By late 1963, the U.S. government had 16,000 troops in the troubled nation of South Vietnam, ostensibly as “advisors.” Vietnam was the elephant in the room – the public widely believed that America was involved in a war, but nothing was official. Singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, living in the U.S., had heard the rumours. Then, one night in the San Francisco airport while waiting for her flight to Toronto where she was to perform at the Purple Onion coffeehouse, she encountered bloodied and wounded soldiers being carried back from Vietnam.
“I had never seen anything like that,” Sainte-Marie explained. “I started thinking, ‘Who is responsible for war, anyway? Is it these guys?’ By the time I got to the Purple Onion, I said, ‘Who elects the politicians? It’s us.’ So it’s about individual responsibility.” At the Purple Onion she wrote The Universal Soldier, which quickly became the controversial anthem for the growing anti-war movement:
“He's the universal soldier
And he really is to blame
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.”
The college vocal harmony group The Highwaymen were first to record The Universal Soldier in 1963. (They had already had a gold record in 1961 with Michael [Row The Boat Ashore].) Sainte-Marie was performing her Universal Soldier in coffee-houses and folk venues before recording it for her album “It’s My Way!” (Vanguard VSD 79142) in 1964.
Sainte-Marie ‒ despite being “Billboard” magazine’s Best New Artist of 1964 ‒ was then blacklisted by the White House, so her recording got little radio play. However, the ban didn’t prevent a 1965 cover by Scottish folk-pop singer Donovan Leitch from becoming an international hit. Simultaneously, another cover by burgeoning country star Glen Campbell hit No. 45 on Billboard’s Hot 100 while Donovan’s was top 10 on European charts, RPM’s No. 21, and Billboard Top 40.
The Universal Soldier gained traction through the 1960s and 1970s through Sainte-Marie’s performances at such festivals as the Newport Folk Festival and the Bread and Roses Festival at the University of California at Berkeley, her 1968 Carnegie Hall concert, and on TV’s “Shindig!”. Indeed, the song became well-known among the American troops.
Those decades saw cover versions recorded by folk, pop, and country artists such as Flatt and Scruggs, The Grass Roots, Lobo, and The Roemans. Appropriately, The Universal Soldier has been recorded in many languages, including Italian (Soldato universale), Dutch (De Eeuwige Soldaat), and German (Der Ewige Soldat).
The Universal Soldier has been rediscovered during the 1990s and 2000s by new generations of musicians during the Middle East crises and Iraq wars: Eric Anderson, Jake Bugg, Julie Felix, Damien Leith, and English punk band Passion Killers. Sainte-Marie herself sang it at a Washington peace rally in 2008.
Swedish sisters First Aid Kit recently updated the lyrics by placing the soldier in the Middle East: “He’s fighting for Palestine, he’s fighting for Israel…he’s fighting for Iraq…he’s fighting for his soil” and adding a Muslim soldier.
Sainte-Marie understood The Universal Soldier’s potential longevity even as she was writing it: “Universal Soldier I very deliberately wrote hoping that it would last for generations and cross languages and countries.”
The Universal Soldier is an enduring folk protest song, sharing this status with other Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees from that era, Walk Me Out In the Morning Dew and Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream.
Buffy Sainte-Marie (born in Saskatchewan in 1941) was a significant figure in establishing the individual singer-songwriter movement. She has over twenty acclaimed albums to her credit, and is internationally recognized for her activism on Indigenous rights and environmental issues. As a songwriter she composed the hit ballads Until It’s Time for You to Go and Up Where We Belong, the latter earning a 1983 Academy Award and Golden Globe for best song. For her impressive body of work, Sainte-Marie has been awarded the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, the Polaris Award, six Junos and several Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards. She is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.