Woodstock legend Melanie finds another ‘Brand New Key,' plays Saturday at Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman.
Melanie finds another ‘Brand New Key’
The singer-songwriter, best known for her 1970s novelty hit as well as her performance at Woodstock, is making her debut at Okemah’s Woody Guthrie Folk Festival on Saturday, what would have been Oklahoma icon’s 100th birthday.
Over her four-decade music career, Melanie Safka has played many now-legendary music festivals, from 1970’s record-setting Isle of Wight fest with its stellar lineup of Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Doors to the infamous “greatest concert that never happened,” the Powder Ridge Rock Festival in Connecticut, where she was the only headliner to defy a court injunction and play anyway.
Yes, she even performed at that granddaddy of all now-mythical outdoor musical merriment, 1969’s Woodstock.
This weekend, the singer-songwriter known simply as Melanie will play another milestone festival: the 2012 Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Okemah. Along with Judy Collins, Ellis Paul and Terri Hendrix with Lloyd Maines, the “Brand New Key” crooner will headline WoodyFest on Saturday, which would have been Guthrie’s 100th birthday.
“It’s exciting. I’ve never been and I’m really glad that I’m going this year,” Melanie said in a phone interview from Nashville, Tenn., where she makes her home. “My mom was a jazz singer and my uncle was a union organizer so I learned the Woody Guthrie songs from my uncle and Billie Holliday songs from my mother and I guess both of those influences worked themselves into my music.”
“I’m probably one of the few pop artists — well, when I was having pop records — who put a Woody Guthrie song on my like second album. It was his ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ song; I love that song,” she added. “I mean, ‘Some are gonna rob you with a six-gun; some will do it with a fountain pen.’”
In its 15th year, the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival is organized annually in the Oklahoma icon’s hometown around his birthday: July 14, 1912. The family of the folk legend, who died of Huntington’s disease on Oct. 3, 1967, at the age of 55, has worked closely with the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles to plan “Woody at 100,” a series of all-star concerts, album releases and tributes of all kinds during 2012.
In her WoodyFest debut, Melanie, 65, becomes the second Woodstock performer to play this year’s Okemah event. Guthrie’s son, Arlo Guthrie, kicked off the festival’s centennial celebration Wednesday with a special show at the historic, newly renovated Crystal Theatre, where his father went to the movies in his youth.
“We’ve done so many tours together, Arlo and I,” she said, recalling one memorable stop in Austria, where the gallant Guthrie helped her carry an armload of rocks she had collected on a hike back to the venue, though not without wisecracking, “I’ll always be known as the man who got Melanie’s rocks off — the mountain.”
At Woodstock, Melanie crooned her bittersweet ballad “Beautiful People” so prettily that the crowd raised cigarette lighters and lit candles in response. The now-iconic sign of audience approval prompted the Queens, N.Y., native to pen the gospel-inspired epic “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain),” which sold more than 1 million copies in 1970 and prompted Billboard to name her its female vocalist of the year.
“My career really took off in Europe first. I had my first hit in France. It was with an obscure song on my first album called ‘Bobo’s Party’ and I went to Paris … in 1969 and had a hit record and was onstage with Gilbert Bécaud, who was like the Frank Sinatra of Europe, and Julien Clerc. It was like the variety show extraordinaire with jugglers and dancers and comedians and young singers and older singers and international singers. And I was Melanie, being introduced to France,” said Melanie, who spent the past month touring in Germany.
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