Buffy Sainte-Marie is an Oscar-winning singer/songwriter celebrating her 45th year in the music biz with Running For The Drum (Appleseed), her first album since 1996. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Barbra Streisand and Janis Joplin to Courtney Love and Neko Case. Dean & Britta did a version of Saint-Marie’s “Moonshot” on their debut album, L’Avventura. Knowing that he was a fan, we asked Dean Wareham to interview Sainte-Marie for MAGNET. Here is the email exchange between the two musicians.
Dean Wareham: Thanks for doing this via email. I live in NYC but was upstate the day you were here doing press. I hope you don’t mind answering questions about some favorite older songs as well as new ones. If there is anything you don’t feel like answering, just skip it. I have been a fan since hearing the Moonshot album in about 1988 (in my 20s), but earlier than that, my father used to play “Universal Soldier” on the guitar for me when I was a child (this back in Australia in 1974).
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Hi Dean. I saw your version of “Moonshot” on YouTube. Thank you!! It’s just gorgeous, and I was so touched when I came upon it—by accident—several months ago. Some of my favorite songs are real obscure like “Moonshot.” Hardly anyone knows them. I like your taste. Anyway, many thanks for doing this. I went to your website—cool. Maybe you guys will come see us at the Highline Ballroom September 26. I’m breaking in a new band.
I always liked your tracks on the soundtrack to (1970’s) Performance. How did that come about? I assume you worked with Jack Nitzsche on those, the film’s composer, and later your husband, of course.
Jack had contacted Vanguard Records after seeing my picture in Cashbox magazine. This eventuated in the (1971) album She Used To Want To Be A Ballerina. Jack was scoring Performance at about the same time. (He played piano on a lot of Stones albums; Jumpin’ Jack Flash—that was Jack.) He asked me to record something for Performance. I’d always wanted to multi-track lots of mouth bows. That little melody I sang was just something that showed up in my head that night.
My favorites on your latest are the new recording of “Little Wheel Spin And Spin,” “Easy Like The Snow Falls Down,” but especially “Still This Love Goes On,” where I see you played almost all the instruments yourself. Did you record these songs all together in one session or over a long period of time?
Thanks a lot. Actually that’s Patrick Cockett, my longtime friend from Hawaii, playing second guitar with me; and he overdubbed a tipple track, too. A tipple is a 10-stringed instrument related to a ukulele. I only wish I played that good! Pat also played guitar on my version of “Up Where We Belong.”
“Moonshot” is my favorite Buffy Sainte-Marie song, one that I have recorded twice myself. I hear it as a protest song about the hubris of space travel, and my favorite line is “I know a boy from a tribe so primitive, he can call me up without no telephone.” And, of course, the string arrangement is fantastic. Why was “Moonshot” not released a single? I assume the record company made that decision.
That’s the correct answer. Vanguard seldom took any suggestions seriously from me. Record companies are mostly about the business, not the music. I’ve always loved that song, too, so thanks for liking it too 🙂 Much of the credit for the beauty of “Moonshot” and other songs on that album, and (1973’s) Quiet Places, (1974’s) Buffy and (1975’s) Changing Woman, goes to Norbert Putnam, producer, bass player and owner of Quadraphonic Studios. He shared not only his talent but engaged his friends (many from the Area Code 615 band out of Muscle Shoals, Ala.) in the albums, so there are great, great players adding their own talents. Norbert’s friend Glen Spreen did the strings for “Moonshot.”
“Now That The Buffalo’s Gone” reminded me of a terrific book I read last year, Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Times, which is a history of the dustbowl and those who lived through it, but he mentions that slaughtering the buffalo was a deliberate tactic to displace the Native American population. They got rid of the buffalo and the Native American population, and cut down the grass and tried to plant wheat and raise cattle, with disastrous results all around. His point was that these so-called natural disasters have a man-made component. It seems I don’t really have a question here, but maybe you would care to comment.
You (and he) are correct. Ever read Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee? Excellent but a heartbreaker. Want a goody that won’t break your heart? Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford, Ph.D. Very easy to read. Astounding info.
Watching the documentary feature that comes with your new CD, there is much discussion of “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” which is a terrific song about illicit love (at least that’s the way I hear it—that someone in the room has to leave to get back to another life). I have a seven-inch single of Nancy Sinatra doing the song that I like, but you mention Bobby Darin specifically. Was he the first one to cover the song? I know Tim Hardin said he didn’t know if he should be flattered or annoyed when he heard Darin doing his songs and even copying his vibrato.
Artists learn from each other, and Bobby Darin did like good songs. Actually, the song is not just about illicit love, but also about anybody you just can’t have … like a soldier who’s on the way to Vietnam or somebody who’s dying or just plain unavailable to you in spite of the love. It’s been recorded by more than 200 artists in 13 different languages, so I guess it’s a common experience.
I imagine it was an incredible thrill to have Elvis sing the song, too. Did Colonel Tom Parker try to take half the songwriting credit? You always hear stories like that about him.
Who knows? His organization had certain standards and many associates of big stars try for every nickel. I have some standards, too and, having learned because of giving away the publishing rights to “Universal Soldier” for $1. I believe that if you didn’t write it, you don’t get a piece. It all worked out OK, though: I never gave up anything on “Until It’s Time For You To Go,” and it’s allowed me to survive as an artist instead of having to take a day job. And you’re right: It’s still a thrill to think that it was Elvis’s love song with his wife.
You made a splash in the New York folk scene in the early ’60s; it seems to me you were singing about things pretty close to your own life, whereas some of the other folk singers in the Village had made-up names and made-up personalities, too—which is ironic when you consider that some of those folk musicians prized the very authenticity of what they were doing. Did you find that folk scene to be very competitive?
Yes, very competitive. Socially and regarding business, I was very “green.” I wasn’t in one of the big “stables” (which is what agents and managers called their client bases), and also I didn’t drink, so I missed a lot of business opportunities that bonded other artists and business people together into a sort of family.
Two of my favorite guitarists from the period are Sandy Bull (who was your labelmate at Vanguard) and Bruce Langhorne (who played with Dylan). Did you ever play with either of those guys?
Both of them! And Bruce played on “Rolling Log Blues” on the Little Wheel Spin And Spin album.
“Universal Soldier” makes a case that it is the individual soldier who must bear responsibility for war “for without him, all this killing can’t go on.” Do you think those soldiers bear the same responsibility as Dick Cheney and Richard Nixon, who are what you might call masters of war? (What a great song: “Masters Of War.” Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs were such great writers in those days, eh?)
I wouldn’t dignify DC, the Bushes, RMN and LBJ with such a grand title, though. They’re just petty, privileged thieves, investors in hate, money launderers, parasites, bullies, liars and crooks. I do think that soldiers (and career military officers and politicians) all bear responsibility for war, though. Without him, even Caesar would have stood alone. However, the point of “Universal Soldier” is that you and I are responsible, too, in this era where we vote for the people who call the shots. I’m real proud of my own generation who helped to stop a war and put LBJ out of business. However, there’s one thing we didn’t do: We didn’t build colleges of peace. There are five major, heavily funded colleges where you can go to get an advanced degree in making war. (Annapolis, West Point, the Royal Military Academy, the Air Force Academy and the Army College Of War). But there’s not one similarly serious, properly funded college for a person to study alternative conflict resolution. No wonder we have war instead of peace. We’re just plain a young species, full of people at various levels of maturity and insight. I’m real hopeful. Gotta go. Hope to meet you one of these days.
“No No Keshagesh”: