Home HISTORY Buffy Sainte-Marie on Building a Career in New York’s Folk Music Revival — The Gotham Center for New York City History

Buffy Sainte-Marie on Building a Career in New York’s Folk Music Revival — The Gotham Center for New York City History

by Ohio Digital News

 It’s for this reason that Sainte-Marie saw New York as a unique place to break out of the mold of the quintessential female folk musician. She states: “I always felt totally free to have fun and push it onstage in New York. Audiences are just more experienced, more diversely exposed to variety, more curious, and more sophisticated in New York.” [45] There, she says, she felt less pressure to be “settler-oriented – like the American Songbook.” [46] This haven, in turn, made it possible for Sainte-Marie to become a trendsetting role model – someone who not only appealed to the college students who formed a “large, devoted, almost cultish following” but who inspired up-and-coming women artists, like Joni Mitchell. [47] Mitchell remembered that Sainte-Marie’s “songs were so smart, so well-crafted, and her performances were stunning” while adding that “she was different from the stereotypical industry old boys’ club . . . you could say I followed in Buffy’s footsteps.” [48]

When the Business of Folk Music is Business – Making It and Holding onto Success

Despite its public image of innocence and moral purity, the folk revival was plagued by sexism, and stories abound of aspiring folksingers, especially women, who found themselves taken advantage of in more than one way. [49] Alix Dobkin has described the “unwritten law of ‘no-two-chick-singers-back-to-back’” that limited women’s appearances on folk stages while sharing the unvarnished truth that “down to the marrow of our bones, every one of us [women folksingers] understood that a strong woman had better make it immediately clear that she was sexually available to men” and that “‘the important people’ in the audience were the men.” [50] Buffy Sainte-Marie discovered the male-dominated “showbiz capitalists” of the folk era to be “bullies and thieves” while encountering social and professional exclusion among fellow artists. [51] Her very presence as a seasoned musician and educated Indigenous woman seemed to break unspoken rules. [52] While this environment presented an implicit hierarchy that proved challenging to navigate, the artist nevertheless emerged from her time in New York with key allies. Her experience therefore points to the critical value of allyship for new artists.

Buffy Sainte-Marie speaks candidly about one of the more well-documented instances of professional abuse to which she was subject as an up-and-coming artist in the Village. Biographer Andrea Warner tells the story of an ill-fated night at the Gaslight when Sainte-Marie unwittingly signed away the rights to her antiwar song “Universal Soldier” to music supervisor Elmer Gordon. [53] She regained the rights for $25,000 a decade later. [54] “Part of ‘getting took,’” Sainte-Marie asserts, “was my own naivete. I wasn’t raised in a business family.” [55] But she also describes what it was like for a woman, socialized according to midcentury gender norms, to respond to myriad offers from executives who assumed that “exploitation was [to be] expected.” [56] “The feeling,” Sainte-Marie recalls, “was that you were outgunned and outnumbered . . . and my accommodation was to polite my way through it.” She continued: “I had . . . learned how to be a polite, good girl who could go to a record company and say ‘oh, where do I sign?’” [57] After such exchanges, Sainte-Marie remembered that “I would have a definite feeling that I had done the best I could under the circumstances . . . I had no idea that I had been exploited in any way.” [58]

It wasn’t only the executives that undermined the artist’s capacity to reap the rewards of her creative output or her access to professionally relevant opportunities. Sainte-Marie also reports on opportunities she missed out on from not quite fitting into the folk revival’s social circuit. As an unattached woman in a setting where women gained status as girlfriends and as an educated person who had cultivated her talent for years in college prior to arriving in New York, Sainte-Marie suggests some degree of insecurity if not umbrage that she inspired among the men in the Village. [59] Everyday social exclusion meant that “I missed a lot of inside information,” she says, since it was during “after-show fun where the networking and business deals blossom.” [60]

These disadvantages notwithstanding, Buffy Sainte-Marie acknowledges the pivotal role that allies played in advocating for her work. “Bob Dylan always stuck up for me,” says Sainte-Marie, adding that “Phil Ochs,” too, “and Richie Havens were real nice to me as a fellow writer. Odetta . . . and Len Chandler, who were two of the few people of color to achieve prominence in the Village,” also promoted Sainte-Marie at the start of her career alongside jazz connections she made at the Village Gate and the Bitter End. These include Cannonball Adderly, Nina Simone, Charles Lloyd, and Chet Atkins. So great were these influences, in fact, that Sainte-Marie came close to signing with the jazz label Blue Note before opting instead for classical-turned-folk outfit Vanguard. [61] Moreover, personalities with television shows, including Merv Griffin and Harry Belafonte, provided Sainte-Marie with a platform to “extend the content of my song explanations into celebrity chat, and inform the public,” especially about contemporary Indigenous experiences and concerns. [62] Such allies played a crucial role in Sainte-Marie’s career growth and supported the artist as she carved her own path in a context where compliance and conformity, rather than independence and individuality – especially for women – sometimes reaped the highest dividends.

