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Buffy Sainte-Marie

MATT BARNES

At just 22, Buffy Sainte-Marie was boarding and disembarking flights across North America, performing for intimate crowds in not-yet legendary folk coffee houses of the sixties, when she made a preternatural decision.

In her purse she began carrying with her, recorded on cassettes, the voices of then-unknowns: Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

Sainte-Marie, only just coming to prominence in the United States, hoped to deliver the urgent and bursting poetry of her young peers to gatekeepers she’d earned access to, who might open doors for them.

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This is just one of many quietly revealing moments readers ought to pause to consider in Andrea Warner’s new authorized biography, which illustrates how the iconic singer-songwriter, activist and educator changed the landscape of modern music not only with her idiosyncratic voice and self-taught, compositional style, but with her ears – and her capacity to lift others.

Mitchell, decades later, would go on to write the foreword for this very book: “Buffy Sainte-Marie is one of folk music’s unsung heroes and her inspirational life is a story that deserves to be read.”

Longtime fans and careful listeners of Sainte-Marie’s will find details that are charming and relatable, as well as heartbreaking and never before discussed in previous interviews.

The book doesn’t read like your typical sixties music biography, as such tropes wouldn’t match Sainte-Marie’s ascension: There are no lurid tales of adultery or drug-fuelled parties either legendary, regrettable or both. The collection’s selling point isn’t in the salacious or tragic, but instead may be found in a direct pondering and revisiting of years past, in the way a long conversation over a cup of tea might be absorbed.

Those who are familiar with Warner’s work as a CBC music journalist, will recognize her writing tone – one that welcomes us to imagine what the 60-some hours of phone conversations between Buffy Sainte-Marie and the author that preceded the book itself, might have sounded like.

"We talked twice a week, for two hours each time,” Warner says. The two spoke on the phone regularly over the nearly two-month stretch, with Warner calling from Vancouver and Sainte-Marie based in Hawaii.

Eventually they met in person, on tour, and in Warner’s neighbourhood, at a cat café, where Sainte-Marie quickly settled in on the floor, instantly connecting with a handful of cats, as naturally as if she were at home.

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For Sainte-Marie, the experience of revisiting the story of her life (up to now – it’s by no means slowed down) has been akin to this: “Confirmation. Like a movie of your wedding. It’s such a blur while it’s going on that seeing it later kinda anchors it down to reality.”

“For working musicians on the road, we don’t experience the calendar rhythms of weekdays-weekends work-rest around which most people build their lives and snapshots,” Sainte-Marie writes in an e-mail.

“So I kind of lack the usual life milestones and goal posts that would mark a personal linear ‘album.’”

This – being expected to divulge the most intimate details of one’s life, only to end up crunched into a headline – is nothing new for Sainte-Marie. But the conversations with Warner were different. More spacious. There was time to unpack the full story,

With each passing week, Warner became more enamoured with her subject.

“[She’s] so incredibly smart … so down to earth. ... That’s Buffy.”

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The interviews (Warner was armed with “a lifetime of questions”) often fell into natural conversations and eventually passed the slotted two-hour mark every time. In one exchange, Warner found herself explaining the term “gaslighting” to Sainte-Marie, who she knew had likely experienced it herself without having a word for it.

In the book, Sainte-Marie describes the core of her activism, “decolonization,” the same way. “We knew what it was, we just didn’t have a word for it.”

The musician’s quotes lift off the page. On the subject of being an educator, Warner writes that the artist is, “Gentle, but firm. Her words are an education, not a lecture.”

Buffy’s version: “You don’t give it to people in an enema.”

Warner’s narrative tracks Sainte-Marie’s life from birth on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in Qu’Appelle, Sask., her childhood with her adopted family in the United States – the exact date and circumstances surrounding her adoption are unknown, a painful and common casualty of the time – and some five decades spent both in and out of the spotlight in good measure, across the United States and the world.

Born under the name Beverly (and still called so, fondly, by some old friends quoted in the book) the musician showed great promise in both singing and composing by the mere age of three. By university, she was playing guitar with the then yet-to-be discovered Taj Mahal, who sought her out in the stairwell of the University of Massachusetts where she studied.

Sainte-Marie’s memories and observations, in her own words, are tidily and poetically inserted throughout the book, in interludes that appear between chapters.

