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 Holiday songs from my mother and I guess both of those influences worked themselves into my music.”
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.
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 “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 Becaud, who was like the Frank Sinatra of Europe, and Julien Clerc,” said Melanie, who spent the past month touring in Germany. “There was very little here happening (in the U.S.), might have been a little bit of an industry buzz, but I hadn't performed in front of more than 500 people before things started happening.”
Woodstock became a defining moment in her career, and “Lay Down” might have been her signature song had she not written a lively little ditty called “Brand New Key,” nicknamed “The Roller Skate Song.” The novelty hit topped the charts in 1971-72 and became her signature — whether she liked it or not.
“At first it was terrible. I mean, I became known by this song even though I had other songs like ‘Beautiful People' and ‘Candles in the Rain' and ‘Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma.' That was the song. When that became a hit, it was all over. I always joked that I was doomed to be cute for the rest of my life,” she said.
“It was banned by certain radio stations as, oh, it had all kinds of hidden meanings. And quite honestly, it was one of those songs that just popped out. I didn't think about it. I wasn't thinking of sexual innuendoes. Or some people thought it key as in kilo of some kind of drug. ...And I was completely innocent.”
Although she has been in the music business for 45 years and created by her count 47 albums of original material — not counting the bootlegs that have surfaced over the decades or material she's been working on in the past two years since the sudden death of her producer/manager husband Peter Schekeryk — Melanie remains known primarily for “Brand New Key” and Woodstock. That's even after winning an Emmy in 1989 for writing the theme song for the TV show “Beauty and the Beast.”
In recent years, she has developed a newfound appreciation for her own musical legacy. While trying to fulfill her late husband's wishes that she write a memoir, she ended up penning a musical about their love story called “Melanie and the Record Man,” which will be staged for the first time in October at Blackfriars Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.
Plus, she and her guitarist/producer son Beau Jarred Schekeryk, who tours with her, have even recorded a new version of “Brand New Key.”
“Now, I'm very proud of it. I think it's amazing. It transcends any time. It has a vintageness about it, but it doesn't have a dated thing,” she said. “It's endearing. ... It's not meaningful and it's not supposed to do anything other than lift people a little bit.”
In 2010, she released an album of new originals cannily titled “Ever Since You Never Heard of Me.” What keeps her writing, singing and touring is “what got me started: just being in the music.”
“I don't regret any of my life. It was all amazing. I mean, who would have thought I would become a part of history but ... I'd like to be thought of as a person who's never had an album out before,” said Melanie, who also has two daughters who are songwriters.
15th Annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival
When: Through Sunday.
Where: Various venues in Okemah.
What: Musical performances, children's activities, open mike, poetry readings, guitar workshop, fundraisers for the state chapter of the Huntington's disease Society of America and more.
Parking: Free for daytime events; $15 per car evenings at the Pastures of Plenty Stage. Cost includes a festival program.
You want people to listen to your music, and if they have all these preconceived notions that you're the hippie girl from Woodstock or whatever, the ‘Brand New Key' girl — ‘Oh, the roller skate song!' —that's it. You get frozen in those moments. That's probably why I keep on singing. I just want people to hear the songs. They are my children; they really, really are. And I want them to get out there and flourish and prosper.”