“I Don’t Eat Animals”
A perfectly ’70s and yet still relevant vegetarian folk song from the singer who charmed the world with “Brand New Key”
The further the past stretches out behind us, the more we feel we have a grip on each bygone era, whether or not we were actually there. I remember thinking in the early 2000s that there was no way this murky decade could possibly be defined. Now I can identify almost to the week when current millenium-inspired fashion trends sprang from.
When I heard a live recording from 1970 of Melanie Safka performing her song “I Don’t Eat Animals,” I confidently thought — despite not having been anywhere near alive when it happened — yes, how very of its time. Hippies, flower power, peace and love! However, while this is a song that has been largely forgotten, at best considered a 70s novelty, I think it’s worth a closer listen.
Melanie Safka is not one of the first names that springs to mind when recalling singer-songwriters of the past, but she has undeniably put in the work — releasing 42 albums in 47 years! — and created ripple effects great and small through her diligence. You probably know her from the incredibly beguiling “Brand New Key,” a song meshing playground sing-song innocence with a knowing, Nancy Sinatra-esque guitar strum. It’s her best-known hit, but “What Have They Done To My Song, Ma” was covered by the likes of Ray Charles and Nina Simone. She also unwittingly did something — your opinion may vary on whether it was positive — for Australian hip hop when Hilltop Hoods sampled her song People in the Front Row in 2003.
If you’ve ever held a lighter up in the air at a concert you have Melanie to thank: as a relative newcomer performing at Woodstock, and one of just a handful of women on that stage, she began her set just as it started to rain. The audience was encouraged to light candles, which they held aloft with their lighters as she sang to them, a sea of swaying flames. Her gorgeous song “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” recounted this event and scored her a hit record.
It would be easy to write off “I Don’t Eat Animals,” but I believe there’s a difference between a song having a sense of humour about itself and being entirely throwaway. And Safka is not without a sense of humour — this is the woman who re-released her Christmas album Antlers under the name Yes Santa, There Is A Melanie. During Animals you can hear the audience chuckling when she sings about shunning white flour, but she sandwiches this more jokey middle third between heartfelt verses and choruses, delivering a message I’d listen to any day over, say, the droning non-irony of Morrissey’s “Meat Is Murder.”
“I’ll become life and my life will become me, you know I’ll live on life and my life will live on me,” she concludes, her words sounding poetically beautiful and full of hope.
What propels this song forward is Safka’s ability to write a tune that’s immediately catchy and just a little haunting — think of the up-down slant of “People In The Front Row” — she just really knew her way around a chord. “I Don’t Eat Animals” has a folky sound, accompanied by acoustic guitar, with gently soaring vocals. It’s so simple, it almost has the effect of a children’s nursery rhyme or old-fashioned drinking song. Then right at the very end, she loops the melody of the chorus refrain four times, her strumming getting stronger and stronger, and with that rocking-chair persistence and repetition the song is suddenly as affecting as it is sweet-natured. “I’ll become life and my life will become me, you know I’ll live on life and my life will live on me,” she concludes, her words sounding poetically beautiful and full of hope.
Safka’s status as a non-meat eater seems to have ebbed and flowed during her life — according to interviews her vegetarianism was modeled on her mother’s, but then “Brand New Key” was written after eating a Big Mac — whatever it is, it’s entirely her business. But take this song on its own and it’s a cheerful anthem that any of us can cling to, especially in 2019.
There’s still time left in our decade to discover what we’ll look back on, but this era already feels defined by the accelerating climate crisis. And more than ever, people are becoming aware of eating plant-based as a small means of mitigation. Which is not to divorce a prioritizing of animals themselves from the decision-making: where the environment suffers, so do animals, and vice-versa.
Safka’s message is straightforward, and it makes sense: “I was just thinking about the way it’s supposed to be, I’ll eat the plants and the fruit from the trees…I don’t eat animals ‘cause I love them you see, I don’t eat animals, I want nothing dead in me.” Whether you’re moving towards not eating animal products or if it’s something you’ve been doing for years, her words are right there with you, having fun, but also encouraging. “I Don’t Eat Animals” is indeed of its time — but it’s also timeless.