Native American songstress Buffy Sainte-Marie has been writing songs since the early 1960s, penning tracks that have been covered by a diverse array of artists like Janis Joplin, Elvis Presley, Barba Streisand, Bobby Darin and Courtney Love. We chat with the Hawaiian writer about empowerment, love songs and why “America the Beautiful” is the best song ever written.
What is your songwriting process?
I don’t have one. I’m not a schooled songwriter or a schooled musician. Chet Atkins was a good friend of mine, and somebody asked him one time, “Do you read music?” and he said, “Not enough to hurt my playing.” I’m like that, too. I have been writing songs since I was about 3-years-old, when I first saw a piano. I don’t know how songs happen or why they happen. To me, it’s kind of like dreaming. You go to sleep at night and you don’t know when you go to bed if you’re going to have a dream or what your dream might be about. For the most part, my songs are inspirational and I don’t know where they come from, like dreaming. But, on the other hand, there’s another whole side of it that, for me, has more to do with journalism or writing a thesis than it has to do with the dreamy, inspirational part. I write a lot of songs like “Universal Soldier,” “Power in the Blood” and “Carry it On,” that involve an element of journalism. I have a lot of respect for the art of the three minute song. It’s like writing a newspaper piece instead of a book. It has to be brief, it needs to be engaging, and it needs to be charming. I was a young songwriter with a whole lot of success, and then after a while I went to Sesame Street and it was the same process again. It was dealing with short attention spans. You had to make your point in three minutes. It’s largely the same art.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
Oh, I don’t know. Some little kidsy, teddy bear thing. I’ve been writing songs since I can remember. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do for fun. I always tell people that you’re supposed to play music. It’s not just words. Music is not just about making a buck in the market place. When you’re together with your friends or all by yourself, just doing it for fun, for me, that’s always the most inspirational part. I play music.
What song of yours means the most to you, either for the message you were trying to send with it or a personal connection that you made?
I think “Carry it On.” “Carry it On,” to me, is the most inspirational song that I’ve written. The lyrics are on the album. You can dig them out. But basically, what it says is, “Hold your head up. Lift the top of your mind. Put your eyes in the earth. Lift your heart to your own home planet. What do you see? What’s your attitude? Are you here to improve or damn it? Look right now and you see that we’re only here by the skin of our teeth as it is. So take heart and take care of your length of life. It ain’t money that makes the world go ‘round, that’s only temporary confusion. It ain’t government that makes the people strong, it’s the opposite illusion. Look right now and you see they’re only here by the skin of their teeth as it is. So take heart and take care of your length of life. It’s beautiful if you’ve got the sense to take care of your source of perfection. Mother Nature is the daughter of God and the source of all protection. Look right now and you see she’s only here by the skin of her teeth as it is. So take heart and take care of your length of life. And keep on playing. And keep on praying. And carry it on.” That kind of says it all for me.
Do you try, with most of your songwriting, to send messages like that that inspire others?
No. I’ve written hundreds and hundreds of songs and made 18 albums and I would say only 10 or 15 of my songs are like that. You know, songs that have a bigger meaning, a universal meaning that can reach anybody. Most of my songs are love songs.
How personal do you tend to make your songs? Are you mostly writing about yourself or are you telling stories about characters?
It’s a little bit of everything, I think. I’m not a schooled songwriter or a person who comes from just one genre. I come from the ’60s, and the ’60s was a little bit like it is now with the internet. Everybody could hear all different kinds of music for a brief time, for just a couple of years, before it all became corporatized and genrefied again. We were coming out of the Eisenhower era, and all of a sudden you could hear world music. You could hear delta blues next to country music next to 400-year-old British folk songs next to songwriters, and nobody cared. It was all good. That’s the window through which I entered show business. Albums have always been very diverse.
Do you ever do any co-writing?
I won an Academy Award for the theme song from An Officer and a Gentleman, the movie that starred Richard Gere and Debra Winger. It’s called “Up Where We Belong” and was co-written by Jack Nitzsche, Will Jennings and myself, but it’s my original melody. That was the impetus of the song. Jack added stuff and then Will finished it, but we were never in the same room at the same time. I’ve never sat down and tried to write a song with another person. However, there are two songs on this album that I rewrote, one of them being “Sing Our Own Song,” which was a UB40 anthem in South Africa during the Nelson Mandela apartheid days. It was a huge song. I rewrote it to fit contemporary issues, including Native American energy. The title song off the album, “Power in the Blood,” was an original by a group called Alabama 3, who wrote the theme song for The Sopranos, and it was really violent. They’re friends of mine and I said, “Power in the Blood” would make a great peace song and they thought I was kidding. Now that they’ve heard it, they love it. So yes, I have co-written, but never in the same room with another writer.
What do you think is the best song ever written and why?
I don’t know. There are days when I can remember an answer to that question, but I don’t know. There are an awful lot of good songs. I There is a song called “America the Beautiful” that, if you look it up online, everybody and their sister has added a verse to, including me on my album Running for the Drum. Some of them are really racist. There are all kinds of different attitudes. Everybody loves that melody and puts their own spin on it, so when you look up all of those different verses online, it’s kind of an education. It’s probably the best melody.
Who are your favorite songwriters?
Right now, I am a big Alabama 3 fan. I’m listening to all of their records, all of their old ones, one that’s unreleased, and another one that I don’t think has been released in the US. I listen to them a lot. I’m listening to Serena Ryder. I think she’s a great writer. I like K’naan. That’s my list for the moment.
Do you like to write under a deadline or do you prefer to write as it comes to you?
I’ve never written under a deadline. I’ve turned so many things down where they’ve said, “Come and pop something out” or “It has to be ready by such and such date.” As a matter of fact, I had a huge number one hit all over Asia and Europe and nobody ever heard it in North America. It was called “Soldier Blue.” The director of the movie Soldier Blue asked me to write a theme song and I turned it down three times. Finally it popped into my head and I had to call him back. I usually don’t write under deadlines. That’s just not how I do it.
Do you usually go through a lot of editing with your songs, or is your first draft usually the best?
It depends on the type of song. A love song like “Until it’s Time For You to Go,” which has been recorded by over 200 artists – Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley, Roberta Flack, everybody has recorded that – that just popped into my head. There was no editing. But a song like “Carry it On” or “Universal Soldier,” there was a lot of editing. That’s the kind of song that you write as if you’re writing for a college professor who doesn’t like you or your topic and you still want to get an A+. You have to be very careful about that. That’s a journalism kind of song.
Do you feel any sense of responsibility, as a female songwriter, in terms of being a role model and a leader and sharing a female point of view with the world?
I kind of do, not only as a woman and not only as a Native American person, but also as a person. I’ve been lucky enough to have been on Sesame Street for five and half years, and I’ve had a lot of big awards, Golden Globes, Dove Awards and Academy Awards. I’ve had so many blessings, but what I really thrive on is thinking that – you know, we always pray before we go on stage when we’re on the road – I always pray that if anybody is having a hard time tonight, they can pick up some energy from us. I really appreciate the art of songwriting and I recognize that sometimes it can really do people a lot of good to hear a great song.