Andrea Warner is the author of Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, now out in paperback.
Buffy Sainte-Marie celebrates her 80th birthday on Feb. 20, a towering and rich legacy of breakthroughs and transcendent moments behind her and countless possibilities ahead in the seeds she’s planted so far.
She is iconic, and yet her genius is wildly under-acknowledged. In part, this makes sense. Genius, and the myth of the tortured male genius, is like every colonial invention: toxic, deadly and boring. Sainte-Marie’s genius cannot be fully appreciated by such a system. But what if genius divested itself of white supremacy and the patriarchy? What if, culturally, genius was decolonized and radically reimagined as a celebration of brilliance without brutality, cultivating creativity and knowledge, and generating hope through accountability to community and the land? These are the tools of real genius, and they’ve been integral components of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s artistry since she began her career almost six decades ago.
I interviewed Sainte-Marie for the first time in 2015 and my usual deep dive research techniques weren’t turning up the goods. Even accounting for legacy music journalism and entertainment media’s historically racist, misogynist coverage, it was almost like Sainte-Marie had been erased. I was shocked, and then I was angry. Sixty years in the music industry and Sainte-Marie was largely absent from the big lists of greatest songs or best songwriters; there were no features in Rolling Stone or critical evaluations of the wild tangle of her influences; there was very little scholarship about her contributions to the recording industry or her innovation as a recording artist. There was one book about Buffy Sainte-Marie before my authorized biography in 2018. There were at least 70 about Bob Dylan.
This is a stark visual of how systemic barriers are upheld in countless ways. The rock canon is built to uphold these barriers, and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is a perfect example. This year marked a historic number of women nominees (not inductees), but that doesn’t make up for its legacy. I did the math in 2018, and of its more than 300 inductees over 32 years, approximately just 15 per cent were women. That’s already an embarrassingly low number, but it also clearly illustrates how women are represented and valued in the music industry. Among those 300-plus inductees, 22 men were actually inducted twice in different capacities, and Eric Clapton has been inducted three times. Sainte-Marie has never even been nominated.
Her omission from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is galling, particularly when I think about Donovan’s induction. The one-time Dylan worshipper and Mellow Yellow singer-songwriter, Donovan broke through in 1965. Among his hits that year was a cover of Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier, a song she’d released the year before on her debut album. The song charted for Donovan, but not for Sainte-Marie, and I believe that sexism and racism were factors in why the song found a bigger audience coming from a young, white man than a young, Cree woman. Was it the authority afforded to his voice that allowed Donovan’s cover to supersede Sainte-Marie’s? Or was it also the fact that he tripled down on the song’s title, ensuring his was the only name associated with it thanks to his 1965 EP, Universal Soldier, and his 1967 compilation album, also called Universal Soldier? His whole career was launched, in part, on the back of Sainte-Marie’s brilliance, so where is her acknowledgement in the public record of rock ’n’ roll? Why is she a footnote in this man’s legacy and not the other way around?
A lot of men – usually white men – have tried to exploit Sainte-Marie over the years. There was the man who convinced her to sign away publishing rights to Universal Soldier (she eventually bought them back). Others manipulated and coerced her into signing unfair recording contracts. Two different U.S. presidential administrations, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, furthered her erasure when they suppressed Sainte-Marie’s music in response to her activism and advocacy in support of Indigenous rights, the environment and the anti-war movement. She didn’t release a new record from 1976 until 1992. These are just some of the barriers, impossible standards, and invisible labour that Sainte-Marie, an Indigenous woman, has had to navigate and negotiate while cultivating her vision in a colonial world.
The ramifications of all of this are still playing out today. That’s the whole reason for this essay. Buffy Sainte-Marie needs to be written back into the history of rock ’n’ roll, and the scope of her influence and artistry must be acknowledged. My hope is that her genius, and the fullness of it, will inspire a wholly new definition of the word; one that focuses on nourishment not exploitation, compassion not cruelty, and artistry over ego. Throughout her entire life, Sainte-Marie has deliberately modelled the transformative possibility of a decolonial world, and that’s nothing short of true genius.
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.