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A Conversation with Buffy Sainte-Marie Print-ready version
March 6, 2013

Born on a Cree reservation in Qu'Appelle Valley, Saskatchewan, Buffy Sainte-Marie was orphaned and later adopted and raised in Massachusetts. As a college student in the early 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie became known as a writer and performer of protest and love songs. Many of these have become huge hits and classics of the era, performed by hundreds of other artists including Donovan, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Janis Joplin, Roberta Flack, Neil Diamond, Tracy Chapman, Neko Case, and Courtney Love.

Throughout her career, she has continued to appear at countless grassroots concerts, AIM (American Indian Movement) events and other activist benefits in Canada and the U.S. She has made 18 albums of her music, three of her own television specials, scored movies, garnered international acclaim, helped to found Canada's Music of Aboriginal Canada JUNO category, raised a son, earned a Ph.D. in Fine Arts (as well as degrees in both Oriental Philosophy and teaching), taught Digital Music as adjunct professor at several colleges, and won an Academy Award Oscar and a Golden Globe Award for the song Up Where We Belong.

Buffy has a particularly special place in Joni Mitchell's history, as Buffy's music was a catalyst and a huge influence on Joni's early songwriting. Buffy agreed to answer a few of our questions via email. In 1964, Joni traveled to the Mariposa Folk Festival to see you perform. It was on that trip that she wrote her first song ("Day After Day"). Up to that point, Joni had limited performance experience and sang only songs written by others. Do you know if Joni performed any of your songs during this early time period?

Buffy Sainte-Marie: No idea. I was moving around in my own world, traveling internationally for concerts and hanging out at reservations, and I seldom got to hear the other artists.

Joni's musical style seemed to have come out of nowhere. However, listening to her early songs that were never released, and subsequently listening to your first album, it is quite obvious that Joni was listening to and heavily influenced by what you were doing at the time. The guitar playing and melodic structure of songs like 'The Old Man's Lament', 'You're Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond', 'It's My Way', and others seem to lead directly into what Joni subsequently wrote in her early days. Do you hear the influence, and did Joni ever mention any songs of yours that directly influenced her songwriting?

Oh sure. Although the public might miss it, I think any musician will hear my influence on her and, kindly, Joni has often mentioned me as an early musical influence. The thing is, when I first got a guitar after a lifetime of self-taught piano playing, I never had anyone to show me how to play guitar. So I made up my own chords in my own tunings, which gave distinct flavour to the music. I had a different tuning for every song at first, or I used a certain tuning for similar songs. Joni heard those tunings, borrowed some and, more importantly, got out of the common bag and made up a few of her own, I believe.

If I'm not mistaken, what Joni learned from me was more than just technical things; she learned the courage and passion to escape the mediocrity and sameness of what blurred most of our contemporaries together... especially the ones you never heard of because they were so vanilla status quo. Both Joni and I explored a much wider palette of flavours.

Besides both being connected to Saskatchewan, we also share an ear and an appreciation for uniqueness and originality. And emotion.

My own songs were reviewed as not only intellectually valid but also steeped in real emotion, and few singers/writers used both the brains and the guts of a song to shine that way; but Joni "got it". Yes, everybody comments on her use of some of my early tunings but, really what Joni "got" most about me was coming from that true place inside, where songs originate: both the heart and the head. When many songwriters were rhyming along to those same three vanilla chords that Woody Guthrie and the Kingston Trio used, and the Mamas and the Papas continued, Joni heard life as I did: each through our own personal life realities, resulting in words, colour-tempered original chords, and no-holds-barred poetry.

I love both the inspiration part of songwriting and the crafting- editing- perspiration part, and I've always respected Joni for being that kind of songwriter too. We shared in common the intrinsic technique of not seeking homogeneity among songs, but instead, working on each song until it was brilliantly itself.

Do you remember your first meeting with Joni - where and when that was? What was your impression of Joni the first time you met her?

Some coffee house in the Midwest I think... Denver? Regina? Minneapolis? Saskatoon? I was all over the place. I liked her guitar playing - she really played great, and not everybody did - and the sense of cohesive story-telling of her songs. Personally she carried both an innocence and a confidence, and she was very beautiful. I told her I thought she was a great talent; and to keep hold of her publishing! (I had given away the rights to my song "Universal Soldier" for one dollar; never did that again).

Joni gave me a tape of her music and I carried it around with me in Asia, Europe and North America, playing it for anybody and everybody, hoping to get her a deal, which was hard. As Suze Rutolo (Bob Dylan's girlfriend) put it, it was an old boys' club for sure in those days. The scene had its gatekeepers and a handful of businessmen and record company executives ran the show. Most of the people I played Joni's tape for - friends and musicians - loved her music, but not the business boys. They were into Peter, Paul & Mary vanilla folk songs, and Joni and I were both originals... and Canadian (not so cool at the time). I played her tape for Joel Dean, my agent at Chartoff-Winkler Agency, and got a "no thanks". But a younger guy in the same agency agreed to go see Joni play at a Greenwich Village coffee house. That was Elliot Roberts. He and Joni built a great career together and I've always loved him for that.

