Friday, August 23, 2013

Melanie Safka sings the Hallelujah Chorus -- echoes of Woodstock and a stunning acoustic solo performance of a choral masterpiece

We are stardust, we are golden ...
And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden.
-- Crosby Stills Nash & Young

So it's a Friday night, and I'm in my home office working on my article for Dulcimer Players News, tracking down a reference I saw (in Jane S. Becker's Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 [Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998]: 89) to an "old folks' reunion" music festival at the John C. Campbell Folk School in in 1934. And I get distracted when I hear the 1960s singer-songwriter Melanie Safka singing "... glory, glory psychotherapy."

So I drift down the hall to Debi's office, and she's playing video clips from Woodstock on YouTube.

Anyway, you can't relive Woodstock without remembering Melanie. And vice versa. And you can't do either without remembering her legendary set, in the rain and mud during the first night of the festival on another Friday night 40 years ago. So, of course, I forgot all about the article (other than making a note of my cite from Becker and pasting it in to this blog post). ...

As Debi and I surfed YouTube, we saw a 1970s-vintage clip of Melanie performing something titled "Hallelujah" we hadn't heard before. It looked interesting. We clicked on it. And, just like Woodstock, her performance was electric. Turns out, as we listened to it, we'd heard it before after all.

It's the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's Messiah.

But ...

Wow. I've heard the Hallelujah Chorus literally dozens of times over the years. I've even sung it, blowing my voice and going sharp on the high notes, in one of those college-community open choruses you don't have to audition for. People tend to either love Melanie's voice or hate it. And I'm not 100 percent sure that covering one of the great choral masterpieces of the western tradition as a pop solo, with the singer backing herself on acoustic guitar, is always a very good idea. But I thought Melanie pulled it off with utter joy and conviction. The performance doesn't quite fit into any of my categories, but I like it.

Melanie's career hasn't exactly fit into neat little boxes, either, ever since it was launched at Woodstock. She went on at 11 p.m. that first night of the festival Aug. 15, 1969, when the Incredible String Band refused to play in the rain. Melanie took the stage in their place, and it was one of those golden moments in pop/rock history -- her set was electric. Today we'd say it went viral. At any rate, it launched her career.

"[A]s a New York kid barely known outside of the coffeehouse circuit in Greenwich Village, she sang her song 'Beautiful People' and inspired the first panorama of candles and cigarette lighters ever raised at a concert event," recalls her official biography, by Robert L. Doerschuk. "That, in turn, moved the young singer to write 'Lay Down (Candles in the Rain'), which sold more than one million copies in 1970 and prompted Billboard, Cashbox, Melody Maker, Record World, and Bravo to anoint her as female vocalist of the year. Her single 'Brand New Key,' an infectious romp about freedom and roller skates, topped the charts in 1971."

Then, as far as I knew, she dropped out of sight.

But, clearly, she didn't. During the 70s she scaled back her career as three children were born, but she continued to perform for UNICEF and a variety of stage and TV shows, and through the years she recorded on a label produced by her husband Peter Schekeryk, who died in 2010. Last year her tribute Melanie and the Record Man played in upstate New York. All of the children are musicians, and one of her sons backs her on guitar when they're on the road.

"She has, in short, lived a rare life," said Doerschuk, and now "she has been putting the pieces in order." "For the first time, I'm not afraid to voice exactly what I feel," she told Doerschuk. "I used to feel that I didn't want to say too much, but now I can say anything. I feel like a person who's never been heard. Maybe people think they've heard me, but they never really have. I'm a new artist who is having so much fun with my voice -- a person shouldn't be allowed to have so much fun. I'm the woman I wanted to be when I was sixteen and going for Edith Piaf. It's me -- I'm back."

"Ring the Living Bell." Another vintage song. This one Melanie wrote, recorded in concert in Hamburg, in 1974. She has quite a fan base in Germany.

On a sad note. What got us started calling up Woodstock videos was when Debi saw the news that Linda Ronstadt has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Ronstadt was at Woodstock, as a backup singer for Country Joe & the Fish.

On a happier note. We also surfed into Walter Cronkite's CBS News coverage of Woodstock on Aug. 18, 1969. It was remarkable for its depth and objectivity, although the on-the-scene network correspondents were clearly puzzled by some of the countercultural references. This is what TV news was like before the cable news networks discovered it's cheaper to broadcast in-studio speculation and commentary while you cut back on reporting.

And another happy note, 40 years after Woodstock. A lengthy interview by local journalist Kati Rausch in June 2012 at the "Schlachthof," in Soest, a town of 45,000 in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, with clips from her performance there.

Click here for Part 2. At 8:24 she says, "I had very lofty ideals about helping people and being of service to humanity, and I didn't think being a pop star was it, but it turned out that was what happened. ... Now, I sense that I did fulfill my purpose being a performer and singer."

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