Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American Folk Legend Cree Indian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie has recorded numerous albums and written Oscar-winning songs. Her first record in 13 years is Running for the Drum, which expands on the creative mix of Native American rhythms, electronica and folk music she began many years ago.
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Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American Folk Legend

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Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American Folk Legend

Buffy Sainte-Marie: Native American Folk Legend

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(Soundbite of song)

Ms. BUFFY SAINTE-MARIE (Singer): (Singing) Ooh, you better wake up…


Buffy Sainte-Marie has a new CD out. It's her first in 13 years. It's called "Running for the Drum." This song is called "Cho Cho Fire."

(Soundbite of song, "Cho Cho Fire")

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) Are you ready, come on now, it's a new world, cho cho fire. Listen to the drumbeats, it's my heartbeat, have a little fun now, cho cho fire…

SIMON: Buffy Sainte-Marie is Cree Indian, born in Canada, raised in Massachusetts, and was an icon in the '60s folk music explosion during the time of Dylan, Joan Baez and Leonard Cohen. But over the years, Buffy Sainte-Marie has also written Oscar-winning movie songs, performed pop and opera, and otherwise defied being defined as just one or two things. Buffy Sainte-Marie joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What's the story of "Cho Cho Fire"?

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: "Cho Cho Fire" - oh, gosh. Actually, the Black Lodge Singers were at a powwow maybe 30 years ago, and my nephew went to the powwow in Saskatchewan and recorded a little snippet of them when they were kids. And of course, they've gone on to be one of the most beloved powwow groups in the world. And I took a snippet of this 30-year-old cassette, and I embedded it into a new song that I was writing, called "Cho Cho Fire."

(Soundbite of song "Cho Cho Fire")

SIMON: Tell us how you put an album together because in reading this material - I mean, do I get this wrong, you've got a studio in Hawaii and a laptop, and that's what you do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: That's kind of it. No, I've had a studio for a real long time. I got into electronic music in the '60s with an album called "Illuminations," whereby all of the electronic, vocal and guitar sounds came either from my voice or my guitar and were processed. I really had a head start in digital technology because I entered it through the way of music.

SIMON: Let's hear a little more from this CD. This is "Too Much Is Never Enough."

(Soundbite of song, "Too Much Is Never Enough")

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) A reckless world out of control. He's the one supposed to tame it. Restless heart out on patrol. He was in love, but he couldn't name it.

(Speaking) That one's about heroes - you know, you can think of heroes: firefighters, policemen, soldiers, you know, people who are working with, dealing with 9/11, although I wrote the song long before 9/11. A lot of songs I'll write, and then they'll become contemporary issues a few years later.

SIMON: So we should find out what you're writing this week, so we can prepare.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah, I've got a crystal ball somewhere in the guitar.

SIMON: You haven't written any songs about the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, have you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Not yet.

SIMON: Ah, just - all right. Please tell us about the Cradleboard Teaching Project, because that has taken up a lot of your time…

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, thank you.

SIMON: …the last 13 years.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: That's what I'm usually doing in between albums. Like some people make an album when the record company tells them to, but I am the record company and I have the studio, so I make a record company when I feel like going on the road and getting away from it all.

SIMON: You go on the road to get away from it all?

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah, yeah, I do. But in the '60s - and I was a young singer who had too much money, and I started a foundation called the Nihewan Foundation for Native American Education. Because if I had a concert in New York, I'd be out on the reservation (unintelligible) or you know, somewhere in U.S. or Canada. In Australia, you know, I do the concert in Sydney. Then I'd be out in the bush with aboriginal people. It pointed out to me that Native American people wanted to be understood, because Native American people suffer from being misperceived all of our lives, because there's just nothing out there in the mainstream curriculum. So in the '70s, when I finished with "Sesame Street"…

SIMON: We should explain. You were on "Sesame Street" for like five or six years, right?

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Yeah. Yeah.

SIMON: You will forgive me. You showed Big Bird how to nourish an infant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Very discreetly put. Yeah. We did things on sibling rivalry and, as you mentioned, breast-feeding.

