Buffy Sainte-Marie: 'I constantly ask myself. Where are the great protest songs of today? Are people deaf and blind?'

The 76-year old Cree folk singer-songwriter from Canada releases her new album ‘Medicine Songs’ – 70 minutes of bullish protest songs 

Spencer Leigh
Tuesday 09 January 2018 13:15 GMT
The Canadian-Indian Buffy Sainte-Marie's new album is full of protest songs
The Canadian-Indian Buffy Sainte-Marie's new album is full of protest songs

“I was a fan of Alabama 3 because of that Sopranos theme,” says folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, talking from her home in Hawaii, “but it was a really bloody song about ripping people limb from limb and with blood all over the sword. It was perfect for The Sopranos, but I told Alabama 3 that I could turn it into a great peace song. They laughed at first but they allowed me to do it and I think our new version works very well.”

The reconstituted “Power in the Blood” is one of the 13 attention-grabbing tracks of dissent on the new album, Medicine Songs, by the 76-year-old musician. With further songs available as a free download, it is competitively priced – but is 70 minutes of protest music just too much? “I hope not,” says Sainte-Marie. “Because although they are themes that I feel very strongly about, I had so much fun in recording them. I would like to do some more, but I am thinking of revisiting my love songs for the next album, which would be called Love Medicine.”

Medicine Songs is a mixture of old and new material, freshly recorded and often with updated lyrics. Sainte-Marie wrote “Universal Soldier” in 1961, it later becoming a chart hit in the mid-60s for Donovan when it became popularised as a critique on the Vietnam war. Surely though the fact that she is now reviving a 50-year-old protest song is proof that it hasn’t worked. “Not at all. At the end of the First World War, the politicians said that there would never be another one, and they said the same thing after the Second World War and also after Vietnam. That doesn’t mean that protests count for nothing. It doesn’t mean that our actions were in vain. Our songs did help to stop the Vietnam War, yes they did, and we have been powerful in counterbalancing those millionaires who use the military for their own greedy purposes. A protest song can inform you and can stimulate you to notice something you hadn’t noticed before, but it is a simple fact that we are never going to escape from greed and corruption.”

Her new album ‘Medicine Songs’ is a mixture of old and new material, freshly recorded and often with updated lyrics

Yet despite all the protests, there is no lampooning of an obvious target, President Trump. “What would be the point of that? There is no point in writing a song about the bad leadership of Donald Trump because everybody knows that. Some of the protest writers of the 60s wrote songs about very obvious headlines, but I am writing songs about the way I look at things and I hope that the listeners will come to look at them in the same way. There is always a lot of sense in what I do – I try to make my songs bullet-proof.” Although I accept her answer, there is surely scope for some songs that look behind the bluster to determine whether Trump is rather more sinister than merely a clown.

One of the most famous protest songs of the 60s was Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side” which commented on the genocide directed at Native Americans. Peter La Farge, who committed suicide in 1965, wrote “Ballad of Ira Hayes” about the maltreatment of a Pima Indian who had raised the flag at Iwo Jima. On her new album, Sainte-Marie adds verses to the American patriotic song “America the Beautiful” and provides a coda to her 1966 song “‘My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” to emphasise how Native Americans suffer from poor health, insecurity and poverty today.

Sainte-Marie was born a Cree in Saskatchewan, Canada. American-Indians have received far worse treatment, she says, than Canadian-Indians. “The US has not addressed the indigenous slavery, but in Canada we have. Some of that colonial attitude is still in the law. I feel that Canada has gone a lot farther than the US but there is still a long way to go. Sometimes change comes slow and sometimes it comes fast, but hopefully it does come as this world needs some help.”

Sainte-Marie won an Oscar in 1982 for the theme song from ‘An Officer And a Gentlemen’, ‘Up Where We Belong’, which was sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes (Christie Goodwin )

Salvation has been brought to some American-Indian communities in the US with the introduction of the right to own casinos and other aspects of self-governance, however Sainte-Marie is sceptical about how far-reaching these reforms are. “It's true in some cases that the casinos have saved the population. Now they can have a hospital, now they can have a paved road, now everybody can have a truck. That’s one scenario but in other cases, the Mob is back in control.”

Now based in Hawai, somewhat out of the loop geographically, Saint-Marie has found it ideal, if only to steer clear of the influence of industry pressure. “Recording is much better for me now,” she laughs, “I have my own studio and so I don’t have a bunch of businessmen standing over me with a watch and a chequebook saying, ‘You know how much this is costing!’”

The singer-songwriter has been a headline act since the 1960s, even appearing at the Royal Festival Hall in 2012; and her song, “Until It’s Time For You Go” has been covered widely, including by such greats as Elvis Presley, Cher, Roberta Flack and Glen Campbell. In 1970 she wrote and performed the million-selling theme song from the brutal western, Soldier Blue, and in 1982, she won an Oscar for the theme song from An Officer And a Gentlemen, called “Up Where We Belong” and sung by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes.

After all this success, the beautiful isolation of Hawaii can be a drawback for such a prolific artist and performer. “I was very famous in the 1960s and I wanted some privacy and anonymity so I live in Hawaii. It is a wonderful place but it is very hard to tour,” says Sainte-Marie. “It is very difficult to come to Europe as we are on the opposite sides of the world. There is a 12-hour jet lag. If I didn’t have to travel, I would gladly do some UK dates and I certainly haven’t ruled them out. I loved coming over in the early 60s and touring with Julie Felix and Rev. Gary Davis. I loved coming across genuine British and Irish folk songs and they included a lot of protest. It didn’t all start with Bob Dylan! They realised hundreds of years ago that they had to speak up about bad leadership and bad management. There’s no sense in keeping quiet about it.”

This returns Sainte-Marie to her main theme: for all the anger on social media, there's a dearth of good protest music. “I constantly ask myself. Where are the great protest songs of today? Are people deaf and blind?” she says. “How can they not be writing such songs today? And that includes Bob Dylan. I don’t see young people acting as empowered as they could be. I wish that it would become very fashionable again. I want to see 11 to 16 year olds writing their own songs.”

‘Medicine Songs’ is out on 26 January

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