This issue of herri is published just as the very sad news of Sixto Rodriguez’s passing on Tuesday 8 August 2023 reaches us. Read his obituary here.
The purpose of this essay is to explore Sixto and Buffy’s song writing art and listen/read how they have ‘routed’ their experiences of ethnicity, race, and class – and maneuvered public life. Ethnicity and class can be altered but they may have a strong force in peoples’ lives, in particular for minorities or/and the less privileged. Sixto and Buffy were both outsiders, and of indigenous ancestry. Which journeys did they take – and how did their paths engage or develop their personal identities?
Sixto: Mexican Detroit kid number 6 selling 6 copies
Sixto Rodriguez is an American retired singer-songwriter and former construction worker who was born in Detroit, USA, in 1942. He grew up in a working-class neighbourhood, the mother an Indigenous or Native American from Mexico and the Dad also Mexican. The parents had joined a larger influx of migrants to seek work in the US Mid-West industries. The boy was their 6th child and so named ‘Six-to’. In the late 1960s he is performing in various bars in Detroit, in a gay bar called In-Between and The Sewer (Noakes, 2008). Allegedly, he was discovered at The Sewer, a rather seedy and smoky place, where he plays with his back towards the audience. After some years of local gigs alone with his acoustic classical guitar (allegedly amplified with an electric pick up to create a fuzzy sound, according to Noakes, 2008), and a recording of a single for the small label Impact, he is taken on board by Sussex Records and spends some time recording Cold Fact, his first full album, in 1970.
Former Sussex label head, Clarence Avant, noted (in Bjendelloul, 2012, and Strydom and Segerman/S&S, 2016, 16) that the record only sold about 6, yes 6, copies. His second album Coming from Reality from 1971 is not a sales-success either and there are scant reviews. His sharp, dark and also sensitive voice and both rough and soft strumming is given space, resonance and additional instruments in the trippy but also clean-sounding production for his wordy folk. The fuzziness he attempted, is felt in a soundscape rich on echo and reverb layered-in after the initial recording of Sixto singing and playing guitar. For example, the synth effect on the tune Sugar Man was really strings, as on other songs, but here the tape on a quarter-inch machine was slowed by hand to achieve the trippy or pitch bending effect, as producer Theodore has explained (in S&S, 2016, 115). Musically the more melodic and balladry tunes are relaxing and haunting at the same time, such as Sugar Man, Forget It, Crucify your Mind, I Wonder, and Like Janis. The words, often of a reciting Dylanesque quality.
There are also songs that are more explicitly political such as The Establishment Blues, describing city hardship, crime and inequality. It comes across powerfully, but these lines, as well as others in the song, read as a more conventional, finger-pointing protest song,
Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The mafia’s getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it’s at.
It should be noted, however, that the song, typical of Rodriguez, ends on a more ambiguous and word turning/playing note, Sixto aiming one octave higher on the last three words: ‘Can you pass a Rorschach test / It’s a hassle, it’s an educated guess / Well, frankly I couldn’t care less.’ In songs concerning personal relationships and condition, his words generally sway with complex or riddled statements and surprises, in forms of (serious) play. They appear to harbour secrets, which may intrigue the listener and let his universe stay alive, seducing, with otherworldly activity next to mundane urbanity. In that sense the strange worlds of his lyrics communicated with the dark, dense feel of the strings, exploring lower intervals (S&S, 2016, 116), but then again also ambiguous and uplifting with his strong ability to create melody. Otherworldliness comes in a variety of verses: ‘In a place called Ixea / With its own pumpkin oval moon.’ Others more open to let listeners relate to their experiences and work with various interpretations.
His Estonian friend Heikki appears in a mysterious song about a bus tour. In fact, Sixto and fellow ‘hippies’ were tired of seeing rich suburbanites come to Detroit streets to stare at their garments etc and take photos, and someone had also had a go mocking Heikki, so Sixto arranged his sort of retaliation. The friends groups jumped on a bus with wine etc and traversed the suburbs to ‘look back’ (S&S, 2016, 146).
A lyric that may combine images of urban grit with something more of a personal nature, we may also find in this passage from Inner City Blues (on Cold Fact):
Going down a dirty inner city side road
Madness passed me by, she smiled hi
Looked up as the sky began to cry
She shot it.
Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn
A cold fact
Asked about her bag, suburbia’s such a drag
Won’t go back
‘Cos Papa don’t allow no new ideas here
And now he sees the news, but the picture’s not too clear.
To take him literarily, the picture is not too clear – compared to the lyric extract from Establishment Blues? One could argue that he came along with a folky style a little bit late – the initial hippie era, roughly from the late 60s and some years onwards, were nonetheless clearly mirrored in the musical production and word play. Also, as noted, Sixto was of Indian and Mexican heritage. Did he fit in? Folk music, here understood as passed on orally through word and play, which now remerged with artists also writing and playing their own songs, were predominantly white (and the same with the hippie era). In any case, neither Sussex Records nor Sixto were great promoters. Sixto returned to menial jobs/construction when his albums did not sell (Sussex Records would close in 1975). This was the environment he knew, and which inspired him to construct his riddled urban folk-blues. Sixto also had two daughters to take care of. He had a third daughter later.
