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.