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Folk singer Melanie, known for 'Brand New Key' and Woodstock, dies at 76

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The American folk singer Melanie has died.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE")

MELANIE: (Singing) Beautiful people, you live in the same...

SUMMERS: Born Melanie Safka in 1947, the singer got her start in music at a young age.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELANIE: My entire family sang and played instruments. My mom was a jazz-blues singer, and my Uncle George was a union protest song singer.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a 2020 interview with the writer Tim Quinn, she said her first instrument was a ukulele, though she later became known for playing guitar as she sang at coffeehouses in New York's Greenwich Village during the folk revival.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SUMMERS: In 1969, she got her first big break when she played Woodstock.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELANIE: (Vocalizing).

SUMMERS: She described the experience in a 1991 interview with the talk show host Kathy Fountain.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHY FOUNTAIN: You were the baby of Woodstock, the darling of Woodstock.

MELANIE: Yeah. Oh, God. It was hard to live down, too. I was - well, I wasn't really a hippie. I was an oddball, and that was the difference. You see, I didn't quite fit in the little niche of...

FOUNTAIN: So you didn't live in a commune or anything.

MELANIE: No. Now I do. I have a family.

FOUNTAIN: Her set at Woodstock also inspired her first U.S. hit, 1970's "Lay Down (Candles In The Rain)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY DOWN (CANDLES IN THE RAIN)")

MELANIE: (Singing) Lay down, lay down, lay it all down.

SHAPIRO: She later recalled that, by the time she took the stage at Woodstock, it had started to rain, and the festival announcer told the crowd to light candles to keep the rain away. So as she sang, the hillside in front of her began to blaze with candlelight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LAY DOWN (CANDLES IN THE RAIN)")

MELANIE: (Singing) ...At the ones who stand and frown.

SUMMERS: Melanie's 1971 hit, "Brand New Key," brought the singer even more acclaim.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRAND NEW KEY")

MELANIE: (Singing) Well, I got a pair of brand-new pair of roller skates. You got a brand-new key.

SUMMERS: But the tune's lyrics sparked controversy. Melanie told singer Michael Johnathon in 2004 that, while many heard references to sex or drugs, it wasn't about any of those things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MELANIE: And I was remembering roller skating. And I remembered the scent of Astoria, Queens, where I grew up. And I was remembering roller skating and the key that, you know, tightened the skates so you wouldn't fall and - which I often did.

SHAPIRO: Melanie Safka stayed active as a musician well into her later years and released more than 30 albums before she died Tuesday at age 76.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEACE WILL COME (ACCORDING TO PLAN)")

MELANIE: (Singing) For sometimes when... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kai McNamee
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.