Interview With Buffy Sainte Marie
By Tony Montague for fRoots
A few interviews are worth quoting in full – such was the case of my chat with Buffy Sainte Marie in early January, 2017. I quoted from it extensively for a feature article in the Spring issue of fRoots (now a quarterly) but there’s at least as much that had to be left out for reasons of space. Buffy talked for almost 90 minutes – a record for me – and I let her run with it. The transcript is long, but it’s best to read it without interruption to get a clear sense of her mind and spirit at work. And do yourself a big favour and get Medicine Songs – it’s the quintessential wisdom in song of an elder and healer with astonishing passion, courage, and creativity. - TM
How are you doing and how’s Vancouver today?
Where are you?
Oh I don’t tell. I always lie. I say oh Maui oh the Big Island – I live on one of those little outer islands.
What was your intention with Medicine Songs, both as an artist and as an activist?
Really the two are the same thing. I write so many different styles, and each of my albums is similar only in that they’re very diverse and they’ll have love songs and protest songs and empowerment songs and country songs all on the same album. So that’s good, that’ll work. However, you know I’ve been on the road for about 50 years [she laughs] I’ve taken some time off it’s been pretty intense the past four years. I’ve been on the road a lot. So I’m doing these songs each night and – through the Harper days, and now the Trump days – seeing people really wake up to things that they were not noticing before, seeing things come to a head in terms of public awareness. Mmm…
People would tell me after every concert that these songs I’m doing are right now – how is it that I could have written them five years ago, or 20 years ago, or 40 years ago, or 50 years ago? [she chuckles] Where can they find “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone”? Where can they find “The Big Ones Get Away”? Where can they find “Universal Soldier”? These songs are scattered over 50 years of recordings, but they’re not old songs to me. They’re songs that I do every night to a different audience.
So I really wanted to just coral all of the songs of meaning – empowerment songs, and protest songs. There’s not really a word for empowerment songs. I don’t know what else to call them. You might have a better word, so please let me know, I’m looking for it. A strong protest song like “Universal Soldier”, it’s informative and I think that it can have a big impact on some people’s worlds, it really can speak and put into words things that a lot of people are thinking. And I have a lot of those songs, so I wanted to put them all on one album. But there were too many songs for one CD, so we ended up putting 13 on the CD and then people can free-download another seven.
I wanted to put the songs to work. Look at Canada during the [Conservative Prime Minister Stephen] Harper days. Where was the great music? Where was the music inspiring people? It was mostly in small clubs and conversations in the back of people’s cars, the Idle No More movement. There’s been a lot of public interaction with things that perhaps governments would prefer to keep private – whether you’re talking about Residential Schools or the build-up to war or the impoverishment of students for the rest of their lives trying to pay back phoney loans. There’s a lot of corruption available in the world at any one time, I suppose [she laughs] But during Harper and Trump it just became very clear to me that…. there was a lot of social commentary going on online but there hasn’t been very much in terms of music. And these songs just happened to fit. I think it’s probably because this isn’t really a turn of the page.
Your [fRoots] readership is probably people who appreciate musically artists such as The Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Martin Carthy, and the Delta Blues people. You know, we had some really interesting musics in the ‘60s. There was a big cultural exchange. People who used to only be able to get a few songs on the radio - you know, Frank Sinatra kind of Eisenhower-era music - all of a sudden radio invented teenagers [she laughs] and those of us who were teenagers at the time, our ears were just ready for world music. So I think there’s a big loop between today and the way people are using the internet, not only to publish their own thoughts and songs and art and poetry and comment, but also in our real lives.
So many people who’ve been sleeping through a lot of political controversy, suddenly they had to wake up, and boy are they ever shocked. And yet a lot of us are not shocked, we’ve seen it coming. Here we are a big collection of people, some of us more aware and some of us more able to access information and contribute to the information stream. And yet others have their hands tied and their ears blocked by those who didn’t want them to know so clearly how stupidly corrupt people in positions of power can become, whether it’s business power or politician power
Or sexual power.
Yeah, all of the stuff that’s coming out in headlines right now, none of it’s new, some of us have been writing about it for a long, long time. So some of us are being discovered – people are saying ‘oh wow, I never heard of her’; “Universal Soldier”, that’s interesting’, “Universal Soldier” is basically common sense, and that’s really the tie-in to genuine folk music.
