Origin Stories: Buffy Sainte-Marie On “Universal Soldier”

By: Juliette Jagger

Buffy Sainte-Marie has been recognized as a proponent of the anti-war movement since the early 1960s when her now iconic song, “Universal Soldier,” first poignantly articulated the role of the individual in war and warned of the destructive consequences of feudal modes of thinking. Today, some fifty years later, in a time when our social networks are altering our social behaviours and our perceptions of the world we live in are being actively shaped by mainstream propagators of disinformation; the song remains as relevant as ever.

When the idea for “Universal Soldier” first entered Sainte-Marie’s mind, she was hauled up at San Francisco International Airport. The year was 1963; Kennedy was president, the impending threat of the Cold War weighed heavy on the psyche of the nation, and the U.S. had been in Vietnam for eight years at that point. Promises of a golden age had yet to materialize for America, and the youth of the day, suspicious that the reports being fed to them by the news media were nothing but a ruse, had developed a deep mistrust of government.

“I had been traveling from Mexico to Toronto and had a layover in San Francisco,” recalls Sainte-Marie. “In the middle of the night a group of medics came into the airport wheeling wounded soldiers and we got to talking. I asked one of them if there really was a war in Vietnam because the politicians at home were saying there wasn’t one. The medics assured me there was indeed a huge war going on. I started writing the song in the airport and on the plane, and I finished it in the basement of the Purple Onion in Toronto.

The Purple Onion, a coffee house formerly located in Toronto’s famed Yorkville neighbourhood, was a popular retreat for members of the city’s folk music scene during the 1960s. Much like New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhoods, Yorkville housed a vibrant artist community and served not only as a launch pad for some of the era’s brightest musical talents, but as a forum within which to exchange ideas about the social, cultural, and political climates of the day.

“In those days, we hung out in coffee houses and people talked, discussed, shared, discovered, sang and listened when it came to contemporary issues,” says Sainte-Marie. “Because of what was going on back then, a lot of people adopted ‘Universal Soldier’ as an anti-Vietnam anthem. But, the song isn’t just about Vietnam; it’s about all wars and our own individual and collective involvement in them.”

A true call to action, “Universal Soldier” asks each of us––independent of wealth, stature, gender, race, colour or creed––to stand up, show our faces and own our mistakes. It reminds us to pause and recognize that as human beings on planet earth, we are in this together, and that in order for us to thrive and grow, we must move beyond deflecting our burdens to cast blame.

When asked why she feels the sentiment at the heart of “Universal Soldier” has endured for more than five decades, Sainte-Marie posits, “It’s because the song has an original message, but it’s about a classic problem, one that has been part of our collective literature, history and heritage since well before the Old Testament. War as business is central to most all of us who have grown up in colonialism and other systems whose ruling class is invested in war. It’s just what happens when you have a multiplicity of people, temperaments, and maturities, all shaken up inside the same pillowcase. Some people are going to be bozos, some people are more mature, they’re angels, some people are just starting out, they’re babies, some are elders and they really know what’s going on, but the human condition is that we’re all in that bag together.

“In my mind, ‘Universal Soldier’ speaks to a truth beyond just blaming the generals, bomb makers, bankers and politicians we elect; it’s about you and me, and individual responsibility for the world we live in. It’s about all of us.”

Though many view “Universal Soldier” as something of a roadmap to peace, perhaps it’s less about a definitive solution and more about waking up to the collective understanding that our work as a species is really never done.

“Right now, we’re living in a house that’s made of dollars and cents, greed, money, and corruption. In our contemporary philosophy, religion or worldview, whatever you want to call it, coin is king. Gold is king. Money is king. Money is power. We’re living in a truly capitalist system and it’s unbalanced,” says Sainte-Marie.

“It can be balanced. It can be improved. It can be changed. But first, we need to recognize it for what it is, an archetypal human problem that will recur. I don’t mean that to sound like I think war is inevitable and insoluble, I don’t, and there have been many civilizations that have lived without war. I simply mean that we can’t give up just because we got rid of one war and now twenty years later here comes another one.

“We need to continually be upgrading our act, upgrading our methods to educate, to inspire, to solve, to resolve, to forgive, to do things better, to truly evolve. We can’t pretend that just because we weeded the garden today that the weeds aren’t going to come back tomorrow because when the primary motivation is money, they always do.”

Over the years, many have referred to Sainte-Marie as a “warrior for peace,” though that is far from how she sees herself. Others have taken her to task in concert or on public television, demanding that she answer for her views. But, in spite of it all, she maintains that the protest songs she’s written were always meant to serve as a teaching aid, rather than a megaphone for vilification.

“The protest songs that I’ve written about hard issues, I didn’t write them to offend anyone or hurt anyone’s feelings or embarrass anyone, I really thought, ‘If people only knew, they could help,'” she explains. “So that’s the attitude I took. I wasn’t trying to get people to stick up their noses as at how terrible colonialism was. I just don’t come from that place––I’m a teacher. I don’t try to punish my students, I try to give them information they can’t get anywhere else, which will hopefully be enlightening.

“I wrote ‘Universal Soldier’ as a gift really to people who I thought ought to know about this way of thinking. I wrote it like a college student determined to get an A from some professor who doesn’t like me and also doesn’t like my topic. I thought, ‘I’d better make it factually bulletproof, and charming on top of that, because Professor X is a tough old bird embedded in the system, with an ego, a legacy, and a heritage like tough old birds before him.’

“The thing is, if you have bad news to give your students, you don’t give it to them in an enema,” she says jokingly. “If you really, really mean it, then you don’t have to be afraid of the facts, you can just list them. That’s all they are, listed facts, these songs, and if you’re genuinely empathetic to your audience and you’re really trying to inform them and not hurt them, that’s really the important part. That’s kind of the grease to the wheel that keeps it from hurting.

Though talking about it all of these years on makes it sound like the whole thing was all very strategic, Sainte-Marie is adamant that it wasn’t. She says the song just popped into her head and she honed it like she would have any thesis––ensuring the facts were correct so that she could clearly put forward an idea that might help a lot of people to think about things a little differently.

But, in these crazy times we’re living in, how does one make a meaningful contribution to such a weighty world problem? Sainte-Marie says it starts in the home.

“With the world’s current situation being what it is, no matter where it is on the scale of violence and peace, positivity and negativity, on any given day, we really need to be addressing the war in the human heart and the war in the home. That sounds like a very long-range plan but I think it plays a real part. The whole thing of bullying within the family and within the community is really what gives the green light to the bigger bullies of the world.

“There is no reward for putting up with other people’s bullying. People think the pecking order is human nature but I contend that is incorrect. I don’t think it is human nature, I think it’s an aberration. War and peace are choices we make. It’s a choice in the home. It’s a choice in our neighbourhoods and communities. It’s a choice in the nation. It’s a choice, every time.

“It’s a very long-standing issue, war and peace,” she says with a laugh. “Some things just keep recurring, but then so do things like love.”

Buffy SainteMarie was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame on April 1, 2019. “Universal Soldier” originally appeared on her 1964 debut album, It’s My Way! To learn more about “Universal Soldier,” check out Buffy’s annotated lyrics HERE.