Buffy Sainte-Marie and Indigenous Rights: Folk Music as Education

Historians of the folk revival describe how a yearning for “authenticity” among folk musicians in the early 1960s was intimately bound up with racialized expressions of “emotional ventriloquism” as they imitated, and appropriated, how Americans at the nation’s margins responded to everyday challenges through musical expression. [63] According to historian Grace Hale, when White rock and roll artists like Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley impersonated Black rhythm and blues singers, they were performing emotional ventriloquism, as did folk musicians like Dave Von Ronk whose early repertoire consisted of “Cajun, blues, and jug band music” recorded earlier by Black artists like Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. [64] This “romantic fantasy,” Hale explains, had racist implications as White performers who mimicked the vocal inflections, performance gait, and emotional expression of African Americans from Southern regions “drew from the performance conventions of minstrelsy.” [65] For Buffy Sainte-Marie, however, folk music’s importance was not about imagining or embodying a “folk” abstraction. [66] Instead, she felt that the folk revival enabled her, through music, to educate audiences on the lived experiences – and ongoing injustices – known to Indigenous tribes throughout North America. [67]

During the folk era, Buffy Sainte-Marie used her songwriting to educate New York-based audiences on ongoing dilemmas faced by Indigenous tribes. Writing original songs at a time when critics lauded the prowess of male writers in the folk idiom like Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Tom Paxton, but rarely acknowledged women’s songwriting abilities until the emergence of the singer-songwriter trend in the early 1970s, it’s worth noting that Sainte-Marie was an active composer with over 200 songs to her name by 1963. [68] Reflecting on her music as an educational tool, she points to her performances of a song included in her first album, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” that depicts the federal government as eager to carry forward a well-documented pattern of colonizing native land for economic gain – including when it commissioned the Kinzua Dam on the border of New York and Pennsylvania. Originating in the New Deal and completing construction in 1965, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the Kinzua Dam ostensibly to control flooding along the Allegheny River but with the net effect of creating jobs and providing electric power – all at the expense of local Senecas when the project condemned ten thousand acres of the tribe’s Allegheny territory. [69] Sainte-Marie remembers how audiences responded to her broaching this issue during sets:

“When I sang ‘Now that the Buffalo’s Gone’ to intelligent New York audiences, it was the first time they had heard about the building of Kinzua Dam in . . . their own state . . . To build the Kinzua Dam, Congress unilaterally broke the oldest treaty in Congressional archives, written during the time of George Washington. They flooded and evicted the Seneca Nation from their reservation – in New York. I thought that if audiences only knew about Indigenous exploitation they’d help. But what was the most common New York reaction to my song about Kinzua Dam? New Yorkers said politely, ‘Aw, the little Indian girl must be mistaken.’ So that’s what we were facing.” [70]

While New York audiences failed to embrace the urgency of Sainte-Marie’s message, Alix Dobkin recalls that she joined other Indigenous songwriters in the folk revival, including Patrick Sky and Peter LaFarge, in “earn[ing] wide respect for bringing to the scene a consciousness of the original American genocide and continuing oppression of their people, as well as a passion for their heritage.” [71] The platform she built in the revival enabled her to support Indigenous causes in more comprehensive ways subsequently. By the end of the 1960s, Sainte-Marie had set up a scholarship fund for Indigenous students, offered benefit concerts to support organizations such as the American Indian Movement (AIM) and the Indians of All Tribes, and pushed effectively for major television networks to hire Indigenous talent to play Native American characters (the latter accomplishment much against the wishes of her complacent business managers in New York). [72] Although in New Yorkers the artist at first found a limited audience for the Indigenous rights education her music provided, eventually her performance activism laid a crucial foundation from which later efforts emerged – and remain in motion today. [73]

New York City as Inspiration and Steppingstone

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s experience in the city was a formative stop on a longer journey whose dimensions became global in scale. The artist’s experiences in early 1960s New York provide new insights that compliment and expand the historical record on the folk revival. They highlight the impact of musical trends like rhythm and blues and rock and roll on folk music, add dimension to the revival’s politics of style, shed light on women’s experiences building careers and forming networks, and complicate the revival’s proximity to race relations and reform efforts – including for Indigenous rights. The era’s complexities notwithstanding, Buffy Sainte-Marie best captures the city’s flavor and vitality that shaped her artistic development during the folk revival: “I always had the feeling that my big dreams elsewhere were not at all too big in New York. That the city could accommodate anything I dreamed up. If some of my songs were . . . not folkie enough for the Village folk purists, no problem at all: just go up town a little and there’s an audience for just about everything. It’s that capacity that thrills me about New York.” [74]

Christine Kelly teaches American History courses at Fordham University where she completed her PhD in History in 2019. She previously served in student support offices at Fordham University and Johns Hopkins University.