I was very lucky in that I came up during that era that they were calling the folk music era, you know the mid-60s to the late ‘60s. It was a very interesting atmosphere. It was students basically, high-school and college students, that kind of age demographic. There was a war going on. We didn’t want to send our friends to somebody’s stupid business-war so that Lyndon Johnson could have a good day. So there was a cohesiveness there was I guess you’d call it a critical mass of students who were not only listening to nonsense and calling ‘bullshit!’ on it but… in the case of my songs what’s cool is the common sense factor of say “Universal Soldier” or “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone”, and that style of writing. If you look at traditional folk music how lucky I was to be around real folk songs, and people like Martin Carthy, and Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger who were singing songs four or five hundred years old.
I was a philosophy major in college and I’ve got a degree in oriental philosophy so I tend not only to focus on details, which I love – If you go to my website and look for “Universal Soldier” in depth, what I did was that every line of the song has another line under it of explanation. For instance it says ‘he’s five-foot two, and he’s six-foot four’ – that’s not something that I just made up to be cool, those were the actual height parameters during the Vietnam War for a soldier. So the song is imbued with details that are just plain accurate. It’s not new information.
But what a songwriter can do is we can order the phrases, the information in ways that make common sense to the listener; and that’s one of the nicest things you can do, I think, in a three-minute song. It can be more impactful than a big fat book that will never be read. So in the history of folk music the Child Ballads - just focus on the UK for a second, which of course trickles down to everywhere else just because English is so widely spoken - and the songs that have lasted are about universal themes. And good people are not something that we’re looking forward to having next year, there’ve always been good people around. Are you familiar with the poet Rumi?
Yes, a little bit
Shakespeare was writing about realities. Rumi too was writing about realities in terms of practical very high poetry and spiritual writing. So what I’m saying is that I don’t think the world has changed very much, since before the Old Testament, you know, when bullies ruled and started in the Middle East. That pattern was also picked up in Europe. Patterns of oppression are very old and very widespread, just because of colonialism. They’re so widespread, to the point that a lot of people in the world still suffer from the kind of bullying style that took over Europe through the churches and the serial-killer kings.
For an indigenous person to look at European history, it’s a horror-comic. It’s really, really bad. When we think about the residential schools - just read Charles Dickens! That’s the way those people treated children, that’s the way they treated their own children. They bought and sold children. it was part of the cultural aberrations of the time and place, and widespread. So the songs that I write, they have kind of a universal feel, which I think the history of folk music is similar in that way. The songs are about universal things: oppression, love, war, the countryside.
So, lucky me to be a young songwriter in that kind of atmosphere and that kind of first global awakening of students, and music, and food, and dance, and music festivals. It was kind of a perfect storm for me, it was very beautiful and I really owe a lot to the people who live and preserve and perform and revitalize the ancient songs of the world, they’re everywhere you know and they do share a lot in common that Medicine Songs also reflects. The songs are about a lot of different things but they do have a basic common sense and high human values. It’s the motivation really.
Do you feel you’ve gained a new appreciation of the ‘old’ songs by rerecording them?
I was doing them every night. “Universal Soldier”, “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone”, “Little Wheel Turn And Spin, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, “Starwalker”, “You’ve Got To Run”, and “The War Racket”, two new ones – I do them every night intermixed with real powerful love songs. I really do like it to work like medicine. If I sing a song like “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee”, which is about a terrible subject, it’s just awful, I always follow it with a song that’s really uplifting and empowering, like “Starwalker” or “You Got To Run” or “Soldier Blue”. I’m a little more strategic I think than a lot of songwriters – they’re writing songs to make a living, and to please the audience they expect is going to buy their music, but there are a lot of other writers who write a lot of different styles.
I certainly write in different styles – and the songs on Medicine Songs have a lot in common where if you look at any one of my albums you’ll say ‘wow, this is really diverse. There aren’t two songs that are similar. Some sound like Blind Willie Johnson and some sound like Fats Domino [she laughs] and this is supposed to be a protest-singer who won an Academy Award for a love song [she chuckles] You figure it out I don’t know. But I wanted to have all of the songs of this particular energy. I wanted them all on one album, and audiences are loving it. After the show we always have a really long autograph-line anyway and people are really appreciating the fact that all the songs are together on one album.
