Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Dreaming: Songs of Woodstock

Back in the summer of 2009, as some of you close to my age may recall, the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Festival was being celebrated. Looking back, it's probably clear to most of us now that it was hardly the beginnings of an idyllic community, or the heralding of a new society. But as a cultural event, no question, it was certainly something significant to note. A number of artists also wrote interesting songs about that legendary swoon in the mud: two who performed there; and another who didn’t quite make it. Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Who'll Stop the Rain" begins simply by describing the torrential rain and the crowd's determination to outlast it. But then songwriter John Fogerty, quite movingly, leaps into larger concerns at work in the country. Those concerns took in the real storms to follow in the subsequent years ahead, the sense that the freedoms sought at Woodstock were not only illusory, but that a bigger price would soon be exacted out of all the frolicking. "Who'll Stop the Rain" went on to also provide both the title and emotional leit motif of Karel Reisz's film adaptation of Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers, a story about dashed ideals, the cost of loyalty, Vietnam, and the darker implications of the drug culture in the seventies.

Joni Mitchell
The most recognizable song about the Festival, ironically, came from the one artist who did not make it there. Joni Mitchell composed “Woodstock” even though she got trapped in the massive traffic jam. (She ended up talking about Woodstock's significance instead on The Dick Cavett Show.) But in her composition, she tried to imagine the aspirations of the Woodstock generation while simultaneously providing a cautionary tone (a tone that unfortunately didn’t make it into Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s celebratory cover version). Mitchell’s version left a haunting reverberation. You can hear in it an intense longing for salvation along with a fear that it may not come to pass. In her eerie dissonant gospel rendering, doves and jet bomber planes become interchangeable; peace and possible apocalypse become discomfiting bedfellows.

But one of the forgotten songs about the Festival was also rendered in a gospel style. But it doesn't warn of dark days ahead. "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" was written and performed by Melanie Safka (otherwise known as Melanie), an artist who is barely remembered today. Like "Who'll Stop the Rain," her tune also focused on that massive audience caught in the downpour and who lit candles during her set. But the implicit meaning of her tune reveals something quite different than Fogerty's and Mitchell's. In Melanie's song, there is a yearning for something greater than lighting wicks. She reaches for the power of divinity, the idea that a candle's light can snuff out the darkness. Despite all skepticism, the emotional power of this performance makes that spiritual release almost possible.

In her day, Melanie was the ultimate flower-child who wrote precious songs like “Brand New Key,” “Leftover Wine” and “Look What They’ve Done to My Song, Ma.” She sang in an intensely scratchy voice that was sometimes inseparable from a whining shrill. At that time, she was also a follower of the guru Meher Baba (as was Pete Townshend of The Who which only goes to prove that it isn't just people with acoustic guitars who are susceptible to gurus). So Melanie approached the studio recording of "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" as if she had encountered divine revelation at Woodstock. (And to drive that sentiment home, she was backed up by the majestic Edwin Hawkins Singers.) While her lyrics had little of the ambiguity of Joni Mitchell’s "Woodstock," the sheer force of Melanie’s performance turns "Lay Down" into an ecstatic experience, one of unbridled and defiant joy at being unleashed. Her idealism expressed here was fueled by the desperate need to have it all come true.

Melanie Safka, aka Melanie, in 2005.
Of course, all things didn’t come true – certainly not the aspirations of Woodstock. So in 1991, Melanie was on the road again. She performed the song, as well, on a Nashville television program. A lot had changed since Woodstock. She had renounced Meher Baba and had become a libertarian. Melanie still did the occasional tour, but she was now a devoted mother. Her performance of “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)” that evening revealed a truly different side of the song: a beautifully melancholic acceptance of those ideals that pass with youth. She didn’t cynically renounce the track’s sentiments, exactly, or turn it into a blatant act of nostalgia. Rather, Melanie made her signature song a wistful lament for the youth nation that didn’t find its own divine revelation. She did this without a hint of disillusionment in her rendering, in fact, she seemed at peace, even happy. Melanie sang as if she fondly remembered the moment when this tune said all it could say about what a young woman once dreamed possible in front of a thunderous crowd in the rain. Twelve years after the fact, in times more jaded than those she sang about, Melanie turned "Lay Down" into a lament, a song whose passions couldn't find that lasting fulfillment it promised. But she didn't lie about those hopes either.

Melanie is about to make an appearance at Koerner Hall in Toronto in May. The question remains: Is there anything more that she can possibly ring from this track? Who knows? "You can't compete with the power of gospel music," singer/songwriter Randy Newman once told writer Paul Zollo. "It almost makes you wonder. Not quite, but almost. You can combat it with reason, which is dry. It's not musical. Music's not reasonable." Which is why, despite the sometimes cloying nature of Melanie's other material, "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" does indeed defy reason.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) in April at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. His four-part lecture series, Film Music: A Neglected Art, continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, April 6th from 1pm-3pm.


  1. This was a great read

  2. haha........"susceptible to this stuff"....what do you mean by that?...

  3. Kevin replies to "Anonymous": What I mean is a susceptibility to gurus, which I've now amended in the copy. Thanks.