Forty-six years ago today, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter who was born in Queens, N.Y., but spent her teen years in Long Branch, played the most important set of her life. Melanie Safka, who performs under the name Melanie, had had some success in Europe as of Aug. 15, 1969, the first day of the Woodstock Festival in Bethel, N.Y., but was not yet well known in the United States. Still, she found herself on the Woodstock bill, right after Ravi Shankar and right before Arlo Guthrie.
“I had heard about it early on, from the originators of the festival; they were in same office building,” she told Mark Voger of The Star-Ledger in 2014. “It just came up. I said, ‘Oh, three days of love and music — it sounds like me. Could I be part of it?’ ‘Yeah, you’d be right for it.’ No one knew at that point how big it was going to be.”
She had not yet written “Brand New Key” — a No. 1 hit for her in 1971 — so that obviously wasn’t in the set list. She did perform her then-current single, “Beautiful People,” though, and was inspired, by her experiences at Woodstock, to write a song that would become the second biggest hit of her career, “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” (No. 6 in 1970).
Melanie told Voger: “I didn’t go on until after Ravi Shankar. It started to rain. I finally got on. I went on stage, totally terrified. Right before, an announcer made an inspirational announcement about passing out candles. Somewhere in there, I absorbed all of that.
“And then, I had an out-of-body experience. I did. I really did. … At some point, I was back in my body. I felt this incredible glow of human connectedness. I was not afraid any more. I sang my heart out for a half-hour. … I left that stage with ‘Candles in the Rain’ in my head.”
The Edwin Hawkins Singers, who had had a big hit in 1969 with “Oh Happy Day,” backed her on the song, and are also in the clip below, which is from a 1970 Netherlands television appearance.
Melanie, now 68, still records and tours. For information, visit melaniesafka.com.
New Jersey celebrated its 350th birthday last year. And in the 350 Jersey Songs series, we are marking the occasion by posting 350 songs — one a day, for almost a year — that have something to do with the state, its musical history, or both. We started in September 2014, and will keep going until late in the summer.
If you would like to suggest any songs to be included, please let me know in the comments section underneath the video. And if you want to see the entire list, either alphabetically or in the order the songs were selected, click here.