Buffy: The Socratian Vibrato – From the Piapot 75 Reserve over Massachusetts to Greenwich Village
I’m a rambler and a rover(From Piney Wood Hills, Side 2A, I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again, 1968)
And a wanderer it seems
I’ve traveled all over
Chasing after my dreams
But a dream should come true
And a heart should be filled
And a life should be lived
In the piney wood hills
I’ll return to the woodlands
I’ll return to the snow
I’ll return to the hills
And the valley below
I’ll return like a poor man
Or a king if God wills
But I’m on my way home
To the piney wood hills
From Sixto’s generation, I have in this essay invited along a companion. I have not been able to find out if they ever met, but in this writing they will ‘travel’ in parallel, for complementarity, comparison, and differentiating perspectives in the discussion. The companion is a fellow singer of the same generation, and also of North American indigenous ancestry, a female: the Cree singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, born in 1941, a year before Sixto, most likely in The Piapot 75 reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada. When Rick Rubin asked a few years ago, ‘You were born in Canada, yeah?’ (Broken Record Podcast, 2020), her answer was ‘maybe’ followed by an explanation of how adopted children don’t know, or do not get told a lot of things. But she was just ‘a baby’, as she said to Rubin, when she landed in Maine, New England, and later to grow up in Massachusetts. ‘Removed,’ a euphemism, from her home community in Saskatchewan. Her later friend Joni Mitchell was from the same province, though not Native American – although her father came of a Norwegian family with some Sami ancestry. While Sixto involved himself in more literal engagement with politics in the 1970s, trying to extend his already politically conscious urban blues into realpolitik by running for a city council seat as and other (S&S, 2016, 147), Buffy lived a life with strong involvement in social issues and politics, notably concerned with reservation issues and indigenous rights and culture. Her ethnicity, or her Cree/First Nation culture and background plays a stronger role throughout her career, lyrically, musically and in terms of public speaking and other work. Sixto draws less explicitly on his First Nation and Mexican background. But it is found looking at activities next to music over the years. His artist name was initially Rod Riguez, to avoid sounding too Hispanic (S&S, 143). Buffy, however, embarked prominently on education besides singing throughout her life. ‘I want to inform the people’, she said it in the early/mid 1960s and almost 60 years later, she says that is what she is still doing, or in her own words, 2022: ‘I have a platform, so I have a position to shoot my mouth off and say things.’CBS News, Canada, 21 June 2022
She does ‘shoot her mouth of’ from the first song and verse in 1964, but distinctively for her songs, and also discussions/debate in podcasts, on TV / in public, there is a sense of balance between emotion and informative deliberation. She appears more appealing, and informing, rather that attacking anyone. Buffy can be seen as a sort of Socratian vibrato ‘discoursing’ to/with the audience. ‘My good man’, and ‘dear lady’, lyric below, it is – rather than ‘you racist’ (see Warner, 2018 for elaboration). So, the approach is: I have something to tell you and also questions to ask:
Can you remember the times
That you have held your head high
And told all your friends of your Indian claim
Proud good lady and proud good man
Your great-great grandfather from Indian blood sprang
And you feel in your heart for these ones?
Last verses 4 and 5:
Has a change come about Uncle Sam
Or are you still taking our lands
A treaty forever George Washington signed
He did dear lady, he did dear man
And the treaty’s being broken by Kinzua Dam
And what will you do for these ones
Oh, it’s all in the past you can say
But it’s still going on here today
The government now want the Iroquois land
That of the Senaca and the Cheyenne
It’s here and it’s now you can help us dear man
Now that the buffalo’s gone.
A recent biography created in collaboration with journalist Andrea Warner (2018), showcases her tone of appeal and information but not without edge. One can understand deprived people who does not want to use the word ‘dear’ in addressing people who have committed theft and oppression, so Buffy’s approach is intriguing. She was herself removed from the reserve as a baby/small child and brought to relatives in the North-Eastern US. The details are not clear. Several sources, including Warner’s bibliography, based on interviews with Buffy herself, indicate she was removed as part of a practice which was (later) named Sixties Scoop, where indigenous children in Canada were ‘scooped’ (removed) at to mainly white middle class foster parents – a practice that began before and continued beyond the 1960s. But finally dismissed in the 1980s. It is estimated that over 20.000 indigenous children were removed from home reserves in Canada.Similar colonial policies have been found elsewhere where whites removed indigenous children from home territories in the purpose of integration when they believed the indigenous population were diminishing quickly. In Australia, for example, the phenomenon of removals during the 19th century, was named The Stolen Generation. Incidents also happened on a smaller scale in e.g., Greenland, where a smaller number of children were moved to Denmark in a social experiment to test dual language education. The experiment was though abolished a year later, and the kids returned, but to orphanages in Nuuk, not their home communities/families. See, e.g., The Canadian Encyclopedia for Sixties Scoop. Danish Social Ministry announcement for an investigation into removed Greenlanders, 2019 (sm.dk). An ‘interlude’ towards the end of Warner’s biography called ‘Buffy Sainte-Marie on decolonization’ has the following final lines:
A lot of us already have decolonized without hatred, without enmity, but with empathy and compassion. Colonialism is obsolete. It should have gone away a long time ago. It doesn’t hurt anybody to decolonize. And it doesn’t cost nearly as much as maintaining it.
Ethnic identity and artistic-deliberative modus operandi
Our work with personal identity depends in parts on how we are labelled, seen or treated. We act in accordance, against or without reference to colour, ethnicity and other key markers of identity. It is easier to act without the label of colour or black, if no one out there looks (down or strangely at you) as black, Native American/First Nation or/and Mexican, for example. This avenue of thought though becomes too difficult to take for a white Northerner in a South African journal. Almost futile. At best this is searching – and the South African connection or angle will be revealed soon. Let me continue. Or turn down the academic volume a bit and bring in Buffy’s words: ‘we create our songs, our families, our countries. We are supposed to be discovering (Warner, 2018, 36).
