Born February 20, 1942 (some sources say 1941), in Piapat Reserve, Saskatchewan, Canada; adopted by Albert C. and Winifred (Kendrick) Sainte-Marie; married Dewain Kamaikalani Bugbee, 1967; children: Dakota (son). Education: University of Massachusetts, B.A. in Oriental philosophy, 1963; Ph.D. in fine arts. Addresses: Record company-- Chrysalis, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.

One of the most striking voices of the contemporary folk music movement of the 1960s, Buffy Sainte-Marie has enjoyed a career far broader than the "protest singer" category into which she has sometimes been placed. She has written and lectured on native-American affairs, written poetry and screenplays, and composed film scores, as well as writing, recording, and performing songs in styles ranging from folk to rock and from art song to electronic music. But while she has become known for love songs like "Until It's Time for You to Go," Sainte-Marie has never abandoned the social and political concerns that marked her early work. And though she resists the label of "protest song," she admitted to Paul Sexton of Billboard, "The only reason I ever became a singer in the first place was because I had something to say."

Buffy Sainte-Marie was born on a Cree Indian reservation in western Canada. She was orphaned when she was only months old and adopted by a family from Massachusetts. Though her adoptive parents were part Indian, she has described the cultural environment in which she grew up as completely white. It was routine at the time to place Indian children in white families. "Many Indian children were effectively kidnapped--it was supposed to be for our own good," she told Diane Turbide of MacLean's. It was not until she was in her teens that Sainte-Marie discovered her Cree roots and was reunited with her relatives.

By the time she was in high school, she had taught herself to play the piano and the guitar, using her own unconventional tunings. She had no intention of making a career in music when she began singing in coffeehouses while in college, but an appearance at an open mike night at Greenwich Village's Gaslight Cafe brought her to the attention of critics and record companies. By the end of 1963, she had given up her plans to become a teacher and was being hailed as one of the most promising talents on the New York folk scene. Another Indian folksinger, Patrick Sky, taught her to play the traditional native-American instrument the mouth bow, which became a distinctive part of her sound, along with her unique guitar style and her sometimes strident, sometimes delicate vibrato-rich voice.

Shortly after Sainte-Marie began singing professionally, she came down with pneumonia. Unwilling to give up performing, she took codeine to ease her symptoms. The illness persisted for six months, and she became addicted to the drug, recovering only after a painful withdrawal; she also came close to ruining her voice. She wrote of her addiction in the song "Cod'ine."

That song, as well as two of her best-known compositions, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" and "The Universal Soldier," appeared on her first album, It's My Way. In the liner notes, Maynard Solomon remarked on "a hint of blues-inflection, a trace of Indian song, a touch of Parisian chanson, an echo of beat" in her music, which was already much more harmonically and rhythmically adventurous than most folksong.

By 1965 Sainte-Marie's growing popularity had taken her out of the coffeehouse scene and into major concert venues like New York City's Carnegie Hall. She toured Europe as well as the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, gaining a large international following. But the folk boom was fading, so Sainte-Marie, who had never let herself be confined by traditional idioms anyway, began exploring other directions. Still, while others were experimenting with folk-rock, she moved another way, recording her song "Timeless Love" with a string ensemble for her third album, Little Wheel Spin and Spin. In that record's notes, Nat Hentoff wrote that Sainte-Marie sang "with so unyielding a sense of self that the listener, once seized, finds concern about categories to be secondary.... She is, there is no one else like her, and that's what counts.... The personal thrust of her bristling expressivity is both a satisfaction and a challenge."

Fire & Fleet & Candlelight moved even more in the direction of art song, including a piece by British composer Benjamin Britten and orchestral arrangements by Peter Schickele. But Sainte-Marie's next effort, Gonna Be a Country Girl Again, was recorded in Nashville with country music's top studio players; the follow-up, Illuminations, featured hard rock songs like "He's a Keeper of the Fire" and "Better to Find Out for Yourself," blended with electronic music synthesized from Sainte-Marie's voice and guitar.

Though she had won a large following, Sainte-Marie did not score a hit record until the early 1970s. The resurgence of interest in singer-songwriters during that decade, however, finally brought her significant airplay and two hit singles, "She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina" and "Mister Can't You See." Elvis Presley's version of "Until It's Time for You to Go," from her second album, also put her in the Top Forty. But her mid-'70s albums met with mixed reviews and yielded no hits, and by 1977, Sainte-Marie had stopped recording, though she had by no means retired.

"I quit recording when my son was born," she told Paul Sexton of Billboard. "[I] decided to take some time off." Her break from the record business stretched to 15 years, but during that time she appeared semi-regularly on the PBS children's show Sesame Street (where, among other things, she sang the alphabet song to her son and explained breast feeding to Big Bird). She also wrote a children's book, earned a Ph.D., gave numerous concerts in support of Indian causes, and co-wrote "Up Where You Belong," which was featured in the film An Officer and a Gentleman, and for which she won an Oscar in 1982.

In 1992 Sainte-Marie re-emerged with Coincidence and Likely Stories, which Sexton called "a striking, modern, and thoughtful collection of rock'n'roll songs that updates Sainte-Marie's musical image." She produced the album in her home studio using state-of-the-art computer technology. While many of the lyrics addressed familiar themes, the modern pop sound displayed on Coincidence was a far cry from the acoustic guitar and mouth-bow of her earliest records. "In lesser hands, the washes of synthesized sounds would be an egregious mistake, but Sainte-Marie has artfully managed to tame the technology and bend it to her needs," wrote Tom Graves in Rolling Stone. "The result is eleven songs that have deep thematic resonance and that are among her most appealing work." In compositions about the environment, government corruption, and the oppression of native Americans, as well as in love songs, Sainte-Marie demonstrated that her long leave of absence had diminished neither the intensity nor the inventiveness of her music, nor her ambition to tackle major issues in, as she remarked to Maclean's contributor Turbide, "the kind of songs that would make as much sense in ancient Rome as they would today."

by Tim Connor

Buffy Sainte-Marie's Career

Began performing in coffeehouses, early 1960s; performed at clubs, concerts, and festivals, 1963--; recording artist, 1964--. Actor in films and television shows, including "The Virginian," "Then Came Bronson," and "Sesame Street"; appeared in cable film The Broken Chain, TNT, 1993. Free-lance writer on Indian affairs; associate editor of The Native Voice, Vancouver, B.C., Canada. Founder of NIHEWAN Foundation for Native American Scholarships, Native North American Women's Association, and Creative Native, Inc. Author of children's book Nikosis and the Magic Hat.

Buffy Sainte-Marie's Awards

Billboard Award, 1965; named outstanding artist of the year by National Association of FM Broadcasters, 1975; Academy Award for best song, 1982, for "Up Where We Belong" (from film An Officer and a Gentleman ); Premio Roma Award.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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