In 1964, a woman released a song called, “It’s My Way.” The song was her debut. It was an ode to taking the road less traveled, the one to self-identity, and the conviction to be oneself. That woman has gone on to win countless awards: Junos, Oscars, Golden Globes, she’s even breastfed on Sesame Street. GGN publisher Shaun Proulx recently sat down with the internationally renowned Buffy Sainte Marie on his SiriusXM chat show to talk about what to do when someone tells you what you want isn’t on the menu.
Shaun Proulx: I’m honored to say hello to you, Buffy Ste. Marie. I’m having flashbacks because you’re my whole life! I was preparing this interview on the weekend, and I realized you must get this all the time, what an integral part – and through different kinds of genres and raisons d’etres – you’ve been in the lives of so many people.
Buffy Sainte Marie: Yes! If you say so!
Shaun Proulx: I say so! Do you not walk around with that knowledge, even a small bit?
Buffy Sainte Marie: It kind of comes in and out of your consciousness. For the most part, I kind of have my eyes ahead and behind at the same time. Kind of like a contrary. Sometimes, you can see both sides of the door at the same time. I think that’s what’s particular about artists. That’s what an artist does.
Shaun Proulx: Has the message for you changed about self identity and being yourself in the fifty years that have gone by since “It’s My Way?” What was self identity to you in 1964? And what does self-identity mean now to you, all these years later, in this world we live in?
Buffy Sainte Marie: You know, I have never even thought to define it. There was never a reason to ever think about defining it. I think even as I was writing the song – and by the way, there’s a difference … a lot of people will say, “Oh that’s that Frank Sinatra ”I did it MY way” No, it’s not about that. It’s about “It’s my path”.
So I wasn’t thinking about self-identity at all, I was thinking about the path, and my particular path, I recognized quite young, certainly wasn’t going to be like anybody else’s, because my life, even up to then, had been very different. But also, I wasn’t really into “collecting fans” who wanted to copy me, I was interested in talking to fans who had their eyes in their heads, thinking about their own path. So that’s really what I was trying to inspire, is other people’s finding out who they are, and what they have to learn, and what they have to then contribute.
Shaun Proulx: Everyone’s authenticity is different, that’s the whole point.
Buffy Sainte Marie: That is, exactly! Thanks, it’s the whole point. I think everybody has uniqueness, but most of us are a little bit “talked out of it”. From the time we’re five or six, they start talking us out of the artist, who’s actually inside us. If you take kids to the beach, they all make art. Five year olds and six year olds, and mom and dad are up there on the blanket drinking beer and eating chips , but the kids are down there making architecture and using their imaginations and making drama… the adults aren’t smart enough to realize that the kids are the new upgrade.
Shaun Proulx: Yes! Don’t you think that kids are born wiser than the adult? They’re tuned-in, tapped-in, turned-on, and then society gets their hands on them, puts them in school, teaches them what they should know, and then that all sort of dissipates, and they tell the children what they are good at, and what they’ll never be good at. It just becomes this kind of mush, and out come adults.
Buffy Sainte Marie: I think you’re right. I think little children are just thought of as dominant, superfluous and cute, but I think if the parents are really hip and realize that the kids are the new upgrade; parents who are aware of that are going to raise a child who is more in touch with his or her own uniqueness.
Shaun Proulx: You were always in touch, well, not always, but from an early time. I know people were asking you, how have you become so wise at such a young age? You were always in touch with yourself, what was different for you?
Buffy Sainte Marie: I just think, as a kid, I was unique, I was a loner, I didn’t play sports, therefore, I didn’t have that competitive peer pressure. I didn’t play Barbie dolls, so I didn’t have that kind of thing going on with girls, I was a loner, and what I played was art. I played crayons, and writing, and dancing and music. I used to play fake Beethoven and fake Chopin on the piano, so I think I found out very young that I could do things that the system didn’t know I could do, and I did them in a different way, because I couldn’t do them in a regular way. I was dyslexic.
Shaun Proulx: So you had a knowing of who you really were, and no one could tell you what it was.
Buffy Sainte Marie: No, not exactly, I didn’t know who I was. I knew what I could do. I knew how to have fun, and I knew that my way of having fun. Music? I knew I couldn’t pass a music class because I was dyslexic in music. I’m not dyslexic in reading.
Shaun Proulx: What does dyslexic in music mean?
Buffy Sainte Marie: I didn’t know either. I didn’t know there was such a thing. I tried to learn how to read music several times; once as a kid, once as a teenager, and again as an adult. I couldn’t learn how to read music.
