THURSDAY, APRIL 28—SHERATON NEW ORLEANS FAIS DO-DO STAGE, 4:25 P.M.
The inimitable Buffy Sainte-Marie released her debut album in 1964; the title, It’s My Way! was an early clue that the outspoken, innovative Cree singer-songwriter would carve a singular path. Over the next fifty years and change, Sainte-Marie became a folk icon, penning scathing topical songs about war, drugs and the unconscionable treatment of Native Americans by the government. “Universal Soldier,” an uncompromising protest song from the first album, is one of her best-known compositions; boldly, it places the responsibility for the violence of nations on the individuals who fight.
She also was an early adopter of technology, cutting the wonderfully witchy, spacey, synthy Illuminations in 1969—the first quadrophonic vocal record ever made. The list goes on: Even after her activism got her effectively blacklisted from American radio play, she endowed scholarships for Native American students, won an Oscar for the 1982 song “Up Where We Belong” (from “An Officer and a Gentleman”) and in the ’70s, was a regular cast member on Sesame Street.
After a seven-year absence from recording, in spring 2015 Sainte-Marie released Power in the Blood, her fifteenth studio album. Like its immediate predecessor Running for the Drum, it was critically lauded and nominated for a Juno award, one of her native Canada’s most prestigious honors in music. (Power in the Blood won 2015’s Polaris Music Prize, an award given to the best full-length album released in a given year by a Canadian artist in any genre; among others, she beat out Drake.)
Buffy Sainte-Marie plays the 2016 Jazz Fest at 4:25 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, on the Lagniappe Stage. She’ll be interviewed earlier that day, at 2:30 p.m., on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. On a recent afternoon, she called from her Hawaiian farm to discuss the new album, electronics, education, activism and more.
Your new album Power in the Blood is your first one in about seven years. What made you decide it was time to start recording new songs again?
Nothing, really. I put songs down just about every day. I’m in my studio a lot. I’m always writing songs. I’m always making home demos. But there’s no sense in putting out an album unless you have the support of, you know, the big business giants of the recording industry. There’s just no sense. It’ll just get lost. So actually True North Records went to my manager and said did I feel like recording? And he called me up and I said, I’ve got all these songs that I’m doing night after night that audiences are just loving, so I was ready. It’s funny, because some of the songs I do night after night, that people love, are actually songs that I had recorded. Like, ‘It’s My Way’ I had recorded on my first album. But it’s still so contemporary, and people could never find it. So instead of having audiences go scurrying around through fifty years of my recordings, a few of them I just re-did. Some songs were too early for their time when I first put them out. For instance, ‘Carry It On,’ I wrote it in the ’70s, and it’s about the environment. It’s about things that people really have on the front burner today. But at the time they didn’t, so it got no attention. So, the re-recording of some great songs… I think it’s a good thing for artists to do because great songs don’t stop being great just because you write another great one the next year.
Speaking of “Carry It On”—that’s one of a couple of older songs, like “It’s My Way,” too, that you recorded again on Power in the Blood. Do you find that as time goes by, you find new perspectives on songs you wrote a long time ago? Do they change for you in some way?
No. I think audiences, because of just the giant world forces of what’s going on in the media, and politics, and war and peace, et cetera, people are ripe to things at a certain time. And it used to be that I would put songs out when I would have the inspiration and the drive to give this to the audiences, but sometimes they weren’t ready. My first venture into electronics was in 1965. Not 1995, 1965. I put out an album called Illuminations [released in 1969]. And folk music purists didn’t know what to do with it. But a few years ago, Wired magazine named it one of the hundred albums that have set the world on fire. So again, I was very, very early with electronics. And the only place I could go with electronic music was into film scoring, which I did for several years for a lot of movies.
What do you think of the ways digital tools have evolved, for musicians?
They’re finally catching up! To see other people, especially young people, having the opportunity to have their own studio in their own home—it used to be prohibitively expensive, and logistically huge. And now for people, for young artists, for artists who have all different ways of thinking, and all different ages to be able to self-publish on the Internet, and to be able to reach a wide audience without having to go through a record company, to be able to record and put down your thoughts and your paintings and your music at home… I just think it’s a fantastic thing for people to be able to do now.
It used to be that some guy in the record company, not necessarily even an artist or a musician would be in charge of my music, someone else would be turning the dials, and making it sound a certain way. But now everybody can do that. And it always should have been in the hands of artists, but it took a while for that to happen.
I wonder also about the way technology helps artists reach a wide audience on their own, as you said. If you’d been online in the ’60s, sharing music on Facebook or SoundCloud or whatever, the effect of being blacklisted on radio would have been different.
It used to be that in order to speak your mind—there was a handful of guys who owned everything. They owned the record business, they owned the newspapers, they owned television, they owned all kinds of media and, you know, it wasn’t very good for self-expression—if you couldn’t have your songs turn out the way that you intended, and it certainly wasn’t good for reaching people, if somebody else was the gatekeeper. I mean, there was no way that you could get in the front door and have things turn out right.
Besides the movie work and obviously music, you’ve also done a ton of education and outreach work over the years as well.
Yes, for many years I did. In the ’60s, when I was 24, I was a young thing with too much money so I started a scholarship program for Native American people called the Nihewan Foundation. I’ve got a bunch of college degrees and one of them is in teaching. My first degree was in oriental philosophy, but then I got a teaching degree and later a Ph.D. in fine arts. I used my teacher’s degree to help my son’s Grade 5 teacher with her problem. She was required by law to teach an Indian unit, and when we looked at the stuff it was all baloney, and she knew it was baloney, so I started writing a new Native American curriculum. Not only about history and bad times, but about culture and about the role of Native American people in the sciences. You know, people have no idea that Native American people were involved in optics, and acoustics, and mathematics, and astronomy long before anybody else. I mean, just fantastic things.
It seems like in Canada, Native Americans have more visibility in general than in the U.S.
Oh, absolutely. The farther south you go the worse it gets. In Canada we’re way, way ahead. If you pick up any newspaper in Canada there’ll be five to ten stories about Aboriginal people. You know, about everything! Aboriginal people in banking, Aboriginal people in poverty, Aboriginal people in the arts and the sciences just doing everyday things. But in the U.S., you don’t usually hear anything about Native American people unless somebody picks up a gun, you know.
I think your visibility in the entertainment world was also really important in terms of awareness then, as well, just to be out there as a star who is female and Native American.
I think a lot of my peers either went down the alcohol road, you know. A lot of show business girls and boys got caught on alcohol, or later they got caught on drugs or you know, they made their fortune and went home and sat on the couch and just turned into a dumpling, but things were different for me. The blacklist part of it meant that all of a sudden, I had privacy in the United States. I mean, it was a crappy way to get there, through censorship, but it did give me time in the United States to do other things. In the sixties I had already done something with regards to Hollywood and stereotyping, because I had been invited to do a movie in Hollywood, destined for television as The Virginian, and they wanted me to have a lead part. And I said, ‘Well, what about the other Indian parts? Are they being played by Indians too?’ And they said, ‘Oh, no. We can’t do that because there aren’t enough.’ So I said, ‘Okay, no Buffy then. No Indians in all the Indian roles, no Buffy.’ And I did pull it off by introducing them to Jay Silverheels, who used to play Tonto, and he was running an Indian actors’ workshop in L.A.
You know, I’ve seen a lot of things, and while I’ve been seeing those things I’ve still been both a woman and a person and very active in the Native American scene, especially in Canada. So it’s given me a little bit different perspective. Also, it helps a lot that I made my fortune in my early twenties. So I knew that chances were I wasn’t ever going to have to have a nine-to-five job. I had the time and money to invest in myself as an artist, which I did, and I live on a farm, which I bought then. So I have a very, very different life from most of my peers, maybe especially my women peers. But it was hard. I think one of the things that I had going for me was that I did not believe that I could possibly be a success in anything, so I tried anyway, you know. I know I won’t be able to get them to use all Native American people in these movies, but I’m going to give it a shot—so, I guided them right to the spot, and we were successful. There have been a lot of women pioneers that, you know, some of their names are very well known, and others are not. But I was lucky.