Artists don’t control how their work is received. In some cases, they don’t even control what work is received. It can be argued that direct engagement with fans through social media has given musicians more agency over their creative output. And yet, the most famous, outspoken and seemingly independent artists have a team of management and PR monitoring their every post. The music industry is different now than it once was, but not so different. Big labels have always been the gatekeepers, finding musicians who will help leverage political and social movements into record sales. In the 1960s, before the internet changed how people discovered new music, labels were all-powerful. They controlled recording studios, influenced radio stations, and they alone had the money to send artists on tour. It was this era of the music industry that swept up Buffy Sainte-Marie, whose groundbreaking album, It’s My Way! was released on Vanguard Records in 1964.
Although, as her biography demonstrates, the contract between Sainte-Marie and Vanguard was an exploitative one that would come to influence her professional relationships thereafter, the label gave the artist her first taste of travel and financial freedom. A series of crucial decisions, serendipitous encounters, political convictions and uninhibited creativity had gotten Sainte-Marie to that moment in time. While it was a turning point for her career, it was just a glimmer on an ocean of accomplishments that sees Sainte-Marie at the centre of the twentieth century’s most important cultural shifts.
In Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography, Andrea Warner builds a framework for Sainte-Marie to tell her own story, in her own words. In the afterword, Warner explains the process of collaborating and editing: “Buffy has combed every inch of this book, every page bears her fingerprints, and I can hear her voice at every turn.” The reader hears her voice, too. Though Sainte-Marie now calls Hawaii home, she was born in Saskatchewan and raised by an adoptive family in Massachusetts. The biography begins with her childhood and teen years, tracing the evolution of her musical expression and activism, rooted in the healing of trauma and the rediscovery of her Cree heritage. Sainte-Marie is honest and self-reflective, every chapter more and more suggestive of the deep trust between her and Warner.
I picked up this biography with an appreciation for Sainte-Marie’s music and activism, a surface knowledge of her technological innovations and her passion for educating children, but I had no idea how deep Sainte-Marie’s influence runs in everyday pop culture. What’s more, I couldn’t truly appreciate the amount of adversity Sainte-Marie has faced, and how she has transformed every challenge into opportunity. Perhaps the strongest takeaway is Sainte-Marie’s enduring faith in the capacity for humans to show love and express creativity. Whether it be performing protest songs at rallies or singing lullabies on Sesame Street, in everything she does, Sainte-Marie shares the belief that everyone is connected and has purpose.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Authorized Biography is a window into the life and career of a women who continues to challenge patriarchy and colonialism through her art. The strength of the interviews conducted for this biography places Warner, an already established music writer and cultural critic, among the greatest contemporary biographers.