You said in an interview that you put out some of your songs too early, which are you thinking about? I know “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying” is one.
Yes it was too early, and that’s another song. like “Universal Soldier” where if you go line by line. It’s a list of facts. And I made it bulletproof. If you’re going to write a song like that you have to think like a front-line New York Times journalist – you have to back it up with facts. So I’ve got a whole bibliography of some of these songs. If they were just fiction they’d be another kind of song, and I write a lot of songs that are based in fiction [she laughs] But the ones on Medicine Songs are not. It’s still art but… they’re not just documentaries, there is some… poetry involved. I won’t say poetic licence because I do try to make them bulletproof.
“My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying” in particular I think was the first place that I ever saw the word genocide used in relation to the Native American holocaust. I think people just thought ‘Oh, the little Indian girl, she must be mistaken, she just isn’t worldly enough, she doesn’t know. In which case I would pull out a whole bunch of letters after my name, and back it up with facts. And yet neither the US nor Canada, to say nothing of the countries to the South, nobody had any background, they didn’t realize that you know what? Maybe this particular little Indian girl with all the letters after her name is absolutely accurate. And that was different. I can’t think of too many artists who kind of combined that journalistic impetus with songwriting.
Dylan did at one point
He did for a little while. And it was so brilliant. But then he kind of stopped. God bless him – he just got too famous [she laughs] I just love him. But then in the ‘60s we can’t ever forget Phil Ochs. There was Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan, and me, and a couple of others. Apparently Tom Paxton and Phil Ochs used to enjoy picking up the newspaper – they’re basically student-age, right? – none of us knew what we were doing. They’d pick up the New York Times and whatever was the startling headline they would challenge themselves to write a song. And that’s kind of fun.
But it’s not the same thing as someone who’s living in the shit, and writing about the shit [she laughs] reading about it in the newspaper is a little bit second-hand. And Phil died very young. Tom Paxton has continued to write some meaningful songs. Peter Yarrow has a little collective of songs of meaning that he runs. But for the most part people are not writing about current events – except in hip hop. It might be that the 24 hour news services are providing either enough – or in some cases too much - information. So maybe other songwriters are not inspired to be writing about the big issues. But I’m just not seeing the songs, I don’t know where they are. But I’ve got a bunch of them, so - here I am.
When did you actually write “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying” and was there any particular – I hate to use the bad pun – trigger for it?
[she laughs] – terrible pun. You know what the impetus was, Tony? It was on my third album, I believe, and I had written “Universal Soldier” and “Now That The Buffalo’s Gone”, and Billboard had me as their best new artist of 1964, which was the year The Beatles came to America. I was kind of big news, I was on all the big TV shows and magazine covers, and all of that going on, and “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying”… I had been travelling around, not only in the US and Canada but in the UK and Europe, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong.
I was doing a lot of travelling. And in New York I got wind that here were these well-heeled people coming down to Greenwich Village to see the little Indian girl that‘d make you cry. Oh boy. That just broke my heart, that made a big change in me. In the first place I wanted to bring a rock band to a reservation because they did not need to hear protest songs. I started writing things like “He’s An Indian Cowboy In The Rodeo” but I did want to give people what I thought they needed, which in my opinion was ‘Indian 101’ in five-and-a-half minutes. I wanted to give them that because those people who were coming just to see a victimized Indian I believed wanted to know, even if it was kind of a heart-breaking approach for people to…. Did you ever see that movie War Horse?
I saw the play.
OK so there are people who will go and see a hard-hitting work of art. And I didn’t want to leave it as that. What I sensed in those audiences was – if they only knew, they would try to make it better. I really did believe that. I believed it when I wrote “Buffalo” when I wrote “Universal Soldier” and when I wrote “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying”. I wrote it in Spain I was living on a tiny island Formentera that most people have never heard off the coast. It was a very weird place. I had a gypsy boyfriend from the US and we travelled together – he was a painter – anyway I went to Spain to write. There were no tourists on the island, it was very hard to get to.
