack and Courtney Love have sung her praises by covering her songs over the years while Sainte-Marie toiled away, writing and recording and fighting every good fight she came across.
Now, at 74, Sainte-Marie keeps it coming with Power in the Blood, a set that includes songs which are both new and old, political and pondering. No one has ever been able to pin Sainte-Marie down, and this album continues that tradition. With more fire and less folk, it brings her music and mindset all the way into the 21st century — even opening an updated rendering of “It’s My Way,” a tune she first recorded back in 1964.
You’ve been singing out about all kinds of injustices your whole career, even reprising and revisiting decades-old songs and issues on your new album. Do you get frustrated by how little things of substance have changed over your lifetime … especially for non-white people?
No, because I see a lot of progress everywhere I look. The racketeers have been doing their thing since before the Old Testament. On the other hand, there have always been people like Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King in every generation. So, I see current problems in an atmosphere of the continual ripening of the human species. I see good things all the time, at the same time as the old rackets continue to come and go. You know, I’ve been singing for about 50 years about joy, and about the countryside and nature, and about contemporary issues, and I think, little by little, things get better.
I was going to ask that, too … you cover a lot of ground with your songs, but is there a theme or a thread that runs through them all?
I guess the idea that I just mentioned which is kind of expressed in “We are circling. We are ripening. Together. Babies, elders, bozos, and angels. This is how we grow. This is how we get to know. This is sacred.” That’s kind of the theme. It kind of involves everybody. It’s not just seeing my side or somebody else’s side. It sees everything at once. I think, sometimes, artists are very privileged because, with airplane tickets and early technology, we get to have a global perspective at the same time as remaining local in our own communities. I think it gives us a big view of the whole human species and the times that we live in — which is always now. The future is right now. It doesn’t get any more future-y than right now. [Laughs]
[Laughs] You’re right. But considering how many issues there are to tackle — the environment, civil rights, war, social justice, economic inequality — do you ever get overwhelmed by it all or do you just break it down and take one thing at a time?
Yeah, I kind of do one thing at a time. But, in a certain day, I may think of all the things you just mentioned — environment and cultural issues, war … all of those challenges that we can list. But I counterbalance them with the feeling that I have of the continual ripening of the human species because I really feel that human beings are, basically, just young. I feel as though, every day, every one of us is ripening a little bit and the world is evolving. I think that each one of us is capable of being a good mutation. I think we’re all unique and, yet, the world has not really looked at it from that point of view — that’s the point of view of an artist with a global perspective.
And, in fact, the answer to all of those issues is essentially the same … if we could just take care of each other, be good to each other, then we could wash it all away.
Well, you know, it’s funny. Although we’re talking about music, we’re also talking about issues and some of my songs are about issues. For instance, I have spent time with my very own eyes and ears in Fort McMurray which is fracking central. It’s the tar sands in Alberta. In Hawai’i, I’m dealing with GMO issues, personally, in my own community where the GMO companies are suing us for objecting to their use of random, untested, unrestricted pesticides around schools and hospitals. We’re being sued for that.
So there are issues that accountants and lawyers will come up with to out-money us and to out-lawyer us, but the thing is, one way that it’s much better now is that we know what’s going on. Now, everybody can see. And it used to be that only a few of us could see. We could only see what was going on in our own local communities. So, although the issues may seem bigger right now, the good part of it is, now we all see what’s going on. And as we learn about it, I think we’re going to be able to find ways to continue to deal with problems better and better. But, I always tell people, “Well, what did you think? Just because you got an iPhone, things were going to change? The guys who oppress you also got their iPhones.” So, progress continues and that includes the bad guys, the good guys, and, hopefully, everybody is getting smarter … them, included.
Why was it important to you to pursue all the activism through your artistry rather than separating them out?
You mean why do I include activism among all my love songs and my Academy Award songs? This album, as well as all of my other albums, have been really diverse collections. “Not the Loving Kind” and “We Are Circling” are not the same as “Generation” and “Power in the Blood.” I think my songs that are about issues are enhanced and better understood in an environment of all the other points of view and songs that I write. I think it all goes together. I think if it were only a stereotypically angry album, that would suck. [Laughs]
Because life is not like that. Life is not one big complaint. Life is not just what we’re howling about that needs change. It’s also about what we’re succeeding in. It’s what continues to be beautiful. That’s kind of the way I see it. I think part of that is due to the fact that I’ve had a lot of college education and, therefore, been involved with a lot of different points of view and cultural perspectives. And the incredible privilege of having show business airplane tickets that have taken me to indigenous communities all over the world and great, sparkly stages of capitalist Europe. [Laughs] But I really do enjoy presenting a diverse collection of songs and ideas through the arts. I think it’s a great way to interact with people and encourage growth.
