Passionate songs of protest & peace

Buffy Sainte-Marie has been singing songs of protest, peace and un­der­stand­ing for more than a half cen­tury. She’s in­spired or wo­ken up count­less peo­ple along the way. Who bet­ter to speak with to kick off our is­sue high­light­ing in­spir­ing women? by Ron John

Bayview Post - - News -

You wrote one of the most iconic protest songs in his­tory. Tell me the story be­hind “Uni­ver­sal Sol­dier.”

I wrote that song in the San Fran­cisco air­port. I was try­ing to get to Toronto for a show at the Pur­ple Onion in Yorkville in 1962 or ’63. I was com­ing from Mex­ico and had to spend the night at the San Fran­cisco air­port. In the mid­dle of the night, a bunch of medics start wheel­ing in wounded sol­diers, you know on gur­neys and wheel­chairs. I got to talk­ing to the medics and think­ing about who was re­spon­si­ble for war be­cause, you know, we were told there was no war and us hip­pies were crazy. They con­vinced me, yeah there was a hor­ri­ble war. I just got to think­ing about who was re­spon­si­ble for th­ese poor guys who were ly­ing there.… So I wound up writ­ing this song and de­buted it at the Pur­ple Onion cof­fee house when I got there.

Did you spend a lot of time in T.O. back then?

Toronto is one of the places I loved com­ing to, and I’ve al­ways played here, and I’ve lived here sev­eral times. I have a soft spot for Toronto.

How did you end up living in Hawaii?

I was play­ing a con­cert in Honolulu, and I asked the travel agent to send me a cou­ple of weeks early, and I just fell in love with the outer is­lands and bought my place im­me­di­ately. And I’ve been there ever since.

Any­where near Wil­lie Nel­son?

No no, dif­fer­ent is­land, much more re­mote. I live in the moun­tains on a goat farm.

What gives you hope?

That not ev­ery­body goes along with some of the ridicu­lous moves that are be­ing made in the States th­ese days. Not ev­ery­body be­lieves in that even though they are try­ing their best to get away with what they want to do. You know, get­ting black­listed in the ’60s, some­times peo­ple will say well doesn’t that make you hate the U.S. gov­ern­ment? Well, the U.S. gov­ern­ment re­ally had noth­ing to do with it. It’s a hand­ful of guys that make up an ad­min­is­tra­tion, and they work with their cronies who are like-minded, and they are in of­fice for a lit­tle while, and at best, I guess it can be a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

How can mu­sic help make change?

Well, Medicine Songs is the name of my new al­bum, but it’s also a way of think­ing. Pos­i­tive songs, protest songs, songs that in­form peo­ple — you know we might not cure cancer, but we might be some­body’s vi­ta­min C. We might make life bet­ter for peo­ple who are think­ing about this for the first time or peo­ple who have been think­ing about this a long time. I think songs can help a lot. I think a song can be more ef­fec­tive than a 400-page text­book that winds up on the shelf that no­body ever reads.

Who in­spires you?

The first thing that comes to mind im­me­di­ately are all the peo­ple in Idle No More. I don’t want to name ex­act names be­cause a lot of peo­ple in Idle No More, men or women, some are grass­roots peo­ple or peo­ple whose names you don’t know, and they show up. They show up, they be­lieve, and they are part of sol­i­dar­ity.

What do you make of the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in the United States?

Oh god, you know, we’ve sur­vived bad lead­er­ship be­fore, and we can sur­vive bad lead­er­ship again. I mean, we had Harper in Canada, right? And there have been crazy peo­ple. He’s not there now, so things can change. But when peo­ple go to sleep think­ing ev­ery­thing is just fine, you know, the ter­mites are chew­ing on your rafters all the time, and things can hap­pen. But, you know, we’ll sur­vive it.

What are you hop­ing peo­ple take from your new al­bum?

Re­ally I am try­ing to put th­ese songs to work. Some are new, some are old, but they are all about con­tem­po­rary is­sues, con­tem­po­rary be­fore and some, un­for­tu­nately, are con­tem­po­rary again. You know, we still have op­pres­sion in Canada. We still hav­ing miss­ing and mur­dered [Indige­nous women]. We still have slav­ery. We still have all kinds of in­equity be­tween rich and poor. We have peo­ple wor­ry­ing about what’s go­ing to hap­pen to their kids. And hope­fully this al­bum will in­spire lis­ten­ers to think a lit­tle more. And to re­al­ize it’s not re­ally hard to fig­ure out.... You don’t have to have a rev­o­lu­tion. You can be a rev­o­lu­tion in your own fam­ily.

Wise words.

The Dalai Lama says we al­ways have the best tool for peace with us at all times, and that’s a smile. It’s noth­ing new, but we need to be en­cour­ag­ing each other to en­joy mak­ing the world a bet­ter place be­cause it re­ally is a priv­i­lege.

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