Buffy unfolded her role as a deliberative artist, educator, public intellectual – embracing her Indigenous North American identity (from an early position of silence and no information, no knowledge), but neither in a separative or for that matter an integrative manner, as I have come to see it. She dug for reconstruction of her heritage’s threads while simultaneously seeking contact with everything. In the essay, I continue to depict or discuss how this came about including discussion of representations or re-mediations by biographers – with a focus on TV/feature documentaries and book biographies (Buffy’s biography is based on Warner’s many interviews where she often passes on direct quotes and longer passages, nearing the ‘told to’ biography genre).
Both artists have re-gained attention in the 21st century, 30-40 years after their initial recordings. Particularly in Sixto’s case it is intriguing to see how an artist’s identity, or lack of information, or mythical information about it, can re-label or redevelop the artist somewhere else, as long as there is an audience willing to appropriate him/her. Individuals and the outsider cultures from where Sixto and Buffy emerge can have the power to influence dominant culture and inspire societal change, is a belief I still hang on to. This latter point is related to a secondary purpose of this writing: to safeguard and pass-on their complex identities and cherish in telling the story of (admittedly the essay is more descriptive than analytic) the two artists’ oeuvre.
Buffy the music dyslexic: indigeneity and integrity
While Sixto’s First Nation and Mexican background appears less pronounced in his lyrics as well as musically, Buffy is more intensely drawing on her Indian background, safeguarding, empowering and re-interpreting her heritage. Buffy was as earlier noted an infant adopted to new parents Alfred and Winifred Sainte- Marie, who were US American relatives. Winnifred self-identified with Native American Mi’kmaq. There are different unclear explanations of her departure from the reserve as a kid. In any case she is brought up in Massachusetts and nicknamed Buffy, by the relatives, after initially having the first name Beverly (Warner, 2016). She plays piano and writes tunes and songs before school age. She becomes her own best companion and uses her solitude to read and play. In her late teens entering college she also picks up the guitar. She never learns European musical/sheet notes properly due to being music dyslexic, she says (Warner, 2018). It does not prevent her from getting a record contract soon after turning 20 and releasing her first album, It’s My Way!, in 1964 – the same year she is on a powwow back to the Piapot reserve where she is adopted back (in the Cree Nation sense) by a Piapot chief’s son and wife. She still keeps her Massachusetts family.
While she was given opportunities to go to university and educate herself by a caring second mother, her upbringing had not been easy. In Warner’s biography (2018) she spoke about suffering sexual violation in the Massachusetts family. The theme is addressed in The Incest Song on her first album. Her new mother is depicted with warmth in an interview in a 2006 documentary (whom Buffy also calls a Mi’kmaq Indian). It is also clear that the ‘we’ is the indigenous population, while Buffy is easily traversing a variety of people and groups and connects to two families. Since the 1980s she has lived primarily in Hawaii.
In her musical journeys, Buffy also had her surprising moves. Maybe in particular her electronic album, Illuminations, from 1969, but just before that, she made a country music album in Nashville, I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again, helped by her country musician friend, Chet Atkins. Apart from producing secretly (he is not credited on the cover since his own record company contract prevented him from producing others) he had provided some remarks that helped Buffy with her self-esteem issues. Chet told a story, that he had been asked by someone if he could read music and his answer was ‘not enough to hurt my playing’. Apparently Buffy’s playing was not hurt either. When her parents found out she could play on old piano brought to her house (in Massachusetts) they finally took her to a teacher, ‘an old man’, Buffy says with a grin in an interview for Australian TV in 1972, and he had said back to the parents, ‘no, don’t force her to take lessons’. I think it was the best advice they could have had’ (and her grin stays on).Australian TV interview, 1972.
Buffy recorded and released albums yearly from 1964 on to 1976, mostly on the well-known folk music label Vanguard. The first album It’s My Way is edgy-folky production in a 1960s ‘folksingers in the Greenwich village’-style. Though in terms of voice, unmistakably Buffy. And she did her own songs. Buffy herself though said she had little control, also on choice of songs and recording. Vanguard was in charge. She thought the guitar could have been tuned better (she says in her biography. I thought it sounded just raw-right). Soon, however (despite reservations over Vanguard’s control) she began to deliver songs/albums in a variety of genres, from, the early folk to country, pop and electronica – somehow changing the style a bit with each album, in a sort of Dylanesque way, on the road for new (and old) musical territory. Her Cree background and social-political and educative intent however always an integral part.
The later albums were less successful and in 1975 she is approached by the producers of a relatively new children’s’ TV program, Sesame Street Buffy arrives on Sesame Street, 1975. Clip available at: –which engages with sketches, puppetry, animation and other forms using a mix of ethnicities and engaging with the cultures of the less privileged. They want to use her as a guest. She sees this as a new avenue for education and becomes a key regular for over 5 years.
She has a child in 1976 and often brings him along on the show. Although she still tours, a recording hiatus has begun. According to the biography by Andrea Warner, this break is reluctantly prolonged by the control and abuse of producer Jack Nitzsche whom she marries in 1982, after already having been in a relationship with him.
Jack needs her (also) to do a melody for a movie, it became Up Where We Belong.’’ They later divorce. In 1992 she goes on a tour with her first album in 16 years to play on stages internationally. I was lucky to be there at Roskilde Festival experiencing her intense traditional vibrato at close range – a voice as distinct as Sixto’s, whom I had not heard at the time.Some writers note that Buffy’s vibrato have prevented her from properly entering mainstream. As with Dylan, and Sixto, there are something sonically challenging or not pleasing in the vocal modus operandi, if one can put it that way. While Sixto and Buffy though have sung more or less in the same way throughout their career, the same can though hardly be said about Dylan. At least not if one compares his 1961 to 1989 output. I am not mentioning Dylan to indicate that Sixto or Buffy walked in his footsteps. Buffy and Bob, in particular, were/are both sponges. They get/got inspired and stole/steal from everywhere – as most good artists. Also, Sixto’s two albums are musically extraordinary, embracing a variety of genres, from traditional folk, over orchestral pop, hippie rock/psychedelia, blues, and trip hop-ish elements.
