Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inducts Buffy
On April 1, 2019 Canadian singer, songwriter, social activist, and educator, Buffy Sainte-Marie will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, a non-profit organization whose goal is to “honour and celebrate songwriters” born in Canada and has done so since 1998. Notable inductees already include Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Rush. Technically, this is not Sainte-Marie’s first recognition by the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, her song, “Universal Soldier,” was inducted in 2005. The song, written in 1963, is notable for having been covered by The Highwaymen, Donovan, the Scruggs, and others. The song, about the individual responsibilities of people and soldiers to engage in war, was written after hearing rumours that American advisors were involved in combat. Although popular and widely covered, it’s certainly not Sainte-Marie’s only claim to musical fame. Other songs have also garnered some significant attention, “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” being covered by Elvis Presley, her “Up Where We Belong,” winning an Academy Award in 1982 for Best Original Song, and her album Illuminations being a pioneering work in electronic and synthesized music. So, if Buffy Sainte-Marie is so accomplished, what’s taken the Hall of Fame so long to recognize her? It’s not like singing and songwriting are her only talents.
Buffy Sainte-Marie’s career isn’t just defined by a 50-year span of making popular music, she’s also been an advocate for indigenous people through her music. Her songs, “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone,” and “My Country ’Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” are about the mistreatment of indigenous people in North America. The outspokenness of Sainte-Marie led her to be allegedly blacklisted from radio stations in America, purportedly by Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Despite the blacklisting, Sainte-Marie continued to experiment with music and technologies, using an early synthesizer to record her 1969 album, Illuminations, and again later using Apple II and Macintosh computers in the 80s to record songs and collaborate with her producer over an early version of the Internet and to experiment with digital visual art. She also performed at the Kennedy Space Centre in honour of John Herrington, the first Native American astronaut, in 2002.
In the 1970s, Sainte-Marie was offered time to appear on Sesame Street. At First she declined, but reconsidered when realizing the lack of Native American representation on television. Initially slotted as a one-time guest to do a segment about the alphabet, Sainte-Marie turned her appearance into a five-year regular occurrence hoping to let children know that Indigenous people still existed and weren’t something from history books or movies. Sainte-Marie’s appearance on Sesame Street is also notable for the first time a breastfeeding was ever aired on television, when she breastfed her son, Cody, during an episode. Initially worried that her recent pregnancy would derail her appearance on the show, instead she devised a way to incorporate the pregnancy and educate children and viewers at the same time, revolutionary not just for women and TV audiences, but also for indigenous women across North America who still lived with the stigma that they were incapable parents (a pretense used against many indigenous women who lost children to residential schools and the Sixties Scoop). After her time on Sesame Street as a regular came to an end in 1981, Sainte-Marie continued to create; writing and producing the music for Where the Spirit Lives, a film about children abducted into residential schools, voicing a character in a made-for-TV movie, and appearing in the film The Broken Chain featuring the story of Iroquois warrior Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant).
Sainte-Marie has continued to record music, with only a sixteen year break from 1976 to 1992, into the present day. Her last album, Medicine Songs, was recorded recently in 2017. She has amassed several very influential and affective albums, despite infrequently breaking through to the top 100. Perhaps, this explains why Sainte-Marie’s song was inducted into the Hall of Fame before she herself was. It wasn’t an oversight, or lack of notability, Sainte-Marie’s contributions to the cultural milieu of this nature has been recognized many times; from a French award for Best International Artist in 1993, to a Gemini Award for her live performance of “Up Where We Belong,” to the appointment of Officer of the Order of Canada, and a 2009 Juno Award for Aboriginal Recording of the Year for Running for the Drum, and a Polaris Prize in 2015 for Power in the Blood, Buffy Sainte-Marie has not lead a quiet life and it almost goes without saying that her award for her talents in songwriting will be long overdue when she is inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame this upcoming Monday. Congratulations, Buffy, you’ve earned it.