When Joni lived with Chuck Mitchell in Detroit around 1966/67, it has been written that you attended "all-night" poker games at their apartment, attended by Gordon Lightfoot, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and others. Do you have fond memories of that time?

I wasn't part of that scene. Sorry. Sounds like I missed a great party, but I made it into the legend anyway? Yay! What I most remember about Ramblin' Jack was that he liked using binoculars from hotel windows, and he came on to my mother.

According to our research, it was on October 26, 1967 that you urged Elliot Roberts to come listen to Joni perform at the Cafe Au Go Go in New York City. This was a turning point for Joni as Elliot subsequently became her manager. Can you talk about your thoughts at that time? Your relationship with Elliot and your reason for urging him to hear her?

See above for the whole story. I didn't know Elliot very well but I liked him. I'm really glad they were so successful. He was a dynamite manager for her, a thousand percent.

Some of Joni's stage patter from her early years of performing mentions that Yorkville had a bad reputation in the early 60s among the Toronto population as a whole. What was your impression of Yorkville during the period when you were performing and the coffee house culture was flourishing there? Are there any particular memories that stand out in your mind about Yorkville?

Yorkville wasn't the collection of rich-folks' boutiques that it is now. It was like Greenwich Village then, a little rundown, kinda beat up and shabby, very un-fancy and full of students, poets, guitar-players and old beatniks. When I was playing the Purple Onion coffeehouse, it was before the hippies had emerged. The Toronto establishment found all this student action a bit suspect, since they didn't control it and it had sprouted on its own.

What prompted you to choose to record the songs 'The Circle Game' and 'Song to a Seagull'?

I thought they were great songs and that audiences would like them, and that Joni Mitchell could have a real shot.

You are known for maintaining a high level of social and political activism since the beginning of your career in both your art and personal involvement in many important issues and causes. Are you familiar with Joni's 'Dog Eat Dog' or any of the material that followed that release that engaged specifically with Joni's political side? Her last release, 'Shine' also expressed a lot of anger and projected a very dark view of the current state of our planet's ecological health and the behaviors and attitudes that have brought us to the present state of our world. Are there any of Joni's politically themed songs or songs that deal with societal issues, such as 'Magdalene Laundries', that have struck a chord with you?

Of Joni's topical songs, I like Magdalene Laundries best. The art of the protest song is a tricky genre where the music and emotion and lyrical facts have to be just right or you're wasting your time. Sometimes one will defeat the other so that either the message gets lost in the music, or it can turn into a wordy lecture, or an emotional tirade. For me, all those things need to take a back seat to the overarching effectiveness. It's very special and real tricky, and very easy to drown the baby in the bath water.

Are you familiar with Joni's painting or the photographic art she did for her 'Green Flag Song' exhibition? As a visual artist, do you have any thoughts you would like to share about Joni as a visual artist?

As a visual artist, she's just great, which has never surprised me. Artists are artists - in spite of art schools and the music business - and although commercial interests might think we should do only their particular money maker, many natural creatives can do multiple arts. After all these years, finally there's a word for this: multimedia. As in my own case, Joni's approach seems to be same-brain same-experiences same-concerns, playing with different toys. Her originality and her appreciation of both seriousness and fun are always riveting, and she seems to enjoy the sensual gradations of colour, line, note and timbre as much as the story telling. Maybe it's in that Saskatchewan water, eh?

When was the last time you were in contact with Joni? Have you followed her music and career over the years?

Aside from hosting her and James Taylor for big fun in Hawaii in the 60s (we went up the Wailua River in a very stony rubber boat), after which Joni wrote Big Yellow Taxi (there really is a pink hotel and they really did pave paradise and put up a parking lot), we have never spent a lot of time together. However, we did hang out a little in New York when I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel. Leonard Cohen was a good friend and the three of us had some fun, talking songwriting etc. Somebody took pictures of me and Leonard sitting on the floor playing clap-hands, and Joni is in the background; but I only have a contact sheet so it's not a very usable picture of the three of us.

Most recently we both attended an event celebrating Saskatchewan, with Queen Elizabeth attending. Joni and I found some time to sit around and chat awhile at a hotel. Also, she very kindly participated in the bio-documentary DVD about me, A Multimedia Life, and did a great on-camera interview. The DVD is included in the package with my most recent CD, Running for the Drum.

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Added to Library on March 6, 2013. (25483)


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