Dec. 07--In August 1969, Melanie Safka's mother hit heavy traffic on their way to Max Yasgur's dairy farm for the Woodstock Music & Art Fair.
Safka thought an accident caused the stoppage -- until traffic never cleared up.
More than 400,000 people crammed into White Lake, New York, to watch Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, Jefferson Airplane and dozens of other musicians perform in Yasgur's field.
Then 22, Safka -- known professionally as Melanie -- had traveled from England for the three-day festival, which she thought would be a small crowd of "families and picnic blankets and a little stage somewhere."
Her husband, Peter Schekeryk, worked in a New York City office near several of the Woodstock organizers, who had offered Safka a slot a year in advance.
Safka's performing expertise was limited to tiny concerts in Greenwich Village coffee shops. The massive Woodstock audience terrified her.
Guitarist Richie Havens opened the festival while Safka waited in a tent for her cue to go on. Organizers continually told her she was up next but never brought her onstage.
"This went on all day, and the terror was mounting to the point where I thought I was going to die," said Safka, now 70. "Some people always say, 'You must have had a great old time. What was it like hanging out with Jimi Hendrix?' I can't even go there. I wasn't hanging out. I was in terror."
She began coughing uncontrollably from the fear while sitting by herself in her tiny B-lister tent.
After a few minutes, Baez's assistant -- "this little hippie girl," Safka said -- brought over a mug of tea with honey and lemon, explaining that Baez heard the hacking.
"(She) was my hero," Safka said. "It's like you got an invitation from St. Anne-de-Beaupre. That was my Woodstock bolstering, that she came to my rescue."
At 11 p.m., the singer finally came on as a replacement for the Incredible String Band, which backed out after a downpour drenched the field.
"I thought, 'Everyone will leave the field. They're going to go home,'" Safka said.
Instead, hippie entertainer Wavy Gravy passed out candles and urged concertgoers to hold them high.
Twinkling flames filled the night like fireflies, she said, introducing the now-standard practice of waving lighters and cellphone lights at music events. (Her song "Lay Down (Candles in the Rain)" documents the experience.)
Safka will take the audience back to Woodstock during an 8 p.m. show tonight at Notes.
Her short Woodstock set turned the introverted ingenue into something of a star, with her quirky 1971 hit "Brand New Key" reaching No. 1 on the Billboard charts. She performed on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and earned excellent reviews from The New York Times.
Then, as suddenly as her Woodstock set propelled her to fame, she backed away, turning down every major label who wanted her on its roster.
"The music, it was sacred," she said. "It was something I couldn't compromise."
Heads of record companies wanted to dictate her style and sound, Safka said, and she refused to relinquish creative control for fame.
"Now people are celebrities for being famous. You don't even know what they do," she said. "Do they sing, do they act? Who's Kim Kardashian? People's motivation for making music is so much different from where I was coming from, and I turned against that."
She continued to make music independently, with her husband producing all of her more than 30 albums but one.
He died in 2010, while Safka was buying groceries during a tour stop.
The singer was crushed but carried out the rest of the performances.
Her son -- Beau Jarred, who performs with her on the road -- has since taken over his father's producer role. Both of Safka's two daughters are also musicians, even though their mother tried to dissuade them.
"I wanted them to be anything but a performer or writer," she said. "Go be in veterinary medicine, work with dogs. Don't do (music). But that's what we know."
Now 50 years into her career, Safka knows she made the right choice after Woodstock.
"I think I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I get letters from people who said my music saved their lives," she said. "Not my dress, not my dancing, not my fishnet stockings, not my butt. It was my music, my music I protected my whole life."
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