Sixto: Quitting recording, working in construction in Detroit while getting famous in Africa
Buffy’s work with Chet is happening while Sixto is playing in bars in Detroit and doing his first single for the small label Impact. I’ll Slip Away is out in 1967. But it becomes Sussex Records that records with him in 1969. Cold Fact is out in 1970 – and Coming to Reality in 1971. Sixto does not make another full LP with Sussex, although other recording sessions working on a few previously written unreleased songs took place in Chicago. Sixto slides back to menial work. He works in construction and cleans up houses. Later in the 1970s he enrolls with Wayne State University (Monteith College) and also slowly completes a degree in philosophy – which he achieves in 1981, nearing the age of 40. In the years after his two albums, he tried his luck as a politician, running for election on different levels, as his daughter Regan explains (summarised in Strydom and Segerman, 2016, 147). At city council, as state representative, mayor, and even as senator – but not any of the attempts were successful. Promotion through public speeches is doubtful, S&S write, but he did advertise in smaller independent musical magazines – amongst his own, they note (147). I cannot help thinking that a role as a formal politician would not be fitting for Sixto. It made more sense realising his involvement with grass root organisations, such as farm workers, and maybe more interesting in the context of this essay: he helped organise and attended a series of powwows, which was typical for the forms of social activism taking place at Monteith. He also supported the Chicano movementA few notes on this in Stryman and Segerman. For an introductory text, see e.g., Encyclopaedia Britannica, britannica.com/. Or Wikipedia. The word ‘Chicano’ is an identifier for Mexicans born in the US and with a non-Anglo self-image. – engaged with Mexican indigenous identity and autonomy, restoration of land rights, and cultural solidarity (S&S, 2016, 144). So, on this point his work next to music, neared his mother’s and father’s heritage – and the sort of activities his ‘companion’, Buffy, was involved in.
While much of the off-music menial activity, attempts at politics, and studies and activism at university took place, labels in Australia, and also in South Africa, take up his recordings which, in addition to the tape-copying, helped in developing a fan base on two other continents, at first without his knowledge. It may be important to note that 8 years after recording his second and last album, he tours Australia. It is only almost two decades later, in 1998, that he tours South Africa for the first time. Earnings from the infrequent touring mostly goes to family and friends. In 2013 his sister Regan said that he had been living in the same house in Detroit for about 40 years. He did not have a computer, TV or a car, but Regan had some years before (article from 2013) forced him to get a cell phone.
While having a fan base in South Africa, Australia and New Zealand with things beginning to boil in Europe after reissues of the early Sussex records albums, it is in 2012-2013 that Sixto becomes a more widely known figure, beginning to sell records in many countries, also in the USA. He is being called to tour around the world, and invited to shows as Letterman’s and Jools Holland. He has turned 70, but fit enough, though with some eyesight trouble.
What made the difference was the documentary Searching for Sugar ManTrailer for Searching for Sugarman, 2012. by Swedish-Algerian film maker Malik Bjendelloul, premiering in early 2012, generally with rave reviews in the journalistic press – and it soon receives a series of prizes, including the British BAFTA and the US Oscar in 2012. When I watched it back then, I did not know Sixto´s music or anything about him, it came as a revelation, as for many other viewers. It helped that I was also instantly smitten with the music. Malik’s documentary read, or rather felt, as a remarkable story of redemption and release. Not only for Sixto, who was portrayed as moving from obscurity to recognition in South Africa. However, there was also a strong sense of release for the film’s two main informants, who brought him to South Africa, and for the whole South African fan community it portrayed. For many not knowing Sixto or what he had been up to, the documentary read like a fairy tale, and was highly moving. The documentary tells the story from the point of view of the two South African fans mainly.
Filmmaker Malik died tragically in 2014, a bit over 2 years after the film’s success had shot him to fame and prizes, and constant attention and interviews – and possibly also high expectations about what he could deliver next. He took his own life by jumping in front of a train in Stockholm.
With the film, Malik, who had spent years and all his money, also suddenly moved to the limelight, as did Sixto. Malik went from super8mm film to his own mobile camera when he ran out of money. He spoke with a sparkle in his eyes in interviews in 2012-2013 of the process and the fun it was to make it. It appeared to be a kind of redemption story for Malik too, until he sadly took his life. According to S&S (2016) he had struggled with insomnia, but the idea that he would take his life ‘struck everyone who knew him as completely absurd’ (S&S, 355). Producer Simon Chinn had noted that Malik seemed to undergo a professional crisis after the documentary had come out and won prizes, but still, as Strydom and Segerman quote friends of Malik, ‘his creativity came from a place of light, never darkness’ (356).
In short, Searching for Sugar Man follows mainly two Cape Town fans, Stephen Segerman (given the middle name ‘Sugar’ after Sixto’s song Sugar Man, close to the pronunciation of his surname) and Craig Bartholemew Strydom searching for Sugar Man (the two went to publish a book as well expanding on the same material a few years later. The 2016 edition is used in this essay). In South Africa he was assumed dead, our two key characters tell. There were rumours about suicide on stage and other stories. People knew he had recorded his albums in the USA, but the LPs and the cassettes, that were circulating in South Africa, did not hold information, it is stated in the film. People did not know where he had lived – or lived now – if he was still alive. The film does not reveal if Sixto is alive to begin with, although we know. It takes over half of the movie before it is revealed. Malik treats us with a sort of fairy-tale format for adults. Until the revelation we have the quest as a sort of ‘detective documentary’ which reconstructs the search for Sugar Man, as it supposedly took place over some time in the early-mid 1990s after the fall of Apartheid.
