CSPS Hall — Friday, Aug. 17 at 8 p.m.
Forty-nine years ago this week, a relatively unknown young woman took the stage at perhaps the seminal cultural event in U.S. history. Melanie Safka-Schekeryk was only 22 when the Woodstock Music and Art Fair — “3 Days of Peace & Music,” the posters read — took over a farm in upstate New York and changed the course of music. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played together in public for only the second time. The festival was headlined by Jimi Hendrix, less than a year before his death. Jefferson Airplane rolled out an exhausted Sunday 8 a.m. set.
But the performance of this young, unknown woman from Astoria, Queens was scene-stealing and tone-setting. It was also incredibly significant. Safka-Schekeryk (known professionally just as Melanie — possibly most famous now for the bouncy “Brand New Key,” recently re-popularized by Iowa’s own American Idol Maddie Poppe) was one of only five women on the bill, and one of only two playing entirely solo (Woodstock aced the race portion of its representation exam, but nevertheless struggled mightily with gender). It’s likely that audience reaction during her performance was the origin of the practice of holding up lighters during concerts — she wrote the song “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” as a response to gazing out from the stage over a sea of lights being lifted.
At the time of Woodstock, Safka-Schekeryk, who plays tonight at CSPS in Cedar Rapids (tickets $28-33), had a song out — “Beautiful People” — that was popular on underground radio and overseas, but she believes that at most “maybe 1 percent” of the hundreds of thousands of people in the audience knew who she was. Ever the consummate storyteller, Safka-Schekeryk recounted her experience of that performance — “alone with a guitar” — during a recent conversation with Little Village.
“I actually left my body,” Safka-Schekeryk said. “I actually had what some would call an out-of-body experience … it was pretty astounding, because this happened in front of 500,000 people. I came back to my body on the song ‘Beautiful People.’ And I started to sing — and it was like a thunderbolt hit me, and I was there, and not being able to express anything except what I could express in that song, ‘Beautiful People.’ And at that moment, 500,000 people granted me being there — they allowed me to be who I was.
“And all that terror, and all the build up, and all of whatever else was going on in my introverted little head — I got on that stage and was granted being there by 500,000 people all at once. And I reciprocated with a song. Those moments will never be forgotten by those 500,000 people, and me … That is the reason why people keep talking about Woodstock. Because it was a spiritual awakening to a lot of people. You could trivialize it, ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll,’ tie dye, kids — but what really happened really happened.”
Next year is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, and Safka-Schekeryk, who has seen celebrations of various landmark anniversaries — the 25th, the 40th, the 45th — is excited about what the milestone will bring. It’s crucial, she believes, to look back on the lessons learned then and continue applying them to our lives now.
“[Last year] was the 50th anniversary of the summer of love, but it has not got the importance that Woodstock has — and I believe that’s because it had a humanitarian thread,” Safka-Schekeryk said. “Not a political thread … it was absolutely not a political place … It was totally a humanitarian gathering … It was definitely something important.
“And I believe it was the culmination of a generation that grew up learning about human rights, because they were still fresh in people’s minds, because right after the war, the UN was put in place, and that feeling of, ‘We can never have this insanity again’ was alive and kicking. And it was even taught in schools. I remember hearing about human rights and how important it is that we understand that every person has the same human rights, and there are 30 of them. Since that time, it’s kind of been buried, and I really believe we need to make human rights a reality again.”
She’s talking about the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a 30-point document created by the United Nations Human Rights Commission under Eleanor Roosevelt and adopted by the UN in 1948, three years after its establishment in the wake of World War II.
Safka-Schekeryk has maintained a humanitarian thread of her own throughout her career. She spent quite some time as a spokesperson for UNICEF (the United Nations Children’s Fund) — “UNICEF was my cause. I trick-or-treated for UNICEF when I was a kid!” she recalls. Now, she’s active with United for Human Rights, an organization dedicated to implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in particular creating educational tools to bring those topics back into the classroom.
“That whole thing got awakened in a generation. We have to take care of each other. We can’t let people suffer.”
The best way to achieve those goals, as an artist?
“Not talking about it: doing. You know? Do it. Just sing your songs, really have your heart in your songs, and that humanitarian spirit should come through. I don’t preach. I don’t tell people what to do or who to like or who not to like, or rile people up. I believe so much of everything is to divide people … I’m totally into uniting people.”
Looking forward, Safka-Schekeryk has plans for “continuing and being able to spread those ideals and make them a reality.”
“I think there’s a situation where people feel — kids, especially, feel — like, ‘Well, what can we do; that’s the way it is,’” she said. “Politics … keeps people at bay, but it doesn’t actually handle the problem. You can’t enforce tolerance, [but] you can teach people, and people can sense the rightness or the wrongness of something — and that’s where it really starts.”
Safka-Schekeryk continues to write music, often collaborating with her son Beau Jarred Schekeryk, who she calls “an incredible virtuoso.” (“I’m not saying this because I’m his mom! … sometimes I feel like I’m stuck in a room with Mozart.”) She has a live album in the works, which Schekeryk is currently mastering — restored recordings of her performance at the Schaefer Music Festival to be released as a double disc called Center Stage in Central Park.
They’re also working on an original album. For that, Beau Jarred is recruiting a World Peace Orchestra — “instruments from all over the world,” Safka-Schekeryk said, “especially divided countries. He’s putting them together in the most harmonious, beautiful way. No preaching; just do it. The more harmony we create, the better the world will be.”