Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Early Days of Music Video Activism

Posted on November 24, 2012 by WITNESS

Native American folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie rose to prominence in the 1960s as part of the ‘golden age’ of protest singers who addressed social issues through song. She’s best known for songs like ‘Universal Soldier’ (popularized by Donovan), ‘Now That the Buffalo is Gone’ and ‘Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.’ This video of ‘My Country Tis of Thee You’re Dying’ is from an episode of Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest, is demonstrates an early blending of video, song, and human rights advocacy.

As a master’s candidate in moving image archiving, an intern at WITNESS, and a long-time fan of Sainte-Marie, I am doubly interested in this video because of its preservation history. Following a push to create distribution copies of the series in the 80s, it was discovered that the original tapes were badly degraded. Most equipment of that time couldn’t handle the task. However, a technique of submerging the tapes in chemicals solved the problem and ensured that this powerful example of video advocacy could be appreciated for years to come.

While most of her contemporaries focused on anti-war topics, Buffy Sainte-Marie sought to advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples of the Americas. In this song and video, she has a clear advocacy mission: Native American rights in general, and the prevention of the Kinzua Dam along the Alleghany River, specifically. In the name of flood control, the dam flooded land in Pennsylvania given to the Seneca people in a treaty signed by George Washington 1794. Washington’s personal envoy described the treaty as “a new and important security against your being cheated; and shows the faithful care which the United States now means to take for the protection of your lands.”  Washington himself proclaimed “that in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands; that you possess the right to sell and the right of refusing to sell your lands.”

THe Kinzua Dam, which Sainte-Marie protested in her song.

Almost 700 residents were forcibly displaced when the Kinzua dam was built; their homes were burnt and their lands were flooded. Though ultimately unsuccessful, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s protest presaged contemporary movements against the displacement of communities to make way for dams.

Sainte-Marie chose her genre carefully and effectively. While primarily a musician, she also commented in an interview, “people were…in love with the Pocahontas-with-a-guitar image.” The video allowed her to blend the power of music and imagery into video advocacy.The video also allows for an interesting view on the evolution of music videos used to advocate or raise awareness about social or human rights issues. It was filmed in black and white due to budget constraints. It features only one simple image—that of Sainte-Marie singing—and uses a few, simple viewing angles. Contrast this to a more modern example of the protest-song genre, M.I.A.’s “Born Free.” Released in 2010, this video portrays an allegorical genocide of a fictional red-haired people in a war-torn country. It was meant as a statement against atrocities committed against Tamil people in Sri Lanka, the artist’s country of origin.

“Born Free” caused quite a lot of controversy upon release. As an MTV reviewer describes, the video “depicts the kind of things that most nations — including the U.S., which is portrayed as the aggressor in the clip — often pretend don’t happen: the rounding-up of ethnic minorities, the trampling of personal liberties, the bullying of the powerless by those with authority.” M.I.A., like Sainte-Marie, uses music and video as a vehicle to convey an advocacy message about the oppression of the powerless. Similarly, Sainte-Marie’s performance stirred controversy. After a different performance, the TV host remarked, “a powerful statement, but some might feel there’s too much hate in it.” She replies, “Hate. Not much. There’s only as much brutality in the song as there’s brutality in the facts. The words in the song aren’t made up.”

The differences between these two music advocacy videos, however, illustrate the evolution in both video advocacy. In the older video, the emphasis is on the song and the video is secondary. Although the Rainbow Quest clip was for a television show, the video is clearly secondary: Sainte-Marie’s emotive on-screen performance mostly just adds an element of authenticity. In ‘Born Free,’ the video is of nearly equal importance to the song, and far more resources and attention have gone into its production. In “Born Free”, the video is nearly the entire message—the lyrics of the song itself aren’t especially specific.

The former is a song enhanced by a video; the latter is a video enhanced by a song. The protest song predates the moving image as a tool for human rights advocacy. But when the two are combined—as in Sainte-Marie and M.I.A.’s work—it makes for a powerful result.

 

Josh Brophy was the media archive intern at WITNESS during fall 2012. He is currently a student of the Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image MA program at the University of Amsterdam.

What Others Are Saying

  1. koali June 19, 2013 at 5:34 pm

    Nothing can be said – she said it.
    George Washington 1794. Washington’s personal envoy described the treaty as “a new and important security against your being cheated; and shows the faithful care which the United States now means to take for the protection of your lands.” Washington himself proclaimed “that in the future you cannot be defrauded of your lands; that you possess the right to sell and the right of refusing to sell your lands.”
    I love George for that action of his heart and conscience and power to do. Certain that it would remain so. It did not last – not very long at all. Mea culpa mea maxima culpa

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