Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) - Melanie with the Edwin Hawkins Singers
This deserves to be played LOUD.
In 1968 a Californian gospel choir recorded an album to raise funds so that they could travel to Washington DC to compete in a national choir competition, in which they came second. Meanwhile, back in California, a radio deejay had discovered a track off the album, one "Oh Happy Day" which became a local hit, took off and within two years had become a massive worldwide success. It would make a great movie, if someone hasn't already done it.
Meanwhile, a diminutive folk singer, with a lorry load of guts and personality, Melanie Safka had for a couple of years been alternating between the coffee bars of Greenwich Village in her New York hometown and the Euro tv pop circuit garnering a couple of hits in Holland and France along the way. Bizarrely, presumably on the strength of this, or more likely someone important who had heard her powerful singing deciding she would be the ideal fill for a rain break, she became only one of three solo women artists to play at Woodstock in 1969.
The audience, never having heard of her, fell in love. When she sang her passionate pean to the love culture "Beautiful People" the audience spontaneously responded with the first ever mass show of lit matches, candles and cigarette lighters. This moved her so much, she wrote this song about it. In fact, the whole Woodstock experience moved her so much, she spent most of the next few years appearing in every major outdoor festival going, even turning up to be the only non-local performer to defy a legal injunction banning a Connecticut festival to play to a defiant 30,000 strong audience. You get it, she may look sweet and demure, but Melanie has balls.
So, she wrote the song, and said to her producer "wouldn't it be great if we could record it with the Edwin Hawkins Singers?". A few days' later, he told her he had rung Edwin and he had agreed and so as Melanie remembers, she and her producer flew across America and walked in on the singers in rehearsal. She thought it had all been arranged but:
".....when we walked in they were in the middle of a song. They trailed off and all looked at me. A white girl with a guitar and a wildly gesticulating man standing next to her. Peter ran up to Edwin Hawkins who was playing the piano. What I'm certain of is that he wasn't apologising for barging in on their rehearsal. I thought Peter had prearranged this meeting. Apparently it was a surprise visit! So in this spirit of ("I wish I could crawl under a seat and hide") I sang my heart out on a solo version of “Lay Down.” When I got to the second chorus, the Edwin Hawkins Singers joined in."
She's too modest. Can you imagine it? This little, white, ultra-hippy woman coming in with her guitar, and singing in front of one of the most powerful black gospel choirs in the world - and they listen,..........and then..........they join in.
This version is the original recording they made later the same day, and it still has the surprise and energy of the sudden discovery of their meeting, their mutual pleasure as they fugue off each another's power and melody, the energy rippling backwards and forwards like some graceful arcing power cable set free by an electric storm.
For the hit single, they cut out the introduction, including the hippy dippy poetry with its very Melanie combination of kookiness and disarming sincerity, but this version has since become the definitive version.
And there's so much to enjoy: the elation and energy of the choir, the punch piano, the bongos, the bass line, the beautiful and weirdly mythical harmonies between the double-tracked Melanie as she sings:
"......we were so close, there was no room we bled inside each others wounds we all had caught the same disease and we all sang the songs of peace....."
the moment when she takes off, her voice climbing like a bird keening upwards in a giant sky:
".......so raise the candles high
'cause if you don't we could stay black against the night
oh, raise them higher again
and if you do we could stay dry against the rain......."
and then, never, twenty years before Enya, have backing singers sounded so ethereal as they do as she sings:
"....some came to sing, some came to pray some came to keep the dark away......"
and then the exploding interplay with the choir as it cuts loose:
".....so raise the candles high 'cause if you don't we could stay black against the sky oh, oh, raise them higher again and if you do we could stay dry against the rain....."
and as if we weren't all emotionally exhausted by now, there's the accelerating handclaps, the pleasure of the choir as they ever so gradually fizzle out, make a stab at a brave return as someone grabs a tambourine, before collapsing gloriously under the wait of their own exuberance and pleasure.
And, not least, there are Melanie's luminous words which are like the finale of some lost fantasy epic of darkness and light.
....lay down, lay down, let it all down let your white birds smile up at the ones who stand and frown..."