With MTSU’s recent Constitution and Civil Rights events on campus, it’s only fitting that renowned singer-songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie discussed free speech, inspiration and songwriting with recording industry students on Sept. 17.
Sainte-Marie, 74, was awarded the Spirit of Americana Free Speech in Music Award by the Americana Music Association in Nashville on Sept. 16. Much of that recognition comes from her history as a musician, which she spoke of during a Q-and-A Dr. Gregory Reish, the director of the Center for Popular Music at MTSU.
At the height of her music career in the 1960s, she was blacklisted by two American presidents and lost airtime from record labels by writing what she called “hard-hitting” songs, like “Universal Soldier” and “My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying,” that exposed social issues, promoted peace and challenged the Vietnam war.
“I was doing a lot of big-time TV and shooting my mouth off about things like this war that they were having that [the Government] was saying they weren’t having,” Sainte-Marie explained. “When the spotlight fell upon me, I was asked not to talk about Native American rights, not to talk about nonviolent resolutions to conflict, just to stick to celebrity chat. Show business is not just the show. It’s also the business. And unless that’s balanced, things can go really awry for an artist.”
Because of the suppression of her music, Sainte-Marie isn’t very well-known by the younger generations in America.
“Most of you have never heard from me,” Sainte-Marie said with a laugh. “Although I’m a very big deal in a lot of countries, in the United States I’m considered a relic of the ’60s who went to Sesame Street, and then probably died, disappeared or something.”
Sainte-Marie discussed her passion for indigenous peoples and how she fights to help them protect their music from corporations. Also a pioneer in electronic music, she discussed her love of the digital age and told students how her 1969 album Illuminations was the first quadraphonic electronic vocal album ever produced.
The session ended with a Q-and-A with students where Sainte-Marie answered questions about songwriting and encouraged students to not be afraid of experimentation and change.
“Please be bold and passionate with whatever it is that inspires you,” she said. “It’s a gift that you’re going to give somebody else, you know? Don’t get hung up on your own ego. Just go for it. Just do it.”
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