50 years ago, in 1968, Melanie released her debut album on Buddah. The following year she performed seven songs at the historic Woodstock music festival. Melanie shares stories of her beginnings and celebrates the 40th anniversary of her 1978 Phonogenic album.
2018 photo courtesy of Melanie
By Warren Kurtz
GOLDMINE: We are preparing for next year’s 50th anniversary of Woodstock. Fellow Goldmine writer and author Mike Greenblatt is seeking Woodstock memories for his book next year (see the link at the end of this article). On the Woodstock Two album, one of my favorite songs is your “Beautiful People,” which was so fitting for that historic event. What is the story behind this message of hopeful togetherness?
MELANIE: I was very determined as a teenager. I felt that we are part of the same group and that we should do everything to help each other. We were the generation who were taught about the United Nations, which was new, and the declaration of human rights, taught in public school. At Halloween, I trick or treated for UNICEF. We are the family of man. I wanted to dedicate my life to helping people who need assistance. I applied to the Peace Corps, but my credentials as a folk singing guitar player didn’t take me far. I never wanted to be a famous person. I didn’t want to be a celebrity. Even though I am an introvert, I can sing and play guitar. There was a big black out in New York City and we helped each other. It was dark. There were old people in the building. OK, maybe they were in their 40’s, but they seemed old at the time. I was handing out candles. The evening was so magical. It was anything but cold and uncaring, which was New York’s reputation. Days after the black out, on the subway, I was thinking “beautiful people,” caring from the heart. I took that childhood experience with me upstate to Woodstock and what an event and experience that was. The only time something like that, of that magnitude, ever happened. I was one girl, playing three chords on my guitar, with attendees who came for some big rock performers. I thought they may stone me or throw tomatoes, but I resonated with 500,000 people instantaneously. They granted my being and I take that with me every day.
GM: On the morning of September 11, 2001, after feeling peaceful from hearing “Lay Down” on the radio, oldies DJ Ted Alexander said, “I wouldn’t normally suggest that anyone turn off their radio and watch television, but there has been a terrible accident in New York City.” “Lay Down” was the last song that I heard for days. Since then, whenever I seek peace, I play “Lay Down.”
MS: Aw! And we did think it was an accident initially on that day, but we find strength in music to heal. We came away from Woodstock with a feeling that we are united, and that people are beautiful. I attended pro-peace demonstrations where you would lie down, called lie-ins. The “Lay Down” chorus was in my head. Then I was able to record it with the Edwin Hawkins Singers, adding more power to it. It is not always easy protesting for peace. There is a scene in the movie Forrest Gump, where Forrest’s would be love interest Jenny was at a peace rally and was badgered for participating. That happens, but I still work for human rights. All 30 of them. There are teaching kits for schools. There are groups, United for Human Rights and Youth for Human rights with this mission.
GM: On your Candles in the Rain album, there is your composition listed as “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma,” which The New Seekers turned into a Top 40 hit as “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma,” with Eve Graham on lead vocals. Eve told me, “Melanie’s song enabled a door to open for The New Seekers in the U.S. We heard the album track and immediately recognized that it should be a single. We are interpreters of other people’s songs and can only hope that we get it right. It was a hit and I sing the song at every one of my shows and never tire of it. Everybody loves that song and I have the greatest respect for the wonderful and talented Melanie.”
MS: Aw! Thank you. Eve and I should get together and sing. I never worried about who would have a hit or who would record and perform my songs. Miley Cyrus did a version of this recently and I love it. Thanks to The New Seekers, there was a time in 1970 when I had three compositions in the Top 100 simultaneously. “Lay Down” was ending its run. My next single, “Peace Will Come,” was new on the charts as was The New Seekers’ single.
GM: In 1978, I had both sides of your Phonogenic album on constant rotation, at Peaches Records and Tapes, at a time when I was introduced to “Record People” as you sang about. The perks were just as you described with t-shirts and buttons and I certainly was cautioned financially with your line, “They go from having to having nothing.”
MS: Peaches. Wow! I am glad somebody heard the album. Without a hit single, it is hard and even when there is a hit single, like “Brand New Key,” most of the rest of my Gather Me album was ignored, like “Some Say (I Got Devil),” the pretty flip side of “Brand New Key.”
GM: “Record People” served as the flip side of the Phonogenic single “I’d Rather Leave While I’m in Love,” and I had to make sure that I didn’t play your version of that song and Debby Boone’s version in the same night.
Flip side: Record People
A side: I’d Rather Leave While I’m In Love
MS: There are cover versions on the album, and I always try to make them my own. I took Jesse Winchester’s “Yankee Man,” and changed the gender in the delivery, using “I” instead of “she,” for example.
GM: Your covers are creative. On The Beatles’ “We Can Work It Out,” you slowed down the middle of the chorus, “Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friend,” delivering a message so fitting from you. Then there are your compositions, with light fun on “Bon Apetite,” a dance sound fitting for the time on “Spunky,” and one I would get requests for at the store, to “play the side with the Melanie song that sounds like Stevie Nicks,” which was my favorite, “Runnin’ After Love.” The next year, The Jan Park Band released their version of it, and I jumped at the chance to do their debut album review. John Bartle from that band told me, “Producer Eric Holtze and I heard a tape of Jan Park, a singing waitress at an Iowa hotel, and The Jan Park Band was formed. Eric found the Melanie song and “Runnin’ After Love” became our first single.
MS: It also became the opening song for Ballroom Streets, my double live album.
GM: There is a live recording of you singing “Psychotherapy,” which has been played on Dr. Demento’s radio show. You can shift from anthems, to covers, to novelty.
MS: I avoid all categories. Being a female with a sense of humor has worked against me. For years there was a feeling that women aren’t supposed to be funny, just be pretty, sing and play. On covers, I love interpreting others’ work and I change the way I perform them too. With The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” I do it differently now than how I recorded it in the ‘70s. Jim Croce’s “Lover’s Cross” is another favorite of mine to sing. I don’t think people really knew how great of a songwriter he was when he was alive.
GM: On your new Ragamuffin EP, who is playing violin? I love how that sound is part of the recording.
MS: That is actually a GuitarViol, a combination of both instruments, played with a bow by my son Beau Jarred, who you will see performing at my concerts. “White Man Sings The Blues” is the opening number on Ragamuffin and is a favorite of mine. The concerts are intimate, where love blends in and people leave feeling a little more connected. I continue to be part of a peaceful revolution, not political, but part of an awakening and bask with decency and human rights, to unite rather than divide. I still have dreams of hope. In watching my grandson, I have hope for generations to come.
In 2019 we will look back at the 40th anniversary of The Jan Park Band with guitarist John Bartle and will have more stories related to Woodstock for its 50th anniversary. If you were at the 1969 concert and would like to share your story with author Mike Greenblatt, please see the link below.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, known for “Fabulous Flip Sides” along with giveaways, interviews, CD, DVD and book reviews. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.