In addition to Stephen and Craig, various other informants are brought along, such as a few other journalists, the old Sussex label owner, some fans, and a person allegedly from ‘the archive’. What is portrayed from the 1970-1980s is an almost hermetically closed South Africa, where Sixto’s songs ‘almost set us free as oppressed people’, as Craig noted (Bjendelloul, 2012). Stephen and Craig are retelling the story as they remember it; how they called record label people around, searched the lyrics for clues, tried to find someone who knows, and so forth. Craig finds a clue, the name ‘Dearborn’ dropped in the song Inner City Blues (see verse earlier in essay). He goes to grab his old Atlas, and finds it is in Detroit.
They succeed in making contact with Sixto’s family in the city. And finally, Stephen Segerman receives a call at 1pm in the morning from Sixto himself. Malik, the director, slowly builds this narrative up to this on-distance encounter. It is highly emotional; the story arc moving from the initial rupture and the beginning of the quest: is Sixto alive? Then a rising curve of detective work to the climax of the real Sixto entering on stage concerts in South Africa in 1998, backed by South African musicians (all whites) who allegedly bonded with him instantly. He did not have a band when he arrived, and Stephen and Craig helped. It appeared to work magically. Much of the footage is drawn from a TV concert documentary from 2001 Dead Men Don’t Tour by then young journalist Tonia Selley. As in Malik’s movie we also here get a sense of a balanced, humble, wise and unassuming personality that did not see his other labouring life as ‘obscure’, who did not worry too much about money and material things, and who was not bitter from the 1971 break with the record label but thankful for what he achieved. Malik also works his ways to maintain this picture.
But then he builds something else into his emotional rollercoaster; firstly, a sort of causal relationship between what was allegedly bootleg cassettes and a White Afrikaner counter-culture in South Africa that got inspired by Sixto’s anti-establishment lyrics as inspiration for developing their own critical views towards Apartheid. As part of this narrative creating one, unique source, Malik ignores South African musical culture and a broader list of artists listened to, by white, coloured and black South Africans, and foreigners, which might be as inspirational. Or more. And at least those drawing from experiences inside the country.Michael Drewett, a South African scholar, notes that under Apartheid there was a ‘compelling tradition of directly resistant anti-apartheid songs’and mentions Jennifer Ferguson, Peter Gabriel, Roger Lucey, Mzwakhe Mbuli, the Special AKA, Steel Pulse and Peter Tosh (Drewett, 2021, 134). One could also mention Johnny Clegg, the ‘white zulu’, beginning his career under Apartheid with the mixed-race band Juluka. Clegg died in 2017, at 66, as one of South Africa’s most celebrated musicians. No, here came a man’s words and sounds from another continent which produced some important seeds to the anti-Apartheid struggle. It made the story even more fantastic. I had difficulties seeing the connection when watching this back then, but kind of left it there. I was carried away. Was he a sort of prophet without prophecies. Something that people could take and use for good? I will dig more into this, but first return to Buffy.
Buffy: Another border breaker
Buffy, Sixto’s ‘companion’ in this essay, also sang for white folk enthusiasts. She befriended fellow Canadians Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. She carried tapes with Joni’s music around and tried to help her with a breakthroughBuffy recorded Joni’s ‘The Circle Game’ in 1967. – and in the early days in Greenwich she talked to Bob Dylan in some village café who recommended her to come over and sing at Gaslight café (one of the more well-known folk venues, at the time).Joan Prowse’s (director) Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, 2006, documentary, CineFocus, Canada. Available at. Soon, though, Buffy would move away from the white folk environment towards activism in/with the Indian reservations, not because she thought the more general civil rights and black power debates (which somehow ignored or at least under-emphasised indigenous rights) were irrelevant, but there were plenty of folkies, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and the lot, in these footsteps already. She became more of an informal educationalist rather than a street activist, apropos my earlier point on her Socratic ways. ‘I am a teacher.’Buffy Sainte Marie, 2023, on Janette Burke TV show talking about the 2022 documentary Carry it On, American Masters. A point she also made much earlier in her life.
She could debate on TV with politicians with well prepared to perform within (and outside) their own discourse on indigenous bills and treaties debates (as with Jack Cunningham in 1977 on Good Morning America),Buffy Sainte Marie and Jack Cunningham on Good Morning America´, 1977. and engage with Peter Seeger on banjo history and the mouth bow in Seeger’s Rainbow Quest show in 1966.Pete Seeger, Rainbow Quest, 13 Sept 1966. 39 shows were recorded in black-white videotape for WNJU-TV during 1965 and 1966. Allegedly, largely unrehearsed with Seeger talking and playing (to the viewer, no studio audience) and interaction in improvisation with guest in talk and music.
Sixto and Buffy: Homes and Aways
While Cree culture and ancestry and contemporary civil rights and civil life questions concerning reservations and indigenous people runs through her work from her earliest songs, Sixto’s own mixed ancestry played only little role in his art (he attended and helped organise powwows at university though). Clearly as an Indian-Mexican, he offered something else, but it is difficult to detect lyrically and not prominent musically either. In that sense, the ‘companion’, Buffy, is much less an enigma, more transparently and explicitly passing on a musical heritage, while at the same time also clearly absorbing white folk, white country, electronica, and pop. With a bigger audience, and plenty of ideas apparently, she is also more fluid, moving from the folk of the early albums, to a country album recorded in Nashville (I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again) in 1968 and a year later she made use of the new Buchla 100 synthesizer and surround sound (then called Quadrophonic sound, with audio channels in four “corners” to create Illuminations (1969). The album featured an extensive use of synthesized adaptations of vocals and guitar (Jurek, Allmusic).See e.g. Thom Jurek’s review on Allmusic, allmusic.com, Lindsay Zoladz on Pitchfork pitchfork.com and the Wikipedia entry on the album wikipedia.org. Noteworthy, in addition to the early electronica-influence, is that the lyric from album’s first fabulous song God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot was an extract borrowed from writer and singer Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers.