So that’s when I wrote it. But the reason why I wrote it was because I had well-meaning people, like teachers, wanting to know more. And there was nowhere you could find the whole history in a nutshell. There just weren’t even any books that really covered it well. So in 1960-something-or-other I wanted to write it all down and I did. It’s very much a list kind of song, but it apparently has made a big difference to a lot of people’s lives to go that deeply and that broadly into Native American history, the stuff that most consumers never come across.
If you are Native American or if you’re a scholar you can find it, but it wasn’t out there in the public. So I gave it a shot, and it was too early but it it’s not too early now. See fifty years later I look back and –god we’ve made so much progress. Truth and Reconciliation was a miracle. I still don’t know how it ever happened. It was a miracle to get that information out and into circulation where people can do something about it.
Closely-related question – how did you find out you were blacklisted – and when?
Oh God, I didn’t know it was going on at the time, they don’t tell you [she laughs] I found out in the ‘80s. I went to a regular interview for something and the radio broadcaster said “I would like to start this interview by apologizing to Buffy Sainte-Mariefor having gone along with these letters from the Lyndon Johnson White House commending him for having suppressed this music that deserved to be suppressed. The guy had changed his mind, and he was apologizing to me but it was the first time I’d ever heard of it, and after he said that then he went on with the regular interview [she laughs] I left 20 minutes later saying ‘what was that?’ He mentioned it and then I didn’t hear any more about it.
So I told my lawyer some time later, months I guess, and he said ‘Why don’t we get your FBI Files?’ and I said ‘There wouldn’t be any FBI files on me, I never committed a crime and I’m not important enough to have somebody putting me under surveillance. But sure enough! The FBI said ‘yea, we have files on her and she can come to Washington DC to look at them if she wants. And my lawyer said ‘No no no no, you can come to my office, and be present when she’s looking at them’.
I did look at my files, and of course there was nothing incriminating at all – page after page after page of redaction, where they take a big magic marker and they black things out so you hardly know what you’re looking at. So the only thing you can find out about me is that the FBI was following me around, J Edgar Hoover had me in his sights, and there are letters in the file from people who wrote to the FBI about this Buffy Sainte-Marie character – ‘have you got files on her? And what does she do?’ And blah blah. They do answer the letter, but they say ‘Yes we do have files on her, and we can’t tell you what’s in them’ [she laughs] It’s charming.
So that’s how I found out about it. When that kind of stuff is going on, the usual comment all these years later when people found out about it is ‘ Doesn’t that make you hate the United States government? And no, the United States government had nothing to do with it. And this is an opportunity to explain to people - your audience this time Tony – that the way it’s done is that in the first place an administration in the US or Canada is only a few years, and it’s a handful of clonies, a handful of guys, right, businessmen usually. And they assume office, and they’re in there for a few years - and the US never passed an act of Congress against me trying to gag me, shut me up, discredit me, or have my music not played, instead it’s a couple of guys who just go in the backroom and they make a couple of phone calls to their friends at the network who they talk to every day anyway.
So it’s a very small act that can silence an artist for many many years in a country like the US. And then in show-business they only have to hold you under the water for about four minutes and you’re dead forever in terms of airplay. It doesn’t matter what you record – ‘cause I was making some great records in the late ‘60s and ‘70s – ho-lee! – whether it was a love song a rockabilly song a rock and roll song whatever it was about you could not get it played in the US. So it’s kind of like the underground social media of politics I guess, before the rest of us knew about social media.
Yeah, it’s creepy.
So it’s weird. You go on anyway. I kept on writing songs. I kept on paying attention. I kept on having a great career outside of the US, I had no idea I was blacklisted in the US and once I found out I just said ‘Oh, I see” and I continued to do my paintings, to develop electronic music, to work in computers, and to make paintings, and songs, and writings, and develop a teaching project – the Cradleboard Teaching Project during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. So you just keep on, you know. Life is more than just your career. And if you’re an artist your life as an artist is more than your career too. The real work goes on before it hits the career-level. I’m in love with writing songs and when I want to go on the road I put out an album [she chuckles] – that’s just not the way to do it, but it is the way I’ve done this.
