22-year-old Melanie Safka was one of the more unlikely performers at Woodstock in 1969. By her own admission, she was a relative nobody without any big hits to her name and had never performed in front of more than 500 people, let alone the 100,000 who would gather in New York. Her escort to the festival was her mother and she had her first encounter with celebrity when Joan Baez sent her a pot of tea to combat a nervous cough she developed while waiting to perform.
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Yet when she stepped out onto the stage on Friday night, August 15, 1969 just before 11 PM, she was greeted by the audience lighting candles (and lighters) in an effort to psychically beat back the rain that had been falling. Not only did Melanie perform a successful set (“I went on as an unknown and I came off that stage as a celebrity,” she recently told American Songwriter), but she also had the inspiration for her first Top 10 hit.
Speaking of how she wrote “(Lay Down) Candles In The Rain,” Melanie says, “I left that field with that song in my head, the anthemic part.” The lyrics speak to the sense of community that washed over Safka on that magical night. “It was this incredible flow of human power being directed toward me,” she says. “And I got to see the hillside light up like so many fireflies.”
Melanie got some assistance on the song from the Edwin Hawkins Singers, who had their own gospel hit with their arrangement of “Oh Happy Day” two years earlier. Melanie had to beg the group to join her on the song, since they were reluctant to perform any song that didn’t make sepcific mention of the Lord. “But he’s in there,” she told them in the studio, and she must have been convincing. “By the time I finished singing,” Safka says, “they were joining me in the chorus.”
It was an unlikely combination of folk introspection and gospel exultation, and it’s refreshing to think of an era in music when such a song could conquer the charts. Melanie attributes some of its success to the time period in which it was released. Not only was there the Woodstock connection, but the song also spoke to those fed up with the Vietnam War. “It gave it a lot of poignance that it might not have had if it happened at another time,” she says.
Timing aside, Melanie says that “(Lay Down) Candles In The Rain,” had a special feeling about it even as she was writing and recording it. “I sensed something important about it,” she says. Audiences have been sensing the same thing for 43 years now since Melanie Safka’s piercing voice first asked us to let our white birds smile and raise our candles high to hold back that ever-threatening rain.