Singer-songwriter Melanie Safka (Melanie) died on Jan. 23, 2024, at 76, and her passing stirred a memory about one of her songs that profoundly changed me.
Melanie was raised in Queens, New York, and in the 1960s, she sang and played guitar at folk clubs in Greenwich Village, such as The Bitter End. She was a surprise star at the three-day Woodstock Music Festival that took place in mid-August in 1969 on nearly 300 acres of a dairy farm in Sullivan County, New York.
A total of 32 musicians, a combination of local and world-famous talent, appeared at Woodstock, including Janis Joplin, Richie Havens, the Grateful Dead, Joan Baez and Jimi Hendrix. Melanie appeared on Aug. 15, day one of the festival. Hendrix was the last to perform.
The festival has become widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history, as well as a defining event for that generation.
A pivotal moment for me came a year later in 1970, when Melanie released the song, “I Don’t Eat Animals.”
I was at Muir Beach on the Pacific Coast, three miles west of Muir Woods when the song came on my transistor radio. From where I was sitting, I could see a group of cows grazing on the hillside. As I listened, Melanie’s words permeated my thoughts and became the catalyst for shifting my attitude about whether cows or other four-legged animals should be our food.
Her lyrics began:
“I was just thinking about the way it’s supposed to be
I’ll eat the plants and the fruit from the trees
And I’ll live on vegetables, and I’ll grow on seeds
But I don’t eat animals and they don’t eat me
Oh no, I don’t eat animals ‘cause I love them, you see
I don’t eat animals, I want nothing dead in me…”
After hearing her song, I no longer wanted my body to be the graveyard for animals whose lives were not mine to take.
I had a fondue party planned that evening after spending the day at the beach. I had invited a few artists from Berkeley whose diets rarely extended beyond brown rice, which seemed frightfully unhealthy.
As I stuck a fork into a chunk of beef to be fried in oil, I froze while thinking of the cows on the hillside and Melanie’s verse, “You know I’ll become life, and my life will become me. You know I’ll live on life and my life will live on me.”
I put the fork down in favor of the song’s lyrics and what they meant to me. This was the beginning of vegetarianism for me.
At Carnegie Hall in 1970, Melanie sang “I Don’t Eat Animals,” among others on her “Leftover Wine” live album. On stage she explained its origins:
“I wrote the song in Columbus, Missouri. I had a day off, so I wanted to go to the country. And that wasn’t difficult cause Columbus is the country. I walked outside the door and saw a big cow, and said, ‘Oh Moo, you know don’t you…that I don’t eat cows and the cow didn’t say anything except, ‘Mmm Melanie,’ and so I wrote him this song. I wrote it really for all the cows.”
I am so grateful she did.
By 1974, when I started working at Friends of Animals in New York City as public information director, I had also stopped eating chicken and other poultry. It took me until 1992 to put it all together and recognize the moral imperative to be vegan so that I didn’t eat animals or any products from them.
Melanie wasn’t always recognized as being socially important in a male-dominated folk-rock scene, but she set me on a path of animal advocacy.
Working in the animal rights movement transforms us and everyone who supports us. If we continue to instigate, agitate and educate, like Melanie’s music, there is reason to hope, and to see that it is possible to affect change and remake a culture.
RIP Melanie. You were a pioneer. I listened to your music and another world opened to me.
Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy organization founded in New York in 1957 that advocates for the rights of animals, free-living and domestic, around the world.
Photo Credit: Sydney Morning Herald