Buffy Sainte-Marie Essay - Critical Essays

Sainte-Marie, Buffy


Buffy Sainte-Marie 1941–

American Indian songwriter, singer, and musician.

Sainte-Marie is best known for her songs about the plight of the American Indian. She has not restricted her songwriting only to this category, however. Moving through many different genres, she has adapted traditional songs and written very personal lyrics. She has also experimented with orchestras and avant-garde electronics. Her work can be identified by her highly distinctive voice, which she uses more as an instrument of personal expression than merely as a device for carrying a tune.

Sainte-Marie first began singing professionally in the early sixties while a student at the University of Massachusetts. Her unique voice and highly original songs attracted a good deal of attention. Among her best-known early songs are "Now That the Buffalo's Gone" and "My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying," songs about the dilemma of the Indian; "Cod'ine," an indictment of drugs; and "Universal Soldier," a topical song about war.

Sainte-Marie's most popular song, however, is "Until It's Time for You to Go." This widely-recorded song is a tender, mature look at love and changing social mores. It is typical of her more recent work, which is easily accessible but has received less critical praise than her earlier work.

Sainte-Marie's career is characterized by the innovations in her music. She has recorded country and rock albums, and has gone from performing as a solo artist to leading a rock-oriented group. She admits that not all of her experiments have been successful, yet most critics agree that her best work is provocative and insightful.

Buffy Sainte-Marie, a new name on the folk scene, may soon be a major one when the full impact of this young and vibrant Cree Indian girl registers via her upcoming debut album….

What makes Miss Sainte-Marie particularly individualistic lies in her unique status as a female troubadour who performs her own original compositions. Some of her songs are raw and powerful, some are loud and driving, others are just as effectively quiet. But each and every one is her own and all are stamped with her intensely personal involvement with the world in which she and her auditors live and she sings them with deep and passionate conviction.

"New Acts," in Variety (copyright 1963, by Variety, Inc.), December 18, 1963, p. 50.

Irving Kolodin

For all that [Sainte-Marie] is college educated and the possessor of a degree in Oriental philosophy, her performances are rooted in a deep assimilation of folkways which have rarely enjoyed so persuasive a voice. Whether the matter itself is really aboriginal or mostly original, Sainte-Marie herself is an aboriginal original blessed with a rare command of the powers that communicate….

[The range of her subject is] the perennially recurrent he and she, life and death, joy and sorrow, love requited and love unrequited.

Irving Kolodin, "Music to My Ears," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1967 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. L, No. 45, November 11, 1967, p. 73.

Milton Okun

[Buffy Sainte-Marie's] first public appearances were made while she was a college senior and it did not take long before a near cult was forming around her. Everything about Buffy's manner and material radiated excitement and originality and the stamp of a strong new personality. When she sang her blistering indictment of "Cod'ine," one knew that here was a forceful new voice on the songwriting roster. Whether her subsequent songs spoke of topical matters, militarism ("Universal Soldier") or discrimination against Indians, it was always with a fresh point of view and an avoidance of the clichés that early crept into the topical songwriting movement.

Her singing has gone through many transformations, not all of them totally satisfying to some discriminating listeners, who fear that some melodrama is replacing her initial dramatic impact. Whatever the merits of that debate, when Buffy Sainte-Marie addresses herself to one of her two hundred songs, one can always be sure that there will be great power and passion.

Milton Okun, "Buffy Sainte-Marie," in his Something to Sing About!: The Personal Choices of America's Folk Singers (copyright © 1968 by Milton Okun), Collier Books, 1970, p. 184.

Gary Von Tersch

The folk days are gone and Buffy in a way is a ghost from its halycon—but as poetess Denise Levertov has matured with her contact with the Amerika she is living in … so has Miss Sainte-Marie adjusted, as [She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina] reflects.

Gary Von Tersch, "Records: 'She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 84, June 10, 1971, p. 44.

Janet Maslin

The two most unusual and ambitious cuts [on Moonshot are] "Moonshot" and "You Know How To Turn On Those Lights."… With an air of malevolent mockery that never quite descends into overt sarcasm, [Buffy] casts a baleful eye at space-age technology ("I know a boy from a tribe so primitive / He can call me up without no telephone") and at the smugness of a guy who knows "how to turn on those lights / Don't you, Baby? / You know every switch and every button in the house / Don't you, Baby?" The "Lights" song is more immediate and arresting, but "Moonshot" is the one to linger on, its production eerie and delicate enough to match the poetry and eloquence of Buffy's lyrics.

What's best about Moonshot is that, considering the kind of experimental stylistic departure it represents, it nonetheless bears such a strongly personal stamp. It shows off a do-it-yourselfery so much deeper than Buffy's mere writing, playing, co-producing, and belting out everything so deliberate and strong, that there can be no question where the real energy of her music is coming from, or of how integral and genuine that energy—whatever form she cares to try out next—will always be. (pp. 55-6)

Janet Maslin, "Records: 'Moonshot'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue III, June 22, 1972, pp. 55-6.

Stephen Holden

Though [Buffy Sainte-Marie's] own material [on Quiet Places] is, as usual, tightly crafted and melodic with well-turned lyric phrases, there is no single song as arresting as "Moonshot," the title cut and crown jewel of her last album.

Characteristically, the emotional tenor of Buffy's artistry, furious passion constrained by intellect, is her paramount virtue…. "Quiet Places" (the album's best BSM song), with its demand, "show me in a world that's all gone mad that there are still quiet places," [is] a complaint against civilization itself.

Stephen Holden, "Records: 'Quiet Places'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973;...

(The entire section is 107 words.)

Noel Coppage

Buffy Sainte-Marie is singing well and writing nice melodies, and I think her idea [in Changing Woman] was to simplify, simplify. But her lyrics are starting to remind me of leftover corn flakes. I mean, if all you want to say is "I love you," maybe it's better to put off writing a batch of song lyrics until something a little more specific comes to mind. Just a thought. It might be a good idea, too, to examine some of these lines, such as "laughter is the grease of growth," in the clear light of morning before rushing off to the mailbox with the copyright papers. If you can stand the words, this album has a nice sound to it….

Noel Coppage, "Changing Woman,"...

(The entire section is 136 words.)

Jacques Vassal

[The] opening track of Buffy's first record, "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," is at the same time revealing and symbolic. She sings to the average white man and woman, pointing out to them that they may have forgotten or tried to forget the plight of the Indians. They never bothered to try to save the buffalo, and it became nearly extinct; surely it's time to help the Indian before he goes the same way.

All that concerns the Indian also concerns Buffy Sainte-Marie, and vice versa. She stated it clearly in It's My Way! (apart from "Now That the Buffalo's Gone," there is on this record a song that tears at the emotions, sung in the language of her tribe: "Mayoo Sto Hoon"); in her third album,...

(The entire section is 265 words.)

Aida Pavletich

In any group of Buffy songs there are decorous waltzes, lyrical efflorescences weighted with imagery which does not exclude an occasional glimpse of a steel mind. Her French style torchers have all the gripping qualities of that superannuated mode, combined with unconventional love song lyrics. Other love songs are warmly sentimental, with haughty and forbidding undercurrents. One quality they all have in common is their lively tension.

Buffy's songs have a variety that makes them seem written by women from different backgrounds…. (pp. 61-2)

The most carping criticism comes from the genre loyalists whose boundaries she crosses. The pop audience has little patience with a writer of...

(The entire section is 428 words.)