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Young Buffy Sainte-Marie In The '60s: A Native American Folk Prodigy

Culture | November 8, 2018

Buffy Sainte-Marie in a studio portrait from 1969; Buffy Sainte-Marie in concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1968. Source: Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

Folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Canadian First Nations artist, got her start in the folk music revival of the early 1960s. With tunes like "Now That The Buffalo's Gone" and "Universal Soldier," she addressed the treatment of American Indians and the injustice of war. Her songs have been recorded by Donovan, Janis Joplin, Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Elvis Presley, Cher, Petula Clark and dozens of other artists. Sainte-Marie had her biggest chart success with "Up Where We Belong," a song she co-wrote that was performed by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes for the soundtrack of An Officer And A Gentleman (1982) and reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

The folk music revival reached its peak in the 1960s, thanks in part to singers like Buffy Sainte-Marie. Embracing her indigenous Cree heritage, Sainte-Marie penned songs that spoke of the issues and concerns of the Native Americans, as well as problems facing the environment and conservation. Sainte-Marie was an activist in the groovy era and remains so today, using her music to inspire and educate. 

Folk Music Enjoyed A Spike In Popularity In The Sixties

During the sixties, folk music often included elements of social and political unrest, making the genre popular in the counterculture movement. At first, folk artists kept their public performances small and intimate, preferring to play at coffee houses, sing-alongs, hootenannies and in open-air concerts in the park. But as more and more fans were drawn to the messages in the folk songs and their audiences grew, folk artists moved to large concert halls, music festivals and college campuses. 

The Mood Was Right For Buffy Sainte-Marie

Source: wgvunews.org

In 1941, Buffy Sainte-Marie was in Saskatchewan, Canada, on a First Nation Reserve. A member of the Piapot Plains Cree, she was adopted by Albert and Winifred Sainte-Marie, a Native American couple. Sainte-Marie was raised with an understanding and appreciation for different cultures. In fact, when she graduated from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, it was with degrees in both teaching and Oriental philosophy. In 1964, Sainte-Marie visited the Piapot Cree Reserve where she was born. She attended a powwow there and learned more about her heritage. Always a lover of music, Sainte-Marie began to use her talents to express her concerns about the value of the Native American cultures. 

Sixties Folk Music Influenced Rock 'n Roll

The folk music of the 1960s drew on elements of traditional folk music, including the use of the acoustic guitar and the sentimental subject matter. But it became heavily influenced by the Beatnik scene and came to include some jazz riffs and personal, poetic ballads. Remnants of traditional spirituals and blues songs could also be seen in the new folk music revival. Folk music of the sixties became a clear influence on the rock 'n roll that had emerged in the 1950s. Thanks in particular to Bob Dylan, who started in the early '60s as a straight-up folk artist, folk and rock merged to make folk rock and influence numerous subgenres including country-rock and the singer-songwriter movement. 

Sainte-Marie Toured The Coffee House Circuit

In the early 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie split her time between the coffee houses of New York’s Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Old Yorkville district. She performed alongside other Canadian folk singers, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Inspired by the wounded soldiers that were returning from Vietnam, Sainte-Marie wrote “Universal Soldier”, a protest song that appeared on her 1964 debut album, “It’s My Way.” The song was later covered by Donovan and became a hit. Her next two big songs, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”, created some controversy for drawing attention to the plight of Native American. But her music was getting noticed. Billboard Magazine named her Best New Artist. 

Sainte-Marie Was A Popular Guest On TV Variety Shows

Sainte-Marie’s enthusiasm, personality and her musical talent made her a sought-after guest on many of television’s variety shows. She appeared on Rainbow Quest with Pete Seeger, American Bandstand, The Johnny Cash Show, Soul Train and The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson. She also appeared on several shows in her native Canada. In 1972, her song “Mister Can’t You See” was a Top 40 hit and her follow up song, “He’s An Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo” garnered praise. 

Sainte-Marie’s Album 'Illuminations' Was Groundbreaking

Aware that folk music was evolving as a genre, Sainte-Marie was eager to make use of emerging technologies. At the close of the 1960s, she recorded her album, Illuminations using a Buchla synthesizer. Although it wasn’t widely publicized at the time, this album was the very first totally quadraphonic electronic vocal album to be produced. 

The British Invasion Killed The Folk Music Scene

The Beatles

By the end of the sixties, the British invasion brought a new sound to music lovers in the United States and Canada. The folk music scene faded into the background as the Beatles and other British rock and roll groups started a new music craze. The folk performers like Sainte-Marie retreated from the large concert venues back to the safety and security of the coffee houses and continued to get their musical messages out to a smaller group of devoted followers. 

'Sesame Street' Came Knocking

When the producer of the hit children’s television show, Sesame Street, contacted Sainte-Marie in 1975 to ask her to appear as a guest on the show, Sainte-Marie’s first reaction was to decline the offer. She was, after all, a serious folk artist. But she asked the producer one question that changed her mind. She asked, “Have you done any Native American programming?” Sainte-Marie decided to seize the unique opportunity to show young children that Native Americans cultures are still an important part of our country’s identity and to dispel cultural stereotypes. She became a regular on the show from 1976 to 1981. 

Sainte-Marie Was The First To Breastfeed On TV

In 1977, while filming a segment for Sesame Street, Sainte-Marie nursed her infant son, Dakota “Cody” Starblanket Wolfchild. When the scene aired, Sainte-Marie became the first person to breastfeed on television. 

Sainte-Marie Wrote The Soundtrack To A Docudrama

In 1979, one of the entries at the famed Cannes Film Festival was a docudrama called Spirit of the Wind, which told the story of George Attla, the winningest dog sled musher ever. Sainte-Marie wrote the original musical score for the film and the single, also titled “Spirit of the Wind”, earned her much praise. With the exception of Slim Pickens, the film used a cast comprised entirely of Native Americans.

Buffy Sainte-Marie Still Writes And Performs Her Brand Of Folk Music

Now living in Hawaii, Buffy Sainte-Marie still writes and performs music and still works to raise awareness of issues facing the Native American people. She started the Cradleboard Teaching Project in 1997 which offers schools a curriculum package to help students get an accurate education in the history of the indigenous people of North America, as well as the mistreatment and discrimination they still face. Her work as an educator and social activist have earned her numerous awards and recognition. 

Tags: Buffy Sainte-Marie | Hippies | Music In The 1960s | The 1960s | What Did She Do?...

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.