Staying Power

More than four dec­ades after the start of her dur­able ca­reer, Buffy Sainte-Mar­ie still sends a mes­sage with her mu­sic and her act­iv­ism.

She said she was about 3 years old when a pi­ano be­came her toy, and she com­posed her first song on it.

“Since it was all just play time for me, I kept at it un­til the song was just the way I liked it, and I’m still the same way,” says sing­er, song­writer, in­ter­na­tion­al su­per­star and per­former, and anti-war and rights icon Buffy Sainte-Mar­ie, get­ting ready to take the stage at the Sellers­ville Theat­er 1894 on Jan. 8.

Born Beverly Saint-Mar­ie in 1941 in the Piapot Cree In­di­an re­serve in Canada, she was orphaned and later ad­op­ted, grow­ing up in Maine. A gradu­ate of the Uni­versity of Maine Am­h­erst, she earned a bach­el­or’s de­gree and a doc­tor­ate in teach­ing and Ori­ent­al philo­sophy.

“Ac­tu­ally,” she said, “I was nev­er in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a fam­ous sing­er or song­writer. I thought my in­terest in mu­sic wouldn’t last, so I began think­ing about us­ing my col­lege de­gree in Ori­ent­al philo­sophy to con­tin­ue with a schol­ar­ship to In­dia.”

But as she grew, those mu­sic­al abil­it­ies nev­er did wane, and she began com­pos­ing songs from the heart that would even­tu­ally mir­ror an era, and many artists de­cided to cov­er her work, in­clud­ing Bar­bra Streis­and, Neil Dia­mond, Roberta Flack, Cher, Joe Cock­er and Elvis, to name a few.

“Ah, Elvis,” she said. “He was one of my early in­spir­a­tions. When I was twelve, he was, well, Elvis. There were days when I was sup­posed to be in the base­ment iron­ing, but ac­tu­ally I was listen­ing to the ra­dio and Elvis and all the early rock ’n’ roll stars.”

Turn­ing to her own song­writ­ing tal­ents, Sainte-Mar­ie ex­plained that some of her early songs were love songs, songs like Up Where We Be­long and Un­til It’s Time For You to Go.

Later, the songs changed in­to more of a folk song sound, but, she said, “I nev­er thought about writ­ing folk mu­sic. Most of the people I knew in the folk mu­sic genre were up­per-middle-class kids from teach­ing or mer­chant fam­il­ies. I had nev­er met a law­yer or a busi­ness­man. In fact, I had such little busi­ness sense that I gave away the rights to Uni­ver­sal Sol­dier for one dol­lar be­cause I didn’t know any bet­ter. I was just writ­ing about things I felt strongly about, no mat­ter wheth­er they had com­mer­cial suc­cess or not.”

And soon her mu­sic began to re­flect her deep feel­ings about the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment in which she lived. And those songs, even though she didn’t know it at the time, led to her be­ing black­lis­ted.

“I be­lieve a lot of people lost track of me back in the 1960s when that was hap­pen­ing. That was a peri­od when I could get no air­play in the U.S. There were polit­ic­al ad­min­is­tra­tions who pre­ferred that people not speak out about cer­tain is­sues, like Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans or civil rights or the war in Vi­et­nam,” she said.

But for­tu­nately for all of us, no amount of polit­ic­al pres­sure would get Sainte-Mar­ie to stop mak­ing mu­sic — es­pe­cially about the things she felt most strongly about. And so today, she said from her goat farm in Hawaii, a whole gen­er­a­tion of listen­ers who might have missed her pre­vi­ous work are now dis­cov­er­ing her for the first time.

“My audi­ences today are made up of people from the ’60s and the ’70s, and a lot of movie fans from the ’80s be­cause of my Academy Award-win­ning songs,” she said. “And now I have so many listen­ers be­cause of the In­ter­net, and mu­sic re­cor­ded on the com­puter in my home stu­dio.”

With no plans to re­tire — un­til and un­less she feels like it — Sainte-Mar­ie con­tin­ues to give her­self to the world. Aside from her mu­sic, since 1969 she has op­er­ated the Ni­hewan Found­a­tion for Nat­ive Amer­ic­an Edu­ca­tion, whose Cradle­board Train­ing Pro­ject serves chil­dren and teach­ers world­wide, free and on­line.

“Nat­ive Amer­ic­an people want to be un­der­stood be­cause they suf­fer from be­ing mis­per­ceived,” she con­cluded. “There’s just noth­ing out there in the main­stream cur­riculum.” ••

For show in­form­a­tion, call 215-257-5804.

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