Shaun Proulx: I love that Buffy Ste. Marie can’t read friggen music.
Buffy Sainte Marie: No, I can’t. Wait a minute: I’m not the only one. A lot of natural musicians have never been able to learn how to read music. To that case was a friend of mine, he said, “Once somebody asked me if I could read music, and I told him, not enough to hurt my playing.” So playing music, and having music, and being an artist is not the same as being taught how to be like a musician, how to be like an artist. I knew when I was a kid, what I liked to do. I kept it secret, I wasn’t the kid who played music, or made drawings for the class, and nobody knew, and I would always flunk those music classes, because I couldn’t read music. I can write for an orchestra, it’s not as if I don’t know how. I just can’t read it back the next day. So for me to get from bar one to bar four would be like trying to write with my left hand. Why would I bother? When I can do it so fast, I just do it a different way.
Shaun Proulx: Right.
Buffy Sainte Marie: I never thought about it much. I just kept it private, and did it for my own enjoyment.
Shaun Proulx: You were black-listed in the seventies by the Richard Nixon administration, who called you an artist who should be suppressed. Did it feel like – because you have had a revolutionary career – that you were in a revolution? When you’re at the center of that, do you know that you’re having this wild ride, or are you just leading your life?
Buffy Sainte Marie: I knew that the songs were affecting people, but I had no idea I was being black-listed by Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. They don’t tell you, people will say, “Doesn’t that make you hate the US government?” I said, no it wasn’t the US government. Not unless they passed an act in congress against me. A couple of guys go in the back room, and make a couple of nasty phone calls to the media. You run a business, so you don’t get any more air-play, but it wasn’t affecting me personally. I was traveling in Europe, I was traveling Down-Under, I was doing concerts in Hong Kong and Tokyo and having a wonderful life, so it was only in the US that I was black-listed.
Shaun Proulx: We were in Orlando doing this show only a few days before the Orlando shootings, and I thought about you when we were putting today’s conversations together, because you say, “People sometimes tell me you’re such a warrior for peace; I’m not a warrior at all. I represent a new thinking about alternative conflict resolution.” The basis of all my work is what I call #ThoughtRevolution, the re-thinking of your ideas about subjects that matter to you that are not working for you anymore.
Buffy Sainte Marie: Right on, exactly.
Shaun Proulx: That’s the kind of message we’re putting out, and that’s why I’m so happy to talk to you. Do you see something like Orlando, and think that it’s time to stop pointing fingers, finding out where the hate came from, to stop blaming, and simply go right to the solution, which I happen to think is to inject more love into the world?
Buffy Sainte Marie: I couldn’t agree more. Orlando was a terrible tragedy and there are terrible tragedies every day. You might not hear about them as much, but I continually wonder, how are we raising children to grow up and think that way. It’s a huge dilemma and a huge thought. For the longest time, even before I knew the name of Bernie Sanders, I agreed on all of the issues that he talks about. I just think we have to really examine everything and find out what is it that we’re not giving children, so that they think they have to grow up to be so competitive and so insecure if they find that they can’t compete on some level, that it drives us nuts? And it drives us to do things that are just crazy. But on the other hand, the good news about the bad news, whether it’s truth and reconciliation, or any other tragedy that you want to mention, the good news about the bad news is that more people are more aware of it now, so that’s where I kind of take hope, and I know that Donald Trump might be the loudest in there, but in my life, most of the time, I’m with very humble people. I’m with the same people that you see in airports and on the street, and when I get talking to people, they’re not bullies, they’re not crazies, but I think you just said it; I can’t improve on that: we just need more love in the world, that’s what we try and do today.
Shaun Proulx: What have you learned in your experience, on your journey, that is great truth we all should know?
Buffy Sainte Marie: One of the things that popped into my head was a little line of a song I wrote a long time ago:
Some will tell you.
Some will tell you.
What you’re really want ain’t on the menu
Don’t believe them!
Don’t believe them!
Cook it up yourself,
And then prepare to serve them.
That’s how they’re going to find out.
Shaun Proulx: Be like Buffy, in other words. It was such an honour to meet you.
Buffy Sainte Marie: Thanks Shaun!
– Shaun Proulx is the publisher of GGN. Join his #ThoughtRevolution on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and hear him every weekend on SiriusXMCanadaTalks 167 or online here. If you’re in the Greater Toronto Area, read his weekly column, Spirit & The City in 24 Hours each Thursday.
– This interview was condensed and edited.