Buffy Sainte-Marie. If you’re a baby boomer, the name surely rings bells. There’s probably a picture attached, circa the early-‘60s folk music explosion, of a young American Indian girl with an acoustic guitar and a strange, singular vibrato as she performs protest anthems “Universal Soldier” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone.” If you’re a pop scholar, you think of her as the writer of “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” a hit for both Elvis Presley and Neil Diamond, and as coauthor of the 1982 Oscar-winning song “Up Where We Belong.”
In the decades since those pictures were fixed in our consciousness, the Canadian singer and songwriter has developed parallel and equally distinguished careers as a painter, computer artist and programmer, actor (there are those who know her only from her recurring “Sesame Street” role), educator and social activist.
She attributes our incomplete and out-of-date picture to U.S. government pressure resulting from her political activism, particularly regarding American Indian issues. “I was blacklisted, taken away from American audiences in my prime,” she says, “but that didn’t stop me. I had the rest of the world and lots of creative options to explore.”
One of those options was the use of computers, an area she investigated early enough to now be considered a pioneer. “I made an electronic record in the ‘60s, the first totally quadraphonic vocal album,” she says by phone from a hotel in New York. “I was uniquely positioned to think of computers for something more than accounting and pie charts. I integrated computers into my music and art, but I also saw educational uses. We were putting kids online in the ‘80s before most people were even aware of the Internet. We had fifth-graders in Hawaii connected with aboriginal native Canadian kids in Saskatchewan. With the help of the Kellogg Foundation there in Michigan, we’ve expanded this work under the name Cradleboard Teaching Project.” Sainte-Marie’s educational activities are so numerous that her tour itinerary must differentiate between speaking and musical engagements.
She has had several gallery shows devoted to her paintings, which also utilize digital technology. “Electronic music and electronic art were a tough sell at first,” she says. “We were not trying to replace guitars with computers any more than guitars replaced voices or pianos. It doesn’t do away with watercolors or oils. It’s just another tool to add to the toolbox. Once people understand that, everything changes.”