Interview: Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie

Sainte-Marie is looking forward to revisiting Scotland, where Perth will doubtless welcome her and her thought-provoking songs, as well as all the hits
Sainte-Marie is looking forward to revisiting Scotland, where Perth will doubtless welcome her and her thought-provoking songs, as well as all the hits
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Native American activist and singer-songwriter Buffy Saint-Marie hasn’t let anything cramp her style, she tells Jim Gilchrist

The song’s the thing, as they say, and for Buffy Sainte-Marie, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s an anti-war protest, a celebration of her Native Canadian Cree culture or a romantic ballad. “Finding a song in my head is pretty much all the same to me,” she says, “like dreaming. I never know what’s coming until it arrives. Then, especially in the case of an issue-based song, sometimes I go to work on it, try to make it easy and understandable to anybody who hears it.”

So far as issues are concerned, Sainte-Marie has been writing and singing about them since she first emerged as a singer-songwriter in the early 1960s, penning songs such as Universal Soldier, which became a hit for Donovan, and singing the title song for the film Soldier Blue, which for the first time focused cinema-goers’ attention on the oppression of Native Americans. But in an award-laden career, she has also written or co-written such commercial hits as Until It’s Time for You to Go, recorded by Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand, and the Oscar-winning Up Where We Belong, from An Officer and a Gentleman.

Sainte-Marie will perform these hits, plus newer material, when she appears at Perth Concert Hall this weekend as part of the Fair City’s annual festival of American roots music, Southern Fried. She shares the bill with fellow-headliners Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash, and a roster of other performers of country, bluegrass and old-time Americana.

Accompanied by guitarist Jesse Green, drummer Mike Bruyere and bassist Anthony King, Sainte-Marie says she’s looking forward to returning to Scotland. “We had a great time at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow a few years ago,” she recalls. “It was rockin’.”

Sainte-Marie, who is based in Hawaii but regards herself as an indigenous North American – “We pre-date both the US and Canadian borders” – has accumulated a sheaf of awards, and not just for songwriting. As a Native American activist and educator (founder of the Nihewan Foundation for American Indian Education), she has gleaned academic honours but was also blacklisted by the Lyndon Johnson and Nixon administrations, although she didn’t fully realise it until the 1980s, when her lawyer showed her FBI documents. “I had just thought that taste in music had changed,” she recalls of a period when airplay and TV interviews seemed to evaporate. “I never suspected censorship.”

Not that she let it cramp her style, as she toured worldwide and also spent five years in the cast of Sesame Street, during which she was joined by her infant son for episodes dealing with breast-feeding, and “taught the Count how to count – in Cree”.

Native American issues have continued to preoccupy her. One of her most recent albums, Running for the Drum, included the song Cho Cho Fire, a powerful rallying cry to young indigenous Americans to embrace their culture.

Since she embarked on her career in the early Sixties, she reckons that American Indians are in a relatively better position to effect positive change, “as we do to some extent through our own indigenous lawyers, teachers, community leaders, rural and urban social workers on both sides of the border.

“However, greed in North American business and politics seem intent on destroying aboriginal rights, natural lands and waterways for immediate cash benefits, especially through fracking and other natural resource disasters.”

Some of Sainte-Marie’s songs can be described as country-ish – Darling Don’t Cry, for instance, albeit fused with native chants and drums. The country and western scene tends to be largely white-orientated and, asked how she feels about sharing a stage at such events, she says that she has never performed widely within the big-time country scene: “That’s a pretty closed business and I never have gotten invitations to perform in the south and south-west Indian country where country music is so well loved, even in my early career.

“Those doors were kept closed as I was – correctly – perceived as someone who stood against the uranium and oil companies whose honchos also controlled local press, media and theatres in those areas.”

She stresses, however, that she has always been made to feel welcome by country musicians and songwriters. “I used to live in Nashville and it’s not the redneck place some out-of-towners might imagine.”

Currently working in Toronto on her 20th album, Sainte-Marie remains a committed activist for Native American and environmental causes – in a quiet sort of way, she insists. “I learned in the 1960s that a celebrity coming in from outside usually takes attention away from the issue, so I’m very careful about not being perceived as a leader. I try to be invisible. I’m just a songwriter trying to spotlight local issues any way I can. The goal is to be effective, not famous.”

• Southern Fried festival runs from 25-27 July. For further information, see