SIMON: I want to ask you about another song on this CD. Let's listen to a little of it, if we can - truly a song that needs no introduction.

(Soundbite of song, "America the Beautiful")

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) Oh beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain…

(Speaking) You know, there are a lot of people in the Western Hemisphere who live in rural places where you can still see the stars and the trees and the animals. And for us, our country is really kind of sacred. And my feeling this way coincided with an invitation from NASA. The first Native-American astronaut commander, John Herrington, was going to get his ride. And I was invited to be a part of the launch. So I was thinking, what am I going to sing?

I knew I wanted to sing "Up Where We Belong," which is my Academy Award song, yeah, but I said, how about "America the Beautiful"? And if you go online and you look at the history of "America the Beautiful," you see a lot of people have added verses to it. But I added an introduction and a middle part, and chose some of the verses that I thought were so touching and poignant.

(Soundbite of song, "America the Beautiful")

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) There were cliff towns in Colorado, pyramids in Illinois, trade roads up and down the Mississippi River to see. America, oh, she's like a mother to me.

SIMON: I'm fascinated by your fascination with the Internet.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, yeah.

SIMON: Or how you think the - what the Web can do for music.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: I'm not a techie at all. But I'm a user of certain programs for art, for writing, swapping music - you know, people think that we're not making any money on the Internet, but you know, we weren't making any money when record companies were controlling everything either, so you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But you did OK, though, didn't you?

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: I did OK because of "Until It's Time for You to Go," but you know, I gave away the publishing rights to "Universal Soldier" for one dollar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: No, I did not - and that's the song, I gather, we're going to ask you to do - probably because it's so cheap, we can afford it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Oh, well, you know what? The Highwaymen came in and heard me at the Gaslight in New York in Greenwich Village and they said, we want to record your song and I said, OK. They said, who is the publisher? And I said, what's that? You know, I was really green. And some guy at the table said, oh, I can help you with that, but we have to make it official. And he got out a napkin, and he made out a contract for one dollar.

And 10 years later, I bought it back for $25,000, so that's the good news. And then when Elvis Presley recorded "Until It's Time for You to Go," this guy that I knew who was working with Elvis said, Elvis just recorded your song. It's his and Priscilla's love song, and we're going to have some of that publishing money, honey, and I wouldn't give it up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: I never did. I never gave it up again.

SIMON: My treat. Can we hear "Universal Soldier"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: The dollar version, as opposed to the 25,000…

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Sure, the one dollar version. Okay, you've got it, Scott. This song is really about individual responsibility for our world, and it's called "Universal Soldier."

(Soundbite of song, "Universal Soldier")

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: (Singing) He's 5 foot 2, and he's 6 feet 4, he fights with missiles and with spears. He's all of 31, and he's only 17. And he's been a soldier for a thousand years. He's a Catholic, a Hindu, an atheist, a Jain, a Buddhist and a Baptist and a Jew. And he knows he shouldn't kill. And he knows he always will kill you for me, my friend, and me for you. And he's fighting for Canada. He's fighting for France. He's fighting for the U.S.A. And he's fighting for the Russians, and he's fighting for Japan. And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.

And he's fighting for democracy and fighting for the Reds. He says it's for the peace of all. He's the one who must decide who's to live and who's to die. And he never sees the writing on the walls. But without him, how would Hitler have condemned him at Dachau? Without him, Caesar would have stood alone. He's the one who gives his body as a weapon to a war. And without him, all this killing can't go on. He's the universal soldier, and he really is to blame, but his orders come from far away no more. They come from him and you and me and brothers, can't you see. This is not the way we put an end to war.

SIMON: Buffy Sainte-Marie, thanks so much.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: My pleasure. I'm a big fan because of listening to you on KKCO, which is my local community radio station.

SIMON: Oh, we should mention that's in Hawaii.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: It's in Hawaii.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: All right. I'll work on that pronunciation. So nice talking to you.

Ms. SAINTE-MARIE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Buffy Sainte-Marie, speaking with us from New York. You can hear two songs from Buffy Sainte Marie's new CD, "Running for the Drum." See a clip of her from her "Sesame Street" days, at nprmusic.org.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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