Sunday December 27, 2015

Encore: The song of Buffy Sainte-Marie heard loud and clear with Polaris win

Buffy Sainte-Marie says she didn't expect to win the Polaris Prize for her album Power in the Blood

Buffy Sainte-Marie says she didn't expect to win the Polaris Prize for her album Power in the Blood (Supplied)

Listen 14:31

After a 51 year music-making career that includes being blacklisted from radio play, the song of Buffy Sainte-Marie is once again being heard loud and clear.

The Cree powerhouse took home the prestigious Polaris Prize Monday night for her album Power in the Blood.  An 11-member jury chose it as the best Canadian record of the year, over other nominees like rap superstar Drake and The New Pornographers, awarding her the $50,000 prize.

Sainte-Marie who at 74 is still going strong, says she was surprised but grateful for the win.

"I'm genuinely grateful to a lot of people," she said. "I like the album but I've liked other albums too but I just could not get them played."

But she says thanks to her record company and supportive Canadian radio stations her music finally 'got heard' by listeners.

Buffy blacklisted

With more than 20 albums and a pile of awards that includes an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a few Junos, Buffy is an institution in the music industry. Always a step ahead of the latest trend — in the 80s she used MacIntosh computers to produce her music and art — years ahead of other artists.

But while Sainte-Marie is a mainstay on the Indigenous festival circuit and considered a cultural icon, she is not as well known in the mainstream as her contemporaries Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.

That's because she says she was not always welcome in the industry.

"It's all done in secret. A couple of boys go in the backroom and make nasty phone calls." - Buffy Sainte-Marie

Sainte-Marie's musical career started in the 60s in coffee houses and folk festivals. Her protest songs and resistance anthems like My Country Tis' of Thy People You're Dying and Universal Soldier challenged the status quo and secured her as one of her generation's greatest singer-songwriters. But not everyone welcomed the revolution she was singing.

"It was very offensive to many people who didn't believe any of those things ever happened and for this Indigenous woman to come onto the public stage and use the word genocide - excuse me! It was just horrifying, new information to many, even scholars, they didn't know."

Her rising star came to a halt in the 70s when she says she was blacklisted and could not get her music played in the United States.

"I didn't know I had been blacklisted or I would've been pissed off," she recalls. "It's all done in secret. A couple of boys go in the backroom and make nasty phone calls."

But that didn't stop her from getting her music and her message out. When she realized that she was never going to get any albums played, Buffy took a different path, or rather another street.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

"Sesame Street called me up and asked me just to recite the alphabet, I said have you ever done any Indigenous programming? They said no but we'd like to."

That was all she needed. Before long she was making regular appearances on the  long-standing kids show.

"I had lost the ability to reach my own generation. My own adult listeners were not allowed to hear my message anymore. But little kids and their caregivers were," she smiled.

"My own adult listeners were not allowed to hear my message any more. But little kids and their caregivers were." - Buffy Sainte-Marie

The series would help her through the dark period of radio silence but it also built her a multi-generational fan base. Eventually, she would emerge still as strong as ever.

"Sometimes you just have to wait for the times to change and you have to do what you can, just continually day-by-day doing everything you can to make things better in the way that you envision."


Click the listen button above to hear an extended interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie.

This segment originally aired on Sep 27, 2015