Presumably you’re a citizen both of the US and Canada
Canada considers me a “citizen” in quotes. Like many many people who were adopted away from their reservations they don’t have their documentation. I’ve even tried to find my documentation. I have a friend who’s a Cree lawyer and she did a lot of research – in Cree – to try to find out who I may be or may not be. I was adopted into Piapot Cree by people who may or may not be related to me. We all know that and it’s not a problem. But we did find out that six years of birth records were destroyed at the hospital that would have been servicing Piapot Reserve at the time in Craven. And Jean Goodwill who was the first aboriginal PhD nurse, she’s Cree as well, and she never had birth records either.
So Canada…[she laughs] Every time I’ve had something like the Governor-General’s Award or Pierre Trudeau invited me to do that command-performance for the Queen, or when I was named an Officer in the Order of Canada, I explained every time that I don’t even have a Canadian passport. And everybody said ‘That’s OK. You’re one of us’. So that’s the way I’ve always felt. But I have a US passport and I was raised in the US. They don’t tell you too, as an adopted child. The court records are sealed. With a lot of adoptions, people at the time just wanted that information sealed for one reason or another.
So you don’t know who your biological parents were?
I’m not sure. I have my clues, but no. I’m a US citizen so when I enter Canada I do so with a US passport.
[short pause, she chuckles]
You know who I love? I’ve been in Canada more than the US since I was able to fly [she laughs]
[TM begins another question]
Let me jump in, while you’re thinking up another question. When I knew I was going to be talking to you I was kind of excited, because it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to talk to somebody who knows some of the names of the people who influenced me or who I greatly loved as a musician. Although we’d have to start with Tchaikovsky who was my first influence – I really did used to want to be a ballerina [she chuckles] When I was a little girl and there was a piano in the house, I used to play fake Tchaikovsky from the time I was three I’m told. I can’t read, so I play by ear. I’m actually dyslexic in music. I’ve never been able to read. I mean I can write for an orchestra, it’s not like I don’t know how but I just can’t read it back.
Tchaikovsky was probably my first inkling that that’s what I want to do, and I started hearing music in my head. As a little girl whatever would come on the radio I can always go home and play it on the piano, like a lot of natural musicians. And when I first started becoming aware of music myself I guess was probably when Elvis Presley and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry were first coming up, Bill Haley and the Comets. I mean I just went cuckoo! [she laughs] I was I guess 12 or 13 but I knew that’s what I loved, and I used to go to the Alan Freed rock and roll shows. And then I went off to college, and the songs I had been writing all my life, I’d be singing them to the girls in my dorm; and I had gotten a guitar when I was about 16 but I didn’t have anyone to teach me how to play it so I tuned it all upside down and inside out and it gave my music a very interesting sound. And when I graduated college, by that time I had been poking around in… um…you know folk music was kind of bubbling under.
I graduated high-school in 1958 and folk music wasn’t really around then, but I graduated college in 1962 and during that time you started hearing about folk music, and I was listening to Folkways Records. I wasn’t listening to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Never, it was never my style, and the Kingston Trio and all that kind of preppy-boy, you know, fraternity. [she laughs] No! Please! I hated it. I was listening to Blind Willie Johnson and Bukka White – and later on I toured with Bukka White and that was great – he was a friend of mine. Also I knew Lonnie Johnson. So that kind of music was very attractive to me but a lot of people in Canada probably wouldn’t suspect it. That Deep South thing, I’ve always loved it. If it comes rock and roll give me ZZ Top. I like that Delta Blues, that East Texas, that New Orleans, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. I like that Deep South originality, and the original ways that people played music, especially guitar.
So I was doing really wacky tunings quite early. All over my early records. Later on it became impossible to bring all those guitars and it would bother me having to tune over and over again one guitar, so I started limiting my tunings when I’d go on the road. Guitars would get smashed, and stolen, it was so hard being a girl all by myself carrying not only my personal things but a bunch of guitars. It became prohibitive. And I didn’t have a band, so I was all alone and I think that aloneness too contributed to the uniqueness of both my point of view and the way I played. Some people liked that. Not everybody did, I think I’ve always been one of those tastes where you either like it or you hate it. I’ve got kind of a strange voice and a strange point of view [she chuckles] but I’m an artist, so that’s good. I like that.