Well, it certainly gives you a bigger platform and a bigger megaphone …
It kind of does. But I was very lucky. When I saw the word “bluegrass,” all I could think of was how happy I was, but what a contrast it was to the people of the ’60s and ’70s when people found out that Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt had recorded “Universal Soldier” or that I had gone to Nashville at the invitation of Chet Atkins and played with Floyd Cramer and Grady Martin and some of Nashville’s best country musicians. A lot of people in New York thought, “Oh, she’s sold out to the rednecks.” [Laughs]
We can laugh about it now, but there really were people who lacked understanding that have since ripened into a better understanding about musicians and about how record companies tend to genre-fy everything. Basically, musicians from different cultures, different genres, different perspectives … we have a lot in common. I’ve really been blessed with having a lot of different people from different walks of life record my songs. That’s pretty flattering. [Laughs] When people like Dottie West and Bobby Bare and Neko Case and Crystal Gayle and Glen Campbell and Earl Scruggs and Chet Atkins and Elvis record your songs, it’s pretty humbling.
[Laughs] I bet! And you’ve had so much success through people covering your songs. Is it a little bit bittersweet that they get a bigger voice and more heard through other people than through your own voice? Or is it enough that they’re getting out there?
No, no. It’s really exciting. I don’t find it bittersweet at all. I find it sweet sweet. [Laughs] I could not have possibly reached the people and their audiences. What a compliment it is that somebody who’s from a real different background than myself thinks enough of the song to take it into their own life and teach it to their own musicians and give it to their own audiences. It’s really, really great. It’s very genuine to reach people through other artists, so I really take it as a compliment and a blessing.
Among the generations of artists under you, who do you see carrying the same torch forward? I know the Indigo Girls would probably be on the list.
Oh, yeah, for sure. They’re great. K’naan … oof! He’s hot! People who have recently covered my songs … Cam’ron and Young Thug — hip hop artists who point to me as being influential. There’s a young lady named Steph Cameron who’s traveling with us and opening for us on this Canada tour. There are a lot of young artists who are using their hearts and their brains, as well as their fingers, to make music. Music is about more than making money. It really can be about reaching people, inspiring people, pointing things out to people. More and more, I see it in young artists coming up.
That’s awesome. So, then, what’s the greatest victory you’ve witnessed and the greatest travesty?
Oh my goodness! Can I have 15 minutes to think about that? [Laughs] I think the thing that I still find kind of heartbreaking in my own career was the suppression that I didn’t know about but was going on in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Oh, when you got blacklisted … yeah.
Yeah. I didn’t know about it. I had no idea that kind of thing went on. Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party — I had both Johnson and Nixon make sure that my message did not get through. And it wasn’t my protest songs that were getting me into trouble. I was having huge success. I was being invited onto The Tonight Show and all. Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand were recording my love songs. So, when I would open my mouth and tell people about what was going on on the reservations … land was being stolen — uranium land, especially … when I would see certain unfairnesses, just the fact of audiences being denied the information that artists are trying to give them … I think it’s really sad. Not just for an artist’s career — that’s not the point.
The fact that that information can be blocked and withheld from people by powerful politicians. People would sometimes say, “Well, doesn’t that make you hate the government?” I’d say, “No. Of course not.” It’s just a handful of cronies who are elected into office and a couple of guys are making nasty phone calls in the back room. It’s not the government. It’s a four-year administration that sometimes is guilty of corruption and abuse of power. It happens every now and then. The good news now, though, is that more and more people are aware that this kind of thing can happen. And we do have the Internet to self-publish, to let people know what’s going on in our world. It’s a big world. There’s a lot of people in it. More and more, I think, even though the upper 1 percent has all the dollars, more and more of us are aware of what’s going on.
This article originally appeared on the Bluegrass Situation.