[1] Walter C. Meyer, “Like No Other Folksinger – That’s Buffy Sainte-Marie: It’s Her Way,” New York Sunday News, February 26, 1967, 6, Native American Biography Vertical File (ca. 1850-2000), Collection No. 9242, Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Series I. Native American Individuals, Box 3, Folder Sainte-Marie, Buffy (henceforth Cornell NABVF).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Hogan, “The Cree with a Kink in Her Voice,” Look, December 15, 1964, 59, M-Clippings, Sainte-Marie, Buffy, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (henceforth NYPL Performing Arts).

[4] “Spotlight! Record Reviews,” June, 1965, clipping, Carnegie Hall Archives, New York, New York; “Sainte-Marie, Buffy,” Current Biography, July 1969, 40, NYPL Performing Arts.[5] “Folk Singers: Solitary Indian,” Time, December 10, 1965, 62, M-Clippings, Sainte-Marie, Buffy, NYPL Performing Arts; Dick Weissman, Which Side Are You On?: An Inside History of the Folk Music Revival in America (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2006), 166.

[6] “Sainte-Marie, Buffy,” Current Biography, July 1969, 39, NYPL Performing Arts.[7] Justin Sablich, “From Macdougal Street to ‘The Bitter End,’ Exploring Bob Dylan’s New York,” New York Times, October 18, 2016, sec. Travel, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/travel/exploring-bob-dylans-greenwich-village-new-york.html; Stephen Petrus and Ronald D. Cohen, Folk City: New York and the American Folk Music Revival (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 163.

[8] Gillian Mitchell, The North American Folk Music Revival: Nation and Identity in the United States and Canada, 1945–1980, New Edition (Burlington, VT: Routledge, 2016), 114; Petrus and Cohen, Folk City, 151.

[9] On folk purists who defined and defended “authentic” folk singing during the revival era, see Rachel C. Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing:” Folk Music and National Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 140 – 142; Alix Dobkin, My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement (New York: Alyson Books, 2009), 170 – 171; Buffy Sainte-Marie, in conversation with author, May 12, 2023.

[10] Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 100.

[11] Ibid., 99.

[12] Hale, A Nation of Outsiders, 95; Robert Cantwell, “When We Were Good: Class and Culture in the Folk Revival,” in Neil V. Rosenberg, ed., Transforming Tradition: Folk Music Revivals Examined (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993),50; Judy Collins, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music, Reprint Edition (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2012), 64.

[13] Cantwell, When We Were Good, 337, 379; Robin Herman, “Two 60’s Songbirds in the Park: Two 60’s Songbirds In Central Park Spotlight Attacked From Left and Right; Tips on Tickets ‘The Right to Make the Choices’ Holography Show in Southampton,” New York Times, July 6, 1979, sec. The Weekend, C1.

[14] Petrus and Cohen, Folk City, 81; Mick Houghton, Becoming Elektra: The True Story of Jac Holzman’s Visionary Record Label (London: Jawbone Press, 2010), 92.

[15] Mark Abramson qtd. in Collins, Sweet, 83 – 84.

[16] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[17] Andrea Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 2018), 64.

[18] Buffy Sainte-Marie, in conversation with author, May 12, 2023; Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 64.

[19] Sherry Smith, “Indians, the Counterculture, and the New Left,” in Daniel Cobb and Loretta Fowler, eds., Beyond Red Power: American Indian Politics and Activism Since 1900 (Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research, 2007), 144.

[20] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[21] Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 66 – 67.

[22] Donaldson, “I Hear America Singing,” 132 – 133.

[23] Stephen Fiott, “In Defense of Commercial Folksingers,” Sing Out!, Dec.-Jan., 1962, 43, Tamiment Library and Wagner Labor Archives, New York University, New York, New York.; Dan Armstrong, “‘Commercial’ Folksongs – Product of ‘Instant Culture,’” Sing Out!, Feb. – Mar. 1963, 20.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Marc Myers, Rock Concert: An Oral History as Told by the Artists, Backstage Insiders, and Fans Who Were There (New York: Grove Press, 2021), accessed via Google Books; Andrew Glazer, “Singer Zola Taylor Broke Gender Barriers in the 1950s as a Member of The Platters,” Chron, May 6, 2007, https://www.chron.com/news/houston-deaths/article/singer-zola-taylor-broke-gender-barriers-in-the-1599906.php.

[30] Beth Fowler, Rock and Roll, Desegregation Movements, and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022), 97; “Platters Make Chicago Night Club Debut, Held Over,” Jet, June 1, 1967, vol. 23, no. 8, 56.

