50 years on, Melanie explains how Woodstock was a different time for women

Melanie has stories to tell, too many stories to do her 42-year career justice in one interview. 

But because the lauded singer-songwriter is performing at this year’s Port Fairy Festival, one that pays tribute to the historical Woodstock Festival on its 50th anniversary, Melanie has some beans to spill on that fateful summer. “It’s fortunate I lasted this long, right?” laughs the 72-year-old.

It is fortunate but also quite wonderful. For those of us not around in 1969, Melanie says it’s important Woodstock is commemorated. “It’s important for reasons that are important to me still, in that it commemorates a sort of awakening of humanity. It was a time that was a near renaissance on earth.

“Music and art were thriving and that for me means culture and society are doing well. When music and art start deteriorating, it’s usually not a good sign.

“It’s important to remember what it was that awakened, and it was the music – it was a symbol of awakening. It wasn’t planned, this was the amazing thing. I’m so fortunate I was there because I got to have my memories of it.”

A purist by her own measure, Melanie in 1969 was a vegetarian, had never taken or smoked anything she shouldn’t have. “I waited till later,” she jokes. “Back then I was very unaltered, terrified, even, that there was nothing between me and this harsh reality. Me, a girl, a woman, alone. No one was with me, and nobody had any idea what this [festival] would become.

“Almost like a calling, it was like a silent signal that everyone had to descend on this field at this particular moment to celebrate a new age.”

And of course, that descent on that field that day was the springboard for Melanie’s success.  “The catalyst, for sure,” she agrees. An industry buzz, as she describes it. “When I was there [at Woodstock] 500,000 people got to see me.

“I had been there the whole day, expecting to play after Richie Havens – the set kept getting pushed back and pushed back. Finally I played after Ravi Shankar. It had started to rain.”

Relatively unknown in America and indeed, to the people to whom she performed that night, Melanie was one of only three female performers on the bill, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin the others. “I didn’t really think of it as anything,” she says. “I just knew that was the playing field – they were playing one female an hour. I was an artist, there wasn’t much distinction between whether the artist was male or female, it didn’t matter. As I’ve looked back from this vantage point, it’s pretty remarkable I was able to flourish in such a suppressive scene, really.

“Women were the pretty girls, usually the singers. Nobody talked about me being a writer, there wasn’t such a term as singer-songwriter – they called me “the female Bob Dylan” because I wrote songs, if they mentioned it at all.

“Mostly I was pretty, probably too pretty to be considered relevant. [There were] so many dynamics going on at the point with being a woman – this was a whole other area, I could write a book about this.

“From this vantage point, it’s so different to the way it was. I didn’t think of it as unfair or terrible, it was just the way it was.”

Port Fairy Folk Festival’s Woodstock tribute will see Melanie joined by the likes of Front Country, Suzanne Heft and The Naked Waiters in performing some memorable classics from the 1959 incarnation. Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Jefferson Airplane and The Band are just some of the names that will be remembered for the occasion. Don’t be surprised if seminal tracks, ‘Voodoo Child’, ‘My Generation’, ‘White Rabbit’ or ‘Ophelia’ are given new life.

Melanie performs at Port Fairy Folk Festival which comes to the beachside town from Friday March 8 to Monday March 11. Head to the festival website for tickets.