So I went from that kind of classical romanticism – I can hear all that kind of thing in [Grammy Award winning song] “Up Where We Belong” and “Until It’s Time For You To Go”. It’s that classical romantic love thing [she laughs] that’s in a lot of my music right alongside the hardest-hitting protest stuff [she chuckles] Bob Dylan didn’t know what to make of “My Country ‘Tis Of Thy People You’re Dying”. Also during that time though err… The Incredible String Band. I loved them. You can understand why. I mean that fantasy, those instruments, and that sense of ‘doesn’t matter whether anybody else is doing this or not. This is spontaneous’. I’ve always really loved that. And the stories in the Child Ballads I was looking forward to talking to you because I thought you would probably have a little clarity and understanding of those times and be familiar with the music.
Yes, but I was just a schoolboy in Notting Hill, London
I’ve been to London many times. I used to stay over at the best hotel over by Notting Hill. Oh man it was a good hotel. It had a bathtub right in the middle of the room. [she laughs] Do you remember Roy Guest? In maybe 1963 he was a local promoter in London. He brought me to [the] Albert Hall, and I did a tour with Julie Felix, Reverend Gary Davis, Rambling Jack Eliot, and Paul Simon. I’ve just finished the biography of Paul Simon, Homeward Bound, and I was so surprised because it says that whole tour Paul Simon was kind of trying to push me out of the spotlight. He wanted top billing and nobody had heard of him.
Oh God, I was so disappointed to hear that about Paul Simon, but it was a revelation. So we travelled around Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and all throughout England in cars, and we were doing these little shows. And Paul was writing, and Julie was writing. It was remarkable. In my downtime – I mean it was different then for artists, you could afford to have downtime. Now hotels are gouging, it’s so expensive you almost have to do one-nighters and not go see things. But in those days I’d maybe do concerts on the weekend and I had the whole week off. I remember spending time in a hospital with a lady who wanted to share songs with me, and she taught me some songs, like “The Banks Of Red Roses”. I was doing things like “Sir Patrick Spens” and “The House Carpenter”, these great great songs only I’d do them them all upside down and inside out with crazy tunings, and make them real dramatic. ‘Cause I didn’t think I was going to last, so I went for broke all the time. [she laughs]
Last time I was England was just a few years ago, with me and my band opening for Morrissey. Before then I did the Tabernacle. I’m good friends with Alabama 3. I did their song “Power In The Blood”, which is a riot. It’s very wonderful, I love it, but it’s real violent. And I wanted to do it. They were fans of mine and I’m a fan of theirs. I had a show at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre I think, anyway Larry Love walked in on his knees after the show, and we hung out with them all night after the show. I said that “Power In The Blood” would make an incredible peace song, and they just laughed. So I took that energy… the title “Power In The Blood” has been used in many many songs, and a lot of them are real right-wing Christian. So the idea of recombining and repurposing the energy of their music with their words, everybody was happy.
Any plans to tour in Europe in the near-future?
I’m trying to stay home, because I’ve been on the road so darn much in the past 4 years. I’m really trying to stay home for a while so I don’t have any plans to come. I know a lot of people of my generation they liked a song call “Soldier Blue” which I rerecorded because I thought that point of view really belonged on Medicine Songs – just the idea of matriotism as opposed to patriotism and nationalism, love of your country including the land. Just the blessedness of the land – that’s what “Soldier Blue” is about. And I know whenever I’ve done that song in London there are a lot of people of my generation who really appreciated it. So if I do come to London it’s going to be fun.
I was looking through some old mementos the other day and came across this show that I did at Wembley stadium. It was a country music festival with me and Tammy Wynette and Marty Robbins and a whole bunch of country stars. And I was pregnant at the time so that was 1975. I’ve been to the UK a lot and in a lot of different musical contexts. I used to come when I was married to Jack Nitzsche and he was recording with the London Philharmonic, some of the movie-scores he did as a film composer, and he used to play piano with the Rolling Stones and was involved in a lot of their early records.
I was in Performance, which was Mick Jagger’s first movie. I wasn’t on camera. I had two songs and I understand they’re going to rerelease that album, which is a wonderful album. Holy smoke it’s good! Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Jack’s music and my music. It was hot. My songs were improvised. We called one of them “Dyed Dead Red” and the other we called “The Hashisheen” . I played mouth-bow [she chuckles] and made funny noises and stuff.