Buffy had earlier written songs which are better known by others, such as Universal Soldier (Donovan, 1964), Until It’s Time For You To Go (Four Pennies, 1965, Elvis Presley, 1972) and much later Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, 1982). Her production is also much more extensive, not counting live and compilation albums, she recorded yearly from 1964 to 1976, and a handful of albums from 1992 and onwards. Buffy though also took time off from public attention, recording and touring.
Sixto had certainly seen a deprived Detroit, Coming From Reality (title of second album) but had no problem propelling himself away from that in wonderful lullabys, stringy arrangements, and flowery detours, next to simple guitar strumming blues (as Inner City Blues). From one song to another he could move from …. ‘It started out with butterflies / on a velvet afternoon / with flashing eyes and promises / caught and held too soon… and on to hidden humour and mundaneness like… ‘I’m only halfway up the stairs / since you let me down’. And then there is the music of those two songs (It Started Out So Nice + Halfway Up the Stairs). Well, then you do not need to make more than two albums.There are other compilations and retitled issues put out after the two original, official albums, such as After the Fact, 1976, a reissue of Coming from Reality with new title, and The Best of Rodriguez, 1982.
Sixto missed out on the East Coast folk scene of the mix 1960s although he had the age, the guitar, the songs, and the talent, and the stories, in him. Buffy went there from Massachusetts, and it is interesting that it was this folk music culture that propelled her to fame. She explained to Rick Rubin that she was intrigued about how folk singers dig old songs from way back, there was a concern with the past (not only the present) and the songs and material came from everywhere (Rubin, 2020). The places of their performance, the intellectual coffee house culture, had a short-lived peak period in the village in New York with time for wordy songs, talk and reflection (while drinking coffee). This appeared more fitting for her than the later more psychedelic hippie culture, more extravagant in sounds and solos (while getting stoned). Buffy did not drink – or take drugs. Buffy explains in Warner’s biography thinking back of her time in Greenwich Village that people were thinking, drinking coffee and artistic perspectives, not boozing (2018).
Sixto appeared to have benefitted from a bit of weed though. And hippie times did not pass Buffy by either. Her 1969 album Illuminations takes on her version of that era – or as well an era that had not begun in its engagement with electronica. Did Buffy belong well in the white folkie or the hippie world? She did though belong in Massachusetts, in the Piapot Reserve, and later in Hawaii. Sixto appears/appeared to belong at home without a computer making his mind travel after returning from reality in construction work. A life dedicated to ‘loadshedding’ in a more general sense. Getting offline when energy demand is getting too high? All the fans will make ‘the connection’ – without a router (or a map). Connections are not made on social media. Sixto clearly belonged in Detroit where he lived/lives as a sort of semi-recluse, as his sister put it (Warner, 2018, 84), while getting famous abroad.
The tale of fame abroad turned a bit too much in Cinderella tune?
A series of articles all in the same journal, Safundi,Academic research related to Sixto available are mostly concerned with documentary filmmaker Malik Bjendelloul’s creative liberties and the singer’s South African connection, most of them found in the Safundi journal and all strongly focused on critiquing that documentary by Malik. While discussion of documentary storytelling and ‘liberties’ is completely valid, the pile of work is though rather unhelpful if we want to attain other details about Sixto’s journeys and art. However, one other article in Acta Hispanica, by Reka M. Christian, investigates Sixto’s work around deep mapping of place, and bypasses the ‘iffy’ discussion of details in Searching for Sugarman. Christian’s notion of deep mapping, as ‘a palimpsest work allowing multiple version of ‘events and phenomena’ to be written over each other and still have all layers visible’ deserves it own essay for elaboration. question Malik’s work around details – and also one of the central premises of the anti-Apartheid drive of the Rodriguez fan base (Drewett, 2021, Titlestad, 2012, and several others in the 14, 4 issue). According to Drewett (2021) there were no Cold Fact LP-records in an archive with careful scratches making ‘Sugar Man’ unplayable.An Ilse Assman, an ‘Apartheid Archivist’, we are told, is in the film at ‘Archive of Censored Material’ in Johannesburg showing us how Sixto´s Cold Fact LP has lines crossed over the first song, Sugar Man, allegedly by censoring authorities. However, they did not find any record. Malik brought a copy and did the scratches trying to imitate a system they were likely to have had on censored records. Yet, the South African label never handed the record in to SABC where Assman worked, Drewett argued (2021). However many records were banned, and scratching as a practice did take place in an era hallmarked by full state control of all broadcast media. From its establishment in 1948 the Apartheid government introduced and withheld a ‘massive structure of censorship and self-censorship’, promoting an Afrikaans press, ‘an institution within the ranks of Government’ (Rabe, 2020, 156) which all worked to isolate South Africans from undesired influence from abroad, notably the ‘English press’ (Rabe, 2020, 156). Much easier to do back then with no internet. But while airtime playing was reduced because of Sixto’s lyrics with their clear references to drugs and the word “sex”, this particular record was never scratched by the SABC. Elsewhere, more or less at the same time, Buffy was also watched over by authorities. For her it appeared more serious. The FBI had a 31-page file on her (Warner, 2018, 196) likely due to her anti-Vietnam war engagement and activism on indigenous rights.
