If we measure a songwriter’s success by her awards, then Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Oscar, Golden Globe, half-dozen Junos, and countless other honours surely grant her a place among the elite. And if we judge success by counting commercial hits, again Sainte-Marie makes the grade easily as the composer of Universal Soldier, Until It’s Time for You To Go, and Up Where We Belong.
But Sainte-Marie and her songs have always been about so much more than mere awards and hit recordings. As a spokesperson for societal, environmental and Indigenous issues, she proves the power of songs to influence attitudes, with such songs as Now That The Buffalo’s Gone, Power In the Blood, and Generation.
Born into a Cree family on the Piapot First Nation in Saskatchewan in 1941, Beverly Sainte-Marie was raised by relatives in the eastern USA. She began playing piano while very young and took up the guitar in her teens, influenced by American blues artists and Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Little Richard.
After graduating from the University of Massachusetts, where she studied education and world religion, 1962 saw Sainte-Marie on the folk-music circuit in New York City and Toronto coffee-houses. She released her first album, “It’s My Way!”, in 1964, and when Scottish folk singer Donovan had an international hit with his recording of her anti-war anthem Universal Soldier, she became a star. She performed at the Mariposa and Newport Folk Festivals, and “Billboard” named her their best new artist of 1964. By 1968, Sainte-Marie was showcasing her songs at Carnegie Hall and garnering praise like that of Steppenwolf’s John Kay, who said Sainte-Marie’s songs “just knocked me out….Buffy was this whirlwind of intensity.”
Fearless even when blacklisted and facing censorship in the United States, Sainte-Marie continued writing hits. The touching ballad Until It’s Time For You To Go, off her second album, “Many a Mile,” became a Top 10 hit for Elvis Presley and was eagerly recorded by dozens of top artists, including Neil Diamond, Glen Campbell, Roberta Flack, Grover Washington Jr., Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Al Martino, Johnny Mathis, Maureen McGovern, Roger Williams, Andy Williams, Vera Lynn, Chet Atkins, Cher, the Boston Pops, and Canadians like Paul Anka, Juliette and Robert Goulet.
The early 1970s also brought Sainte-Marie success with Soldier Blue, I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again and He’s an Indian Cowboy in the Rodeo.
A decade later Sainte-Marie again struck it hot with Up Where We Belong, the theme song co-written with Jack Nitzche and Will Jennings for the box office hit film “An Officer and a Gentleman.” A No. 1 hit in 1982 for Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, the song swept the Academy, Golden Globe, Grammy and BAFTA awards, and has since been recorded by an impressive 60 acts, including Anne Murray and Céline Dion.
Sainte-Marie explains her approach to songwriting: “Songs pop into my head very often, just unbidden.… I really love the art of the 3 1/2 minute song and I want to inform the people in an engaging way.”
In addition to her commercial successes, Sainte-Marie was a leader in the early use of electronic techniques, and in adapting the rhythms and melodies of her Indigenous heritage to create powwow rock.
For her leadership and her impressive body of work over 20 acclaimed albums, Sainte-Marie has been awarded the Governor-General’s Performing Arts Award, the Polaris Music Prize, and membership in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Her Universal Soldier is a Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted song.
Sainte-Marie’s songs have been recorded by acts as varied as Barbra Streisand, Willie Nelson, Janis Joplin, Courtney Love, and Indigo Girls.