Melanie Safka obituary: Folk singer thrown into fame at Woodstock

The song What Have They Done to My Song Ma became one of her trademark pieces, and inspired numerous cover versions

Born February 3rd, 1947

Died January 23rd, 2024

It was her appearance at the Woodstock festival in upstate New York in August 1969 that helped propel Melanie Safka to stardom. Performing as Melanie, she had already released two albums, which had not created much of a stir, but Woodstock allowed her to catch the wind of countercultural change sweeping the US. “I had never performed in front of so many people in my life,” she told Rolling Stone. “I was just thrown into it, and I had my first out-of-body experience.”

The sight of the half-million-strong crowd lighting candles inspired her to write Lay Down (Candles in the Rain), from her third album, Candles in the Rain, released a few months later in 1970. This was a rousing soul-gospel anthem featuring the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and gave her a US top 10 hit single. It was also a splendid advertisement for the range and raw power of her voice, demonstrating that Safka, who has died aged 76, was far from the wispy folk singer the press had tended to pigeonhole her as.

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The Candles in the Rain album was a mixture of original material and intensely felt cover versions of James Taylor’s Carolina in My Mind and the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday (the latter a UK Top 10 hit), and reached 17 in the US and 5 on the British chart. There was further proof of Melanie’s range and ambition in the somewhat Kurt Weill-ish song What Have They Done to My Song Ma, partly sung in French. It became one of her trademark pieces, reaching the UK Top 40 and inspiring cover versions by numerous artists including Nina Simone, Ray Charles and the New Seekers.

She scored her biggest hit in 1971 with Brand New Key, which topped the US chart and reached No 4 in Britain en route to selling three million copies worldwide. The chorus of “I’ve got a brand new pair of roller-skates, you’ve got a brand new key” proved irresistibly catchy, though the song was banned on some US radio stations, who suspected it of being some kind of sexual innuendo.

She later said the song “doomed me to be cute the rest of my life”.

She was born in the Astoria district of Queens, New York, and grew up in Long Branch, New Jersey. Her father, Frederick Safka, was Ukrainian, while her mother, Pauline (nee Altomare), a jazz singer, came from an Italian background. Her parents separated when Melanie was five, and she was raised by her mother, who encouraged her to sing. “I grew up listening to a lot of blues and jazz, like Billie Holiday,” she recalled. “I discovered Kurt Weill and Edith Piaf in my mid-teens. I think my whole style of singing began with a dream to sound like Lotte Lenya.”

She began performing at 16, at venues such as the Inkwell coffee house and later took acting classes at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, while also singing in Greenwich Village clubs.

Her entry to the recording industry happened by chance, when she had been for an acting audition on Broadway. She had brought a guitar with her, and caught the eye of an employee of the music publishers Hugo & Luigi. She was invited to perform her songs, and impressed the producer Peter Schekeryk, who coincidentally was Ukrainian-born. He became not only her producer but also her husband and father of their three children.

After Woodstock, she appeared at more festivals, including in 1971 at the Glastonbury fair, the forerunner of the Glastonbury festival. She returned in 2011, marking the 40th anniversary of the original event.

The 1971 album, Gather Me, which featured Brand New Key, went Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1989 she received an Emmy award for her lyrics to the song The First Time I Loved Forever, the theme from the TV series Beauty and the Beast, and in 2007, she won rave reviews for her performance at the Meltdown festival on the South Bank in London, curated by Jarvis Cocker.

Peter died in 2010, and in 2012 she wrote the music for a stage musical about him, Melanie and the Record Man.

She is survived by two daughters, Leilah and Jeordie, and a son, Beau.

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