I ask South African film maker Aryan Kaganof whom I’ve met on several occasions during the 00s and the 10s, what he thinks about the Searching for Sugar Man-film and Sixto’s connection to anti-apartheid work. Kaganof is in his mid/late 50s. A white South African who refused army service during the apartheid era and who with fairness can be said to belong to a white ‘resistance’ under Apartheid. He said of the film. I quote his full email:
The idea that Rodriguez’ white fan base were in any way connected with the anti-apartheid movement in ludicrous. That is pure invention. He was popular precisely with the “average” whites, lumpen whites, as well as what you might call dissident or lefty whites. But definitely his major fan base was among absolutely mainstream white South Africans. Every white South African I know loved Rodriguez; I never met a white South African of my generation who did not love Rodriguez. It is in our blood somehow. A curious anomaly. As for making things up – well films themselves are made up so I don’t think one should be too puritanical about it. It’s a wonderful film with a fairy tale narrative and a unique protagonist. To get iffy about some scratched records I think misses the point.Aryan Kaganof
What makes this remediation of Sixto’s work, and journey, a living archive of gems, I’d say, has a certain bitter irony to it. Malik had apparently, as noted above, taken some liberties far beyond the ‘contract’ with the viewers on accuracy. Maybe I am getting ‘iffy’ (apropos Aryan’s email). However, leaving the creative liberties aside, the film won a Bafta and an Oscar. Malik had tried to convince Sixto to come along to the Oscars, but he preferred to stay home to rest after a South Africa tour. ‘I was asleep when it won, but my daughter Sandra called me to tell me. I don’t have TV service anyway’ (In Greene, 2013).
While the documentary is touching and it helped Sixto to gain new fans, one cannot help thinking it has also done him a disservice in its forced connection of Sixto’s art to South African counterculture, while at the same time ignoring race, ethnicity and existing local/South African counterculture on numerous levels – and that includes the ethnic/racial aspect in Sixto’s own background.
The questioning of the connection, or ‘yoking’ as Titlestad calls it, of “Rodriguez’ biography with a triumphalist version of South Africa’s transformation” (2014, 463) sounds like a reasonable critique. Why is that suggestive linking made in the documentary? Does it need to be a story about South African redemption connected to Sixto´s re-emergence in person -many fans thought Sixto was not alive anymore, apropos the title of Selley’s documentary, Dead men don’t tour.
The images in the two documentaries (Selly and Malik’s, which builds on much of the footage from Selly’s documentation of the 1998 tour) reveal a general absence of black people. Sixto’s fame in a particular place far from home is told without these considerations. Sixto had also been touring Australia on several occasions, most recently in 1981 with the famed Australian band Midnight Oil – possibly unbeknownst to the fanbase in South Africa? A fanbase which Sixto himself did not know of yet. He did not receive revenue or royalties from sales (a court case has been running over the recent year or so, on the issue, which I do not want to try to cover and take up in this essay).
We may instead, to take the discussion taken above to an end point, interpret Sixto´s relationship to South Africa and the fans there of another sort. Simply as a performer who, taken by surprise, responds with gratitude playing his music to the fans he has made, whoever that is, and wherever he has made them. His own ancestry or the class or race of the audience in front of him could be said to matter less from his point of view. In terms of his politics, it remains diffuse. But in an intriguing way. His lyrics appear to work better as personalised journeying and riddles, which can ring truer as poetic heteroglossia than more singular or finger-pointing anthems for ready-made political use. Life is not ready made. It may be made up. As Dylan moved from the singular to the riddle, very roughly put, Sixto skipped the first step. Sixto was also less of a ‘teacher’ and speaker than Buffy was/is, although he had a run for various formal political positions. Rather than turning into a public speaker and messenger, his messaging may be more naturally reclusive as his personality. More of a shaman than a showman, luckily. Buffy explained in Rubin’s podcast that she moves between so-called protest songs and other kinds, ‘the protest song outlines what the problem is, the other kinds of songs, for which we don’t have a name, for the genre, is like the solution’ (Rubin, 2020).
‘Thanks for keeping me alive’, Sixto told the South African fans on stage in 1998. Thank you for staying alive and giving us this much in each of your unique ways, Sixto and Buffy. I wish you two could meet up in a powwow. I am sending my love from my corner.
Bartholomew Strydom, Craig and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman (2016) Sugar Man London: Corgi Books, edition (First published by Bantam Press, Transworld Publishers, London, 2015)
Canadian Encyclopaedia, Sixties Scoop.
Christian, Reka M. (2020) ‘Transnational encounters, deep maps, and the Rodriguez phenomena’, Acta Hispanica (Hungria, Supplementum II).
Danish Social Ministry. Announcement for an investigation into removed Greenlanders, 2019, sm.dk
Drewett, Michael (2021) ‘Rodriguez, apartheid, and censorships: cold facts and fiction’, Safundi 22(2)
Encyclopaedia Britannica. Article on the Chicano movement. Available at: britannica.com
Gover, Kevin (2017) ‘Five myths about American Indians’, Washington Post Nov. 22, washingtonpost.com
Greene, Andy (2013) ‘Rodriguez: 10 things you don’t know…’, Rolling Stone
Jurik, Thom. Review of ‘Illuminations’, Allmusic site. Date unknown, allmusic.com
Oakes, Tim (2008) ‘Rodriguez. Return of the Sugar Man’, Available at: archive.ph
Titlestad, Michael (2013) ‘Searching for the Sugar-coated Man’, Safundi 14(4).
Warner, Andrea (2018) Buffy Sainte-Marie. The Authorized Biography Vancouver, Canada: Greystone Books.
Wikipedia. Entry on ‘Illuminations’, wikipedia.org
Zoladz, Lindsay (2020) ’Illuminations’ (Review article), Pitchfork Feb 9, pitchfork.com
Australian TV interview, 1972:
Bjendelloul, Malik (2012) Searching for Sugar Man Red Box Film, Swedish Television et al.
