Archive for December, 2022

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier”

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie, CC (born Beverly Sainte-Marie February 20, 1941) is an Indigenous Canadian-American (Piapot Cree Nation) singer-songwriter, musician, educator, and social activist. While working in these areas, her work has focused mainly on issues facing the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.

In 1983, she became the first Indigenous American person to win an Oscar when her song “Up Where We Belong”, co-written with Jack Nitzsche and Will Jennings for the film “An Officer and a Gentleman”, won the Academy Award for Best Original Song at the 55th Academy Awards. The song also won the Golden Globe and BAFTA Awards for Best Original Song that same year.

In 1997, she founded the Cradle Board Teaching Project, an educational curriculum devoted to better understanding Native Americans. She was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1995, named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1997 and presented with Honorary Doctorate degrees from many Canadian universities.

When she was two or three she was taken from her parents as part of the “Sixties Scoop” – a Canadian government policy where Indigenous children were taken from their families, communities and cultures for placement in foster homes, from which they would be adopted by white families. This practice was an extension of the Residential School System where Aboriginal children were taken into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands. It was the general belief of government authorities at the time that Aboriginal children could receive a better education if they were transitioned into the public school system. Residential schools, however, persisted as a sort of boarding school for children whose families were deemed unsuitable to care for their own. This system, set up by the Canadian government and administered by various churches, had the nominal objective of educating Indigenous children but also the more damaging and equally explicit objectives of indoctrinating them into Euro-Canadian and Christian ways of living and assimilating them into mainstream white Canadian society. The system forbade them from acknowledging their Indigenous heritage and culture or to speak their own languages. Children were severely punished if these rules were broken. Former students of residential schools have spoken of the horrendous physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse suffered at the hands of residential school staff.



“Universal Soldier” was written and recorded in 1964, when the very existence of a war in Vietnam was being denied by the American government. There is strong evidence that the White House, the FBI and certain radio stations coerced to blacklist “Universal Soldier” and Buffy Sainte-Marie, but a young British folk artist named Donovan (Leitch, b. 1946) recorded the song and it became, against all odds, a world-wide hit. Not only did the song meet with contempt by all belligerent factions but Donovan’s recording only featured him singing and playing an acoustic guitar, at a time when rock ‘n roll and pop radio was getting tougher and more electric.

Buffy Sante-Marie recalls a San Francisco layover while traveling from Mexico to Toronto where a group of medics came into the airport in the middle of the night, wheeling in wounded soldiers. She asked one of the medics if there really was a war in Vietnam, in spite of all the political denials in the U.S. The medics assured her that there was indeed a huge war going on. Sainte-Marie started writing “Universal Soldier” in the airport and on the plane, and finished it in the basement of the Purple Onion coffee house in Toronto.

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s lyrics about Hitler mention Dachau, the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany in 1933 responsible for 32,000 official deaths at the camp, and thousands of others that are undocumented. In his recording, Donovan substitutes this reference for Liebau, a training centre where the Hitler Youth were indoctrinated into the Nazi culture.

Richard au Festival de l'ail des bois, ca 1975

Richard at the Wild Garlic Festival, ca 1975

For those who were not there in the 1960s, it is difficult to imagine the hard-fought antagonism on both sides of the Vietnam war that disfigured and stained all aspects of our society. The musical protests were many, from Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” to Edwin Starr’s magnificent “War” (What Is It Good For). John Lennon and Yoko Ono were very vocal in their opposition to the war. During their 1969 Bed-In protest at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, Lennon wrote and recorded the song “Give Peace a Chance.” Released as a single, it quickly became an anti-war anthem sung by a quarter of a million demonstrators against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC, on 15 November, 1969, the second Vietnam Moratorium Day. Later in December, Lennon and Ono paid for billboards in 10 major cities around the world which declared, in the national language, “War Is Over! If You Want It”.

In this traditional time of peace, the Geneva Academy lists more than 100 armed conflicts currently being waged in around three dozen countries, most of them in the Middle East, North West Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Merry Christmas to all my listeners.

All photos are in the Public Domain.

To listen to the recording, click on the song title below.

Richard Séguin – voice and acoustic guitar

Universal Soldier

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