Getting back to the songs – the new ones especially. I understand that “You Got To Run” was inspired by an Alaska dog-sledder George Attla, but it goes beyond those particularities to become universal. Can you talk about that inspiration?
Had you heard of George Attla?
I hadn’t, no
No most people haven’t. It’s a pretty rare sport dog-sledding, which I love by the way? Have you ever done that? If you ever get the chance don’t miss it. It is really fun. So George Attla yes he was a world champion dog-sled racer, and I had scored the movie about his life. I repurposed one of the melodies that I used in that and turned it into “You Got To Run”. But the song is also about ‘you got to run for office’ if you think that you can better than the current bozos [she laughs] or ‘you got to run a marathon for breast cancer in your community. You’ve got to do it. You got to run your own life. That’s one of those songs that I don’t know what to call, they’re just about empowerment. But it was definitely inspired by George Attla. He was lame – he had something wrong with his leg, he got tuberculosis as a child and it left him with a severe impact to his legs, so he was a real champion.
What have you and Tanya Tagaq done together before “You Got To Run”?
Nothing [she laughs] We met in Yellowknife at Folk On The Rocks many years ago, probably 20. She was a young singer, an Inuit, and real creative and totally unique. I liked her a lot and she tells me I was her hero, and we’d always wanted to work together.
Tell me about writing “The War Racket” – which ranks with Dylan’s Masters of War. Was there anything in particular that prompted it?
There was no trigger in particular Tony, just current events and the fact that we still have war. I mean after the First World War - the ‘war to end all wars’, ‘cause there’ll never be another one, right? Same with the Second World War – ‘there’ll never be another war, we finally learned the lesson’. After Vietnam ‘oh, never again’, right? War is a racket, there’s a lot of money in it, and power for certain guys who like that lifestyle. That’s it in a nutshell, I think. It’s a racket.
You know there’s a wonderful writer John Horgan who wrote a little tiny book called The End Of War. He has a whole list of things that we all believe cause war. Oh it’s scarcity of resources. But it’s not – the baddest, biggest wars ever fought were by the richest countries on earth. You have war because you have male aggression. Well no, you can have male aggression all over the place without having war. One bad apple comes along like Hitler or Donald Trump. No, you can have that and still not have war. And what he points out is that war is like a perfect storm of the rest of us doing nothing to prevent it. That’s so simplistic, what I just said. It doesn’t do the book justice, which just nails it. I am interested in a better world, I just plain am. It picks up my ears if I hear something in print or on TV, so the War Racket is a response to this perfect storm of events and lack of awareness on the part of all of us. If we do nothing it’s what we get.
Do you know who Kurt Swinghammer is? He’s a rock and roll guitar player in Toronto, and he’s into animation, He likes The War Rocket and asked could he animate it. So I said ‘yeah, yeah’, so he got in touch and we went back and forth about certain ideas and he came out with just a riveting three-minute video of “The War Racket” – not the one that’s up now, which is basically about current events. And it’s even funny.
Turning to your work as an internet graphic artist, can your work 16 Million Colours be readily accessed?
If you go to my website, under Art or Gallery or something like that there are some written pieces that I did when it was real early. It was the name of a gallery showing that was done in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, and places, You can see a lot of them online at my website.
They have a lot in common with my music in that each one is it’s own little movie, and they’re very diverse. Some are just portraits or still lives and some are kind of real emotional explosive treatments of indigenous themes and points of view. The way I figure ‘same brain, different pools that day’ and I was always like that even as a kid. I might be thinking about things and illustrating it with crayons and paper, or I might be sitting at my piano just making up music, like scoring the story or whatever it was I had in my head. I think most artists are multi-talented.
Geoff Kulawick who owns True North Records and has the True North Gallery just outside of Toronto, in Watertown I think, had several of my paintings in a show. Joni Mitchell has something, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Kurt Swinghammer, just lots of musicians who either played with or got seriously into expressing themselves through visual arts but started out as musicians.