“I’m surprised I get any credit,” one such interlude begins, a stunningly raw admission in itself, given that it’s coming from a legendary singular talent who has been largely overlooked in the North American cultural canon of musical heros and activist groundbreakers.

Sainte-Marie isn’t digging for compliments. She’s simply sharing a straightforward personal take: demonstrating a rare, deep humility and groundedness from someone who has been famous since the beginning of her adulthood. It’s often been suggested in popular culture that celebrities who rise to fame at a young age are somehow fossilized at that nascent age, if not lost to the ravages of fame.

If anything, Sainte-Marie, or what we can conjure of her from the pages and from her music, seems to have manifested just the opposite – somehow spanning both youthful exuberance and wisdom in her 78th year.

Warner, for her part, explains her subject’s omission from our mainstream cultural touchstones in this way: “Music journalism was white, straight, male for so long,” she says plainly. “It’s not that people want to exclude her voice, I think they just didn’t understand … or listen … or analyze their own complicity in it.”

But Sainte-Marie holds no bitterness. In fact, she sees the arrival of this book as a kind of introduction.

“I’m pretty serious for somebody who has so much fun and I’m a lot of fun for somebody who has also engaged with tragedy.”

The admiration isn’t one sided either. Sainte-Marie has plenty of good things to say about Warner.

“Because Andrea captures that merry side of me that many writers either have not gotten in the first place, or have seen edited down in favour of a heavy-handed headline, it is kind of a public coming-out of my merry side.”

Merriment and perseverance together – the image Warner’s writing casts is one of an insightful leader, whose commitment to joy in learning has only grown over the years. This is at the heart of the biography – one which arguably is decades overdue.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, 1970.

An excerpt from Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography

In 1968, she was approached for a guest-starring role on the popular NBC western television series The Virginian, which aired from 1962 to 1971. The singer-songwriter had two demands before she’d sign on: Actual Indigenous people had to play all the Indigenous roles and the writers had to give her character more complexity, elevating her beyond that of the one-note, Hollywood cliché.

“I said, ‘No Indians, no Buffy.’ The reason I did that was not solely to ‘stick up for the Indians.’ It was also because any production is going to be better if the people involved are familiar with the cultural experiences in which it’s set,” Sainte-Marie says.

“It was just common sense, you know. Sometimes in my life and in my career, I’ve had people look at something [I’ve done] and celebrate it, but for the wrong reasons. Well, not for my intended reason. The smaller point with The Virginian was that it was going to be an Indian show with an all-Indian cast. Wow, that’s a first! Yay, aren’t we terrific? But the bigger picture was that in any production, familiarity with the cultural group it depicts – why would you do it any other way?”

Sainte-Marie says her demands weren’t about railing against Hollywood’s racism problem; instead, she offered [Leo] Penn and the producers and casting directors some alternatives to their default resources. And it worked. The show hired Indigenous actors from Jay Silverheel and Lois Red Elk’s Indian Actors Workshop to play all the Indigenous roles, thanks to Sainte-Marie’s insistence. “They had never thought of expanding their own network until I helped to make that possible,” Sainte-Marie explains.

“My gripe was never against Hollywood for being racist, ’cause griping wouldn’t change that. I think it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. I think it’s better to turn these people on to where they can find Native American actors than it is to stand there, shaking my fist saying, ‘You bastards! You don’t let the Indians in!’ But that’s what a lot of people call protest. If instead you can do something that actually solves the problem, then wow, that’s actually being effective! That’s empowerment.”

The media brought the story to the public’s attention. The Los Angeles Times’ Hal Humphrey covered the historical moment for the paper in 1968, and called it an “unheard-of request” because in Hollywood real Indigenous people were never hired to play Indigenous people in westerns. Humphrey explained that the Screen Actors Guild had a “large assortment of Mexicans, Italians and mixtures who pass.” He then quoted Sainte-Marie: “They always used the excuse that real Indians can’t be found, but I have made it so they cannot say that anymore. Do you know there are 20,000 Indians in the Los Angeles area, representing 110 different tribes?”

“It was definitely a win-win situation,” Ste. Marie says, looking back, but adds, “It shouldn’t be looked at as though, ‘She won a fight.’ It wasn’t like that. No, I provided an alternative, which is different from winning a fight.”

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