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Buffy still inspired

By Nathan Taylor, Orillia Packet & Times

When Buffy Sainte-Marie began her musical career in the early 1960s, the songwriter-activist had a wealth of material to write about.

With a war raging overseas and Sainte-Marie having been included on a United States government blacklist of those whose music "deserved to be suppressed," ideas for possible songs practically fell into her lap.

Opinions on those and an array of other affairs became songs and would epitomize the popular perception of folk music. And the label sticks to this day.

But those were the '60s and '70s. What's there to sing about in 2009?

"Same as always -- everything," said the Academy-and Juno-award winner, who will headline the Mariposa Folk Festival on Sunday, July 5.

"Folk songs usually last because they're about something that future generations can understand: war, peace, love, hate... classic themes," she said. "Something like Universal Soldier, I very deliberately wrote hoping that it would last for generations and cross languages and countries, and it's still appreciated now, 40 years later."

Sainte-Marie's own music has evolved over the years, yet it has maintained its position of protest, and the Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter pulls no punches on her 18th album, 2008's Running for the Drum, for which she won her second Juno for Aboriginal Album of the Year.

With so much concern about the environment, maybe it will be the new frontier for today's generation of songwriters.

"I hope so. That's an excellent perspective," Sainte-Marie said yesterday from her home in Hawaii.

The lead track off her new album is about just that.

"It's about environmental greed and overcoming it," she said of No No Keshagesh.

In it, she sings:

"Got Mother Nature on a luncheon plate

They carve her up and call it real estate

Want all the resources and all of the land

They make a war over it; blow things up for it."

"Keshagesh" is Cree for "puppy."

"It's a light metaphor. It's a slap on the wrist, and then 'Let's fix it,'" she said.

There's more to a good song than melody, she added. It must also be effective.

Along with some of her own recordings, she noted the effectiveness of songs by Phil Ochs and some of Bob Dylan's earlier works.

"I think that's probably why some of us got put out of business, because they were effective," she said.

Sainte-Marie has remained effective and relevant, in part by embracing multimedia in her work and by multitasking -- a staple of creativity, she said.

"To me, it's the most natural way to be, because I'm like a third-grader; I'm like a kindergarten kid, you know? I'm the same as I was when I was three years old. When I saw a piano, it fascinated me and I played with it so much, I learned how to play it," she said.

Naturally, children "make drama, they use their imagination, they make stories, they make songs, they dance with no lessons, they make music with no lessons," she said. "That's the way I am and I've just continued to be that way."

"As a matter of fact, quite recently, I found out that I'm dyslexic in music, which is kind of funny because I've always tried to learn music and I never could learn how to read music," she said. "I can write for an orchestra; I just can't read it back. I perceive music through my ears, not through my eyes."

Just last week, Sainte-Marie was given an honourary doctorate in music from the University of Western Ontario. It's one of many ways she's proven herself through her years in the industry.

She never expected the barriers because she didn't expect to last.

"I overcame them from just doing what I do. There had never been a Buffy before," she said. "When Universal Soldier came out, people were just flabbergasted that a woman wrote it, let alone an aboriginal woman."

"There are always going to be challenges out there for women and for people of conscience who don't necessarily go along with this or that political administration and for people of colour," she said. "There's always going to be kind of a closed window, but all you do is open it."

Her native American roots have never been lost in her music. Her melding of aboriginal and folk gave birth to powwow rock. Songs on her new album also include the sounds of folk/roots, rockabilly and dance.

Sainte-Marie is not, however, crazy about labels, including genres.

"I'm primarily known as a songwriter, even though I was called a folk singer in the '60s. That's just what they were trying to sell. But I was around real folk songs," she said. "People like Joan Baez... They were singing real, 400-year-old folk songs. I sang some of those, too, but most of them I wrote myself."

The diversity and freedom of folk festivals is why she's returned to them time and again throughout her storied career.

"You have gospel music and blues music and flamenco music and aboriginal music and songwriters writing hot tracks for today or some other time. That's how it's nice. It's kind of like a world stage," she said.

She also likes having the opportunity to see both seasoned and up-and-coming acts.

When she steps off the stage next month at Tudhope Park, she wants members of her audience to leave with some inspiration of their own -- or anything, for that matter.

"I just hope that they go away with something they didn't have when they came in, whatever that might be."

The audience can expect to hear "a lot of things off the new album."

"It'll be a combination of what they most expect and what they least expect," she said.

Sainte-Marie's most popular songs include Universal Soldier, Up Where We Belong, Until it's Time for You to Go and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.

The Mariposa Folk Festival runs July 3-5 at Tudhope Park. For more information, visit more information on Sainte-Marie, visit

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