Tom Russell also paints – Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan too
Yeah he did. I used to have a print by him. We knew each other in the ‘60s but I hadn’t seen him for ages. We were both in Australia a couple of years ago and just after his show he asked if he could talk to me so we had a long conversation behind a bunch of RVs, show-business trailers behind stage. God it was fun [she laughs] He was great. He’s all beat up like the rest of us – he just got so freaking famous. I don’t know, I’m glad I never got that famous. So famous you can’t go anywhere. I always have full respect for his writing, my God he wrote some great songs.
Back to the songs. What about “Disinformation”?
Thank you for asking about that one. I love it.
You said it’s one of the songs you wrote too early and people couldn’t appreciate it until now. When did you write it ?
I wrote that song during the Iran-Contra Affair [1985-87] , and I also wrote “The Big Ones Get Away”, and “Fallen Angels”. All three of those songs I originally did for Coincidence And Likely Stories which I recorded in the UK when I was staying at Portobello Road.
I’m jumping a bit here – but how did you pick up [ medieval Yorkshire song] “The Lyke Wake Dirge”?
You’re really jumping around! Yeah, what a song. I don’t know – I was hanging around with all these folkies in the ‘60s. With the Coffeehouse-Era that was changed you know, quite deliberately. Students were getting out of hand with this free-speech thing in coffeehouses [she laughs] a place where young people could legally get together and think up all kinds of objections to what adults were doing politically. All of the sudden all the great clubs got alcohol licences and young people couldn’t go there anymore – but they could sell a lot of booze. And so it really changed things.
In 1963-64-65 we used to actually sit down and talk. Social media was face to face, and there was a huge student social movement that was based in coffeehouses and the sharing of music and writing. I mean people like Garcia Lorca, and Baudelaire, and Leonard Cohen [she chuckles] they were all on the table at the same time. But when the cat got out of the bag and students were kind of in charge, ‘The Suits’ were very backroom and sneaky about putting an end to that, and times changed. Pretty soon it was alcohol, and heroin, it was blacklisting, it was a change in politics. I mean we went from bad to worse from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon, of course they both hated me because I not only was talking on television about the war in Vietnam but also about the theft of Indian lands, which was Nixon’s big thing.
It was a very stimulating time, and yet I think young people of our present time can appreciate it more than their parents – their grandparents were there, their parents were driving station-wagons and trying to make money. But now, you know, the whip has come down again and people are sharing, they’re self-publishing, they’re experiencing faraway cultures in a very similar way to how we were doing it in the ‘60s with coffee as the drug, with clandestine marijuana, with talk talk talk listen listen listen the way you do in a genuine face-to-face social situation in a coffee-house – different from being in a bar, or nodding out on heroin. It has a lot in common with today, but there was such a dead period in between. For a long time people didn’t have the coffeehouses or the Internet. It was consumerism and booze, cigarettes, and Big Pharma.
What’s coming up for you?
Well this holiday season I decided I’m not going to do nothing, I’m getting to sit down and eat cake. I’m taking it easy on the farm, I’m looking after my goats, I’m cuddling with my kitty. [she laughs] Nice things. I’m starting to enjoy solo concerts again. Usually I bring my band with me, which I like most, it’s a gas all round. But I am doing solo concerts which I enjoy in a different way. I bring some film and some pictures and talk a little more than with the band. Somebody from Vancouver, Andrea Warner, is actually writing my authorized biographer – she’s a riot. She wrote a great book called We Ought To Know – talk about women and show-business! It’s a real good one.
What else? Oh I’m still hammering away at A Canadian Museum for Human Rights – I want them to put the electric-chair from St Anne’s in their front lobby, I want them to emphasize what happened in Canada instead of being so heavily weighted towards European genocide. They’re on Indian land, but I think that they’re still pussy-footing around the issues. I’m encouraging them to do more, and have some plans up my sleeve about that. But I’ll be doing a lot of touring this summer. I plan to do more symphony concerts, and bring our symphony show to some smaller reserves in Saskatchewan. And I’m writing all the time.
Finally, do you have any links with circus?
I almost joined the circus once, when I was 16 my mum took me to the circus and they were trying to recruit girls to walk around in a shiny costume, ride around on an elephant, you know, just be kind of window-dressing. I kind of wanted to do it but instead I decided ‘OK I’ll try my luck at college’
NOTE: All photos by Steve Edge, Mission Folk Music Festival 2012.