|About A Folksinger-Songwriter and
How Her Art is Political
In October 2009, Amy Goodman,
the well-known host of Democracy-Now!, invited the folksinger and
songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Canadian of Native-American descent, to
appear on her program.
Buffy Sainte-Marie has become
well-known, even outside North America, as the songwriter and singer
of 'Universal Soldier,' an anti-war song that became widely sung in the
early 1960s by those who were not ready to shut their eyes to the minuteman
rockets and B-52 bombers circling in the air, heralding the ever-present.
absurdly looming nuclear confrontation of the two superpowers. In Britain,
quite a few workers in Glasgow's run-down tenement quarters (typical blue-collar
neighborhoods!), and of course the Alderston marchers supporting the Campaign
for Nuclear Disarmament, were singing "Pull the Yanks down the stanks [i.e.
the 'stinks,' the toilets] - we do no want Po-la-a-ris". And they sang
"Universal Soldiers." Soon also, the hippies in California took to it,
and the "peaceniks" who opposed the slowly escalating war in Vietnam.
But Buffy's songs also intervened
by introducing other themes, like Native American rights, Native American
history. Quite clearly she was determined to challenge an 'Anglo' version
of American history. "Correcting names," in a way Confucius
would have loved. Calling for instance the decimation of the Native population
of the American hemiphere what it was - nothing but genocide. As she puts
"...most Americans feel that
the Indians lost because of fair fights and superior odds and superior
weaponry. Thatís because thatís the only side of the story thatís been
In Amy Goodman's words, Buffy
"was among the earliest if not the first celebrity to challenge the idea
that, quote, ďAmerican history really began when Columbus set sail out
It has to do with her cultural
background, her family background. Listen to Buffy:
"I had a Native American background
and really interest in knowing what had not been told to me, because when
I was growing up, my mother who raised me, she especially told me, you
know, what you see in the movies and read in books is not necessarily true,
but you can find out someday."
So commitment to Native American
rights came almost naturally.
"... I put all my time into
Indian rights, and I think this is something I know something about and
I think that my time is best spent, insofar as my political views are concerned."
It affected the way she saw herself
as an artist. The 'art' of writing good songs appears to have been an almost
'natural' outcome of her commitment. There was the involvement in her people's
history, in a cause. And in the struggle against looming or, in the early
1960s, actual war. It compelled her to write songs, and to do it well.
And to sing them herself, and do it well. She "didn't think" she was much
of an artist. But she was.
"... you asked, you know,
was I was afraid to be onstage. I wasnít, because of the songs, see? I
didnít think I was much of a singer, but because of the songs, I had the
nerve to step out onto a stage and to give the people the songs. So I wasnít
concentrating on myself as a singer. I probably should have been concentrating
more. Later on, I learned to sing."
Yes, with time, practice, experience,
a sensibility developing as a result of practice, of practical
experience as a songwriter and singer, one can get better. But that's
not the main point.
The main point is, she was good
already, though young and not very experienced, in 1961.
Listen to her again: "I wasn't
concentrating on myself as a singer" Dig that! as we would
say in the 60s. Have the nerve and make it clear to yourself: the "artist's
ego" can recede into the background. And it does - if those she (or he)
addresses, and the work that addresses them, matter so much more. And their
active reception of the work. By which they appropriate it and make it
theirs. And sing it in their own way. And give it their meaning, in accordance
with their needs.
Source: "Buffy Sainte-Marie. Democracy Now!Special:An Hour of Music
and Conversation with Legendary Native American Singer-Songwriter Buffy
Sainte-Marie", broadcast on the regular Democracy Now! program on October
12, 2009. Internet source, URL address: http://www.democracynow.org/2009/10/12/democracy_now_special_an_hour_of