CBS News, Canada, 21 June 2022, interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie. Available at:
Good Morning America, 1977, Sainte-Marie, Buffy and Jack Cunningham in discussion. Available at:
Prowse, Joan (dir.) (2006) Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, 2006, documentary, CineFocus, Canada. Available at
Seeger, Pete Rainbow Quest, 13 Sept 1966. Available at:
Selley, Tonia (1981) Dead Men Don’t Tour SABC3 South Africa.
Sesame Street (1975) – Buffy arrives on Sesame Street, 1975,
Rubin, Rick (2020) Broken Record podcast. Available at:
Various quotes from Sixto’s two records, Cold Fact and Coming to Reality (1970 and 1971 Sussex Records), credited in main text, as well two early Buffy albums: It’s My Way (1964), and I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (1968).
Rights given to use of Aryan Kaganof reflections from personal correspondence.
|CBS News, Canada, 21 June 2022
|Similar colonial policies have been found elsewhere where whites removed indigenous children from home territories in the purpose of integration when they believed the indigenous population were diminishing quickly. In Australia, for example, the phenomenon of removals during the 19th century, was named The Stolen Generation. Incidents also happened on a smaller scale in e.g., Greenland, where a smaller number of children were moved to Denmark in a social experiment to test dual language education. The experiment was though abolished a year later, and the kids returned, but to orphanages in Nuuk, not their home communities/families. See, e.g., The Canadian Encyclopedia for Sixties Scoop. Danish Social Ministry announcement for an investigation into removed Greenlanders, 2019 (sm.dk).
|Australian TV interview, 1972.
|Buffy arrives on Sesame Street, 1975. Clip available at:
|Some writers note that Buffy’s vibrato have prevented her from properly entering mainstream. As with Dylan, and Sixto, there are something sonically challenging or not pleasing in the vocal modus operandi, if one can put it that way. While Sixto and Buffy though have sung more or less in the same way throughout their career, the same can though hardly be said about Dylan. At least not if one compares his 1961 to 1989 output. I am not mentioning Dylan to indicate that Sixto or Buffy walked in his footsteps. Buffy and Bob, in particular, were/are both sponges. They get/got inspired and stole/steal from everywhere – as most good artists. Also, Sixto’s two albums are musically extraordinary, embracing a variety of genres, from traditional folk, over orchestral pop, hippie rock/psychedelia, blues, and trip hop-ish elements.
|A few notes on this in Stryman and Segerman. For an introductory text, see e.g., Encyclopaedia Britannica, britannica.com/. Or Wikipedia. The word ‘Chicano’ is an identifier for Mexicans born in the US and with a non-Anglo self-image.
|Trailer for Searching for Sugarman, 2012.
|Michael Drewett, a South African scholar, notes that under Apartheid there was a ‘compelling tradition of directly resistant anti-apartheid songs’and mentions Jennifer Ferguson, Peter Gabriel, Roger Lucey, Mzwakhe Mbuli, the Special AKA, Steel Pulse and Peter Tosh (Drewett, 2021, 134). One could also mention Johnny Clegg, the ‘white zulu’, beginning his career under Apartheid with the mixed-race band Juluka. Clegg died in 2017, at 66, as one of South Africa’s most celebrated musicians.
|Buffy recorded Joni’s ‘The Circle Game’ in 1967.
|Joan Prowse’s (director) Buffy Sainte-Marie: A Multimedia Life, 2006, documentary, CineFocus, Canada. Available at.
|Buffy Sainte Marie, 2023, on Janette Burke TV show talking about the 2022 documentary Carry it On, American Masters.
|Buffy Sainte Marie and Jack Cunningham on Good Morning America´, 1977.
|Pete Seeger, Rainbow Quest, 13 Sept 1966. 39 shows were recorded in black-white videotape for WNJU-TV during 1965 and 1966. Allegedly, largely unrehearsed with Seeger talking and playing (to the viewer, no studio audience) and interaction in improvisation with guest in talk and music.
|See e.g. Thom Jurek’s review on Allmusic, allmusic.com, Lindsay Zoladz on Pitchfork pitchfork.com and the Wikipedia entry on the album wikipedia.org. Noteworthy, in addition to the early electronica-influence, is that the lyric from album’s first fabulous song God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot was an extract borrowed from writer and singer Leonard Cohen’s novel Beautiful Losers.
|There are other compilations and retitled issues put out after the two original, official albums, such as After the Fact, 1976, a reissue of Coming from Reality with new title, and The Best of Rodriguez, 1982.
|Academic research related to Sixto available are mostly concerned with documentary filmmaker Malik Bjendelloul’s creative liberties and the singer’s South African connection, most of them found in the Safundi journal and all strongly focused on critiquing that documentary by Malik. While discussion of documentary storytelling and ‘liberties’ is completely valid, the pile of work is though rather unhelpful if we want to attain other details about Sixto’s journeys and art. However, one other article in Acta Hispanica, by Reka M. Christian, investigates Sixto’s work around deep mapping of place, and bypasses the ‘iffy’ discussion of details in Searching for Sugarman. Christian’s notion of deep mapping, as ‘a palimpsest work allowing multiple version of ‘events and phenomena’ to be written over each other and still have all layers visible’ deserves it own essay for elaboration.
|An Ilse Assman, an ‘Apartheid Archivist’, we are told, is in the film at ‘Archive of Censored Material’ in Johannesburg showing us how Sixto´s Cold Fact LP has lines crossed over the first song, Sugar Man, allegedly by censoring authorities. However, they did not find any record. Malik brought a copy and did the scratches trying to imitate a system they were likely to have had on censored records. Yet, the South African label never handed the record in to SABC where Assman worked, Drewett argued (2021).