Rock and Roll Book Club: Buffy Sainte-Marie's authorized biography

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'Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography.'
'Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

When is a prestigious award an insult? When it's delivered with the insinuation that your worthiness of the prize is a shock.

"Songwriting is a gift," says Buffy Sainte-Marie about her 2015 Polaris Music Prize for Power in the Blood. "I write with the same degree of excellence that I wrote in the '60s. It really surprised people — they asked, 'How can you be so young and write with such wisdom?' Now, they ask, 'How can you be the age you are and write with such freshness?'"

The award was a wake-up call that Sainte-Marie, who some may have remembered as merely one of a plethora of earnest singer-songwriters populating the folk revival, was still urgent and well worth revisiting. One of the pleasures of Sainte-Marie's new authorized biography, penned by Andrea Warner with a short but admiring foreword by Joni Mitchell, is that it illuminates not only Sainte-Marie's musical journey but her much broader cultural significance.

Let's start with the music. Sainte-Marie is best-known for two songs from her 1964 debut album, "The Universal Soldier" and "Cod'ine." Both were covered to great success by Donovan, who many still, mistakenly, think wrote the songs. "Universal Soldier" is a passionate and lucid anti-war ballad, while "Cod'ine" was inspired by a brief opioid addiction Sainte-Marie suffered as a young woman.

It was immediately clear that Sainte-Marie was an important artist with a distinctive voice, although not necessarily as literally distinctive as her early recordings gave listeners to understand; she says her producers intentionally picked the rougher takes to highlight her authenticity, which from her perspective spoke for itself.

She earned the admiration of peers like Bob Dylan (who recommended her for a Greenwich Village coffeehouse gig), Joni Mitchell (a fellow Canadian who Sainte-Marie advocated before she was signed), and Leonard Cohen (with whom Sainte-Marie had a love affair but of whom she does not now speak positively as a human being, his artistic gifts notwithstanding). She recorded for Vanguard, a label known for compelling women folk artists including Joan and Mimi Baez.

Born Cree in Saskatechwan in, likely, 1941 (there's no exact record), Sainte-Marie was adopted by an American family and raised in Massachusetts — surviving childhood abuse and racial discrimination. She gravitated back to Canada after college, when she became active on the Toronto folk scene. Her acclaim quickly grew, and she told hard truths about indigenous peoples' history in songs like "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying."

Her gifts as a self-taught musician (a self-identified "musical dyslexic," she can write music but not read it) extended well beyond the coffeehouse circle. Her 1969 album Illuminations became a cult classic that, in combining Sainte-Marie's dolorous vocals with a synthesized soundscape, is regarded as an early influence on what became known as goth rock.

Although her gift with a pop ballad was never the side of her art she cared to showcase, it earned Sainte-Marie two of the biggest hits of her songwriting career. "Until It's Time For You to Go" became a hit for both Neil Diamond and Elvis Presley. With Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings, Sainte-Marie co-wrote the Officer and a Gentleman theme "Up Where We Belong," recorded as a duet between Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes. In 1983, it won Best Original Song, making Sainte-Marie the first Native American to win an Academy Award.

Sainte-Marie achieved another important first, as detailed in a chapter about the period of her career that introduced her to many young members of generation X. Throughout the second half of the 1970s, Sainte-Marie was a regular guest on Sesame Street. She took the show to a weeklong location shoot at Taos Pueblo, an Indigenous community in New Mexico. "It's important to get [a positive] message through before any kind of stereotyping makes a presence in their lives," she says about her impact on children who saw the show. "So that when somebody says, 'Indians are no good,' little kids can say, 'Oh, no, Big Bird says Indians are okay.'"

Her son Cody was born in 1976, leading to a plot where Big Bird got jealous and kids learned a lesson about sibling rivalry. The following year, Sainte-Marie became the first woman to breastfeed a baby on mainstream national TV. "I did know how hard it was for mothers like me," she remembers, "to get information and encouragement about breastfeeding even from their doctors, and I just wanted to be a part of fixing that."

Sainte-Marie's experience on Sesame Street illustrates what may be the most important lesson she taught — on that show, in her music, and in the new book. Know what you're worth, and insist on equitable treatment. When producers first invited her on, she told them she had no interest in making a cameo on a show with no demonstrated commitment to Native communities. Their response was to offer her a regular role, and a seat in the writers' room.

Earlier, she remembers, when Elvis's representatives told Sainte-Marie that her teen idol was interested in recording one of her songs, it felt to her "as if Santa Claus had said yes to coming to your birthday party." There were strings attached, though: Presley would have to get a co-writing credit. ("We're going to have to have some of that publishing money, honey.") Crushed, Sainte-Marie said no. "He hadn't written it, period."

The outcome? Elvis recorded the song anyway — nine times, with Sainte-Marie getting her full credit (and full payment) every time. "My song was already a standard," says Sainte-Marie. "I knew it." So, it happens, did Elvis, and many others.


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