[31] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Alix Dobkin, My Red Blood, 173.

[34] Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Reprint Edition (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995), 145, 147.

[35] David Hajdu, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña, 10th Anniversary Edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 62 – 63; Douglas, Where the Girls Are, 146.

[36] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[37] John Clemente, Girl Groups: Fabulous Females Who Rocked the World (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2013), 402; Mark Naison, “Girl Groups in the Bronx: Race, Gender and the Pursuit of Respectability,” Occasional Essays: Bronx African American History Project, 3 (2019): https://research.library.fordham.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1002&context=baahp_essays.

[38] Sandra Shevey, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Righteous Indignation,” Ladies of Pop/Rock (New York: Scholastic, 1971), 29, 35, M-Clippings, Sainte-Marie, Buffy, NYPL Performing Arts.

[39] Advertisement for the New York Folk Festival, New York Post, June 1, 1965, clipping, Carnegie Hall Archives.

[40] “N.Y. Folk Festival in Solid Bow; 51G Take Despite Name Shortage,” Variety, June 23, 1963, Carnegie Hall Archives.

[41] Robert Shelton, “First Folk Festival Here Ends with Carl Sandburg’s ‘Songbag,’” New York Times, June 21, 1965, Carnegie Hall Archives; Robert Shelton, “Folk Event Opens with a “Big Beat,” New York Times, June 18, 1965, Carnegie Hall Archives.

[42] Robert Shelton, “Folk Event Opens with a “Big Beat,” New York Times.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Robert Shelton, “First Folk Festival Here Ends with Carl Sandburg’s ‘Songbag,’” New York Times.

[45] “Sainte-Marie, Buffy,” Indigenous Saskatchewan Encyclopedia, https://teaching.usask.ca/indigenoussk/import/sainte-marie_buffy_beverly_1941-.php; Advertisement for the New York Folk Festival, New York Post, June 1, 1965, clipping, Carnegie Hall Archives.

[46] Here, Sainte-Marie is referring to The American Songbag, a 1927 anthology of American folk songs compiled by poet, journalist, and biographer Carl Sandburg. The anthology’s song collection put forward an image of folk Americana that many aspiring folk singers adopted.

[47] Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 3; “Sainte-Marie, Buffy,” Current Biography, July 1969, 40, NYPL Performing Arts.

[48] Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 3.

[49] Cantwell, “When We Were Good,” in Rosenberg, Transforming Tradition, 58.

[50] Alix Dobkin, My Red Blood, 175.

[51] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 69.

[54] Ibid.

[55] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Buffy Sainte-Marie, in conversation with author, May 12, 2023.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Buffy Sainte-Marie, in conversation with author, May 12, 2023; Suze Rotolo, A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties (New York: Broadway Books, 2009), 273.

[60] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Hale, A Nation of Outsiders, 102. See also Doug Rossinow, The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 4 – 5.

[64] “Artist Spotlight: Dave Van Ronk,” Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, https://folkways.si.edu/dave-van-ronk/american-folk-blues-gospel/music/article/Smithsonian; Dave Von Ronk with Elijah Wald, The Mayor of MacDougal Street: A Memoir (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2013), 136.

[65] Ibid.

[66] CineFocus Canada, Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, 2006, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1nNbR791go&t=764s.

[67] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[68] Robert Shelton, “Old Music Taking On New Color: An Indian Girl Sings Her Compositions and Folk Songs; Blind Street Singer Moves Indoors for Stage Numbers Writes Impressive Songs Appears in Flowing Robes,” New York Times, August 17, 1963, 11, Buffy Sainte-Marie Vertical File, The American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

[69] Maria Diaz-Gonzalez, “The Complicated History of the Kinzua Dam and How It Changed Life for the Seneca People,” Environmental Health News, January 30, 2020, https://www.ehn.org/seneca-nation-kinzua-dam-2644943791.html#:~:text=The%20formidable%20Kinzua%20Dam%2C%20which,Allegany%20Territory%20to%20the%20dam.

[70] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[71] Dobkin, My Red Blood, 154.

[72] “Nihewan Foundation History,” Nihewan Foundation, http://www.nihewan.org/history.html; Blair Sabol, “Buffy Sainte-Marie: Outside Fashion,” Village Voice, July 31, 1969, M-Clippings, Sainte-Marie, Buffy, NYPL Performing Arts; John Weisman, “Singer Buffy Sainte-Marie Crusades for Indian Rights,” Los Angeles Times, October 15, 1970, G30; Warner, Buffy Sainte-Marie, 154; Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

[73] Stonechild, It’s My Way!, 163.

[74] Buffy Sainte-Marie, written account of folk revival in New York, e-mailed to author, May 12, 2023.

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