When CBC viewers met Buffy Sainte-Marie
Folksinger already had three albums out when she appeared on CBC-TV in 1966
Buffy Sainte-Marie has been raising her voice to advocate for North America's Indigenous people since the mid-1960s.
Her musical output from that period is getting new recognition in 2021 from Canada Listens, the "great music debate" from CBC Music that began on April 12.
- CBC MUSIC | Canada Listens: CBC Music's great music debate
Illuminations, Saint-Marie's sixth album, released in 1969, was being championed by actor/comedian Carolyn Taylor of the comedy series Baroness von Sketch.
"This is a tremendous album... a transcendental, deep experience," Taylor said of her choice.
On the last day of the debate, when just two of the five albums in the discussion were left standing, Illuminations was one of them — but the decision ultimately favoured Kardinal Offishall's 2001 album Quest for Fire: Firestarter, Vol. 1.
'I write music ... and I write poems'
Sainte-Marie had already put out three records — 1964's It's My Way!, 1965's Many a Mile and Little Wheel, Spin and Spin from 1966 — when she was a guest in May 1966 on the CBC-TV program Through the Eyes of Tomorrow.
According to the CBC-TV catalog, she performed the songs Little Wheel, Spin and Spin, Los Pescadores, Summer Boy and Cripple Creek that day.
Host Janet McQuillin introduced Sainte-Marie as "a singer with a quality all her own."
"Buffy was born in Saskatchewan, of Cree parents, but she went to Massachusetts as a young child," said McQuillin. "We still like to think of her as a Canadian."
She asked Sainte-Marie about her start playing music.
"I started composing when I was about four, when my parents bought a secondhand piano," said the singer. "I learned how to play right away, made up my own music."
"When I went to college, people encouraged me to sing the songs I'd always sung to myself."
Sainte-Marie said she'd headed straight to New York City after finishing her last exam at college.
"I write music... and I write poems," said Sainte-Marie, explaining her process. "But I never set a poem to music."
In 2018, Sainte-Marie reflected on this period of her career for a CBC-TV music documentary series.
"I wasn't really writing political songs," she said. "I was writing songs about awareness of things that people didn't know about. It only became political when politicians objected to what I was saying."
'Something I know something about'
Sainte-Marie appeared on CBC-TV again later in 1966, when the current affairs program TBA devoted its full half hour to interview and performance segments with her.
After singing her song My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying, a powerful indictment of residential schools and the treatment of Indigenous people by the American and Canadian governments, Saint-Marie spoke about her advocacy efforts.
- FROM THE VAULTS | Buffy Sainte-Marie raises her voice
"I put all my time into Indian rights," she said. "I think this is something I know something about."
She said when it came to her political views, her time was best spent doing what she could to inform people.
"The Indians are completely in the palm of the white people... and completely at the mercy of Parliament and Congress," she told interviewer John O'Leary. "I think people need to be informed if they're going to do right by the Indians."
Sainte-Marie has said her political views, and her efforts to express them, had a detrimental effect on her career in the 1960s.
"In the late '70s, numerous radio broadcasters came forward to say that they were commended by Lyndon Johnson's White House for suppressing my music," she told the Globe and Mail in 1986.
She also said that when she was scheduled to appear on The Tonight Show in the United States, she was asked not to sing anti-war anthem Universal Soldier or the song Now that the Buffalo's Gone.
"The Nixon and Johnson administrations had quashed [Illuminations] because they believed she was too dangerous and so people didn't get to hear it," said Taylor, speaking of her choice for Canada Listens.
- ALBUM TRAILER | Buffy Sainte-Marie Illuminations
In 2020 the music website Pitchfork published an in-depth examination of Illuminations, calling it "astounding" and "trailblazing" and commending its "groundbreaking" nature.
"She became the first musician not only to release an album with vocals processed through a Buchla 100 synthesizer ... but the first person ever to make an album recorded using quadraphonic technology, an early precursor to surround-sound," said Pitchfork.
"People were more in love with the Pocahontas-with-a-guitar image," Sainte-Marie once said when asked why she thought Illuminations failed to find a contemporary audience.