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Music

Laura Nyro's "Save the Country" Calls Out from the Past

Laura Nyro (New York Tendaberry, 1969) (stylized)

Laura Nyro, a witchy, queer, ethnic Russian Jew, died young, but her non-conformist anthem, "Save the Country", carries forth to these troubled times.

Lately I've been putting up signs along the freeway. Large pieces of cardboard, longer than I am tall, that were once boxes for bicycles or furniture, are flattened out, whitewashed, then lettered in black. I secure the signs inside chainlink overpasses, so that drivers and passengers may glance upward as they drive under the bridge and fix their eyes for a moment on a simple message: SAVE THE COUNTRY.

In June 1968, within hours of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, Laura Nyro wrote an upbeat, gospel-tinged call for unity that recalls the quirky optimism of the American Songbook. Its exuberant melody and ecstatic chorus rouse the listener to action, but like the old-time spirituals it also evokes, "Save the Country" reveals a mournful irony below its anthemic verse.

In the four-bar intro, Nyro's piano ambles and syncopates through a simple D-major progression, carefree and unhurried. Her voice, both joyful and insistent, sounds a clarion call:

Come on people, come on children
Come on down to the glory river
Gonna wash you up and wash you down

The verse hews to the major pentatonic scale, lending it a comforting, familiar feel, but on the word "down" Nyro plays an unexpected C-major chord — a step down from the tonic — giving the lyrical baptism a twinge of blue. On the last line of the first stanza, Nyro decelerates as the melody descends, playing an emphatic, dedicated chord for each syllable:

Gonna lay. that. devil. down.

Picking up speed again, she returns to the verse and repeats her plea:

Come on, people, come on, children
There's a king at the glory river
And the precious king, he loved the people to sing
Babes in the blinking sun sang 'We Shall Overcome'

From the imagery of sun-washed innocents lifting their collective voice to an earnest appeal, in the third verse, to "keep the dream of the two young brothers", the song is a hopeful counterpart to the darkly acerbic protests of Nyro's contemporaries. But by June 1968 the king was gone, both brothers were gone, and the children were conscripted to war.

World-weary beyond her years, Nyro was only 21 when she wrote "Save the Country". That same year, I was a preschool child who felt, for the first time, the power of music to inspire and transport. Left to fend for myself emotionally, my childhood comprised days of gauzy solitude, adrift in the shifting storms of my parents' disintegrating marriage. I found a foothold in the sound coming from the radio, and clung to the certainty of a self-contained pop song.

I remember hearing Bobby Goldsboro sing "Honey", a cloying, manipulative tearjerker, and truly one of the worst pop songs of all time. But when its simpering angel choir fell on my sensitive six-year-old ears, I began to cry spontaneously, convulsively, until my mother asked me what was wrong. I couldn't tell her. I had already learned to keep my feelings to myself, sensing that to stay safe amid the discord of my parents' lives, I had to make my own go quiet.

Nyro's mercurial shifts in tempo and melancholy undertones are probably what drew me to her music in the first place. Lurking below the poppy veneer of her most well-known hits lays a rueful sadness, expressed by notes I couldn't name but chords I could feel. I would be well into adulthood before I learned her name and realized that all of those songs on the radio, by Blood Sweat & Tears, Barbra Streisand, and most notably, the 5th Dimension, whose polished southern California harmonies seemed ubiquitous at end of the decade, were written by a woman who was barely old enough to vote.

When I listen to The 5th Dimension's version of "Save the Country" now, I'm dumbstruck. Despite its gospel organ, rhythmic tambourine and persistent hand-claps high in the mix, the quintet's rendition is so sanitized that it's barely distinguishable from an advertising jingle; "Come on down to the discount shoe store" scans just as easily. In a videotaped performance from a 1990s telethon, they even choreograph the song, making window-wiping motions on "wash you up and wash you down", their silver-sequined costumes twinkling in the spotlight sun.

"Save the Country" was released as a single in 1969, followed by its appearance on New York Tendaberry (Columbia, 1969) the second in a trio of albums considered to be Nyro's masterpiece. The record company hired The 5th Dimension's arranger to produce the song, in the hopes of a Billboard hit.

The first half of the track is pure, unadorned Nyro. Her voice is fervent and unrestrained, accompanied by her signature syncopation and capricious tempo on piano. But then, at what sounds like the song's climax, a tambourine begins to rattle in time, and we're off to the races in an epic two-minute outro. A chorus joins in, then an organ piles on, interspersed with brass accents, conga drums, an invigorating glockenspiel run, more vocals, and guitar, until the whole thing erupts in the breathless ecstasy of a tent revival.

But it was not what Nyro intended, and she vowed never to compromise her vision again.

To experience the song the way Nyro meant it to be, I turn to a rare television performance from 1971, preserved in a grainy YouTube video. Nyro sits at the piano, silent for nearly five seconds before beginning to play. She appears self-absorbed but self-assured, confident in her clear mastery of the material, changing the tempo and the dynamics on the fly. Pounding the piano like the percussion instrument it is, she punctuates the notes as her voice inhabits its full dynamic range, alternating from a near whisper to a feral growl on the last word: "Save the country now."

It's a thrilling performance, but it's also hard to watch. Because unlike The 5th Dimension's sunny stylings, Nyro's performance is untidy. She rolls her eyes back in her head, flips her unruly hair out of her face, and disregards the studio audience entirely. Her physical presence embodies the music, with its deft, unpredictable chord changes, and her old-soul lyrics are suffused with mystery. She's fully in command of her powers, while also displaying the shyness and reticence of a performer who eschewed celebrity; her music was about expression, not entertainment.

But maybe what's difficult about this clip is that it forces me to grapple with my own contradictory feelings. Nyro was, as they say today, a lot. Her vocal style, a wanton, uninhibited head voice, is an acquired taste, and her refusal to play the pop star game could make her seem aloof. The 5th Dimension may have been choreographed, color-coordinated, and overly-produced, but their versions of Nyro's songs sold millions and brought her music to a wider audience.

The significance of five African Americans sliding into white's living rooms through their TVs and radios at a time when many of those people wouldn't have otherwise invited them in cannot be understated. That they rose to fame with songs written by a witchy, queer, ethnic Russian Jew is icing on the cake.

When Kanye West sampled "Save the Country" for his track " The Glory", I wondered whether he understood that the lyric he pitched-shifted into oblivion, can't study war no more, held a biblical reference and pacifist message, or whether he simply lifted the line in the service of his own ego and glory. I'm no fan of West's and his appropriation of this song I hold dear, but I'm happy that, thanks to the double-platinum sales of his album, people who weren't born while Nyro was alive found their way to her video and left comments saying "Kanye brought me here."

I realize that I, too, am appropriating Nyro's song for my own ends, infusing it with an urgency she could never foresee. In 2020, the state of the nation seems more imperiled than ever. But I also understand that my freeway signs can no more save the country than a four-minute pop song can. Nevertheless, this solitary, stealthy act of rebellion, inspired by a 50-year-old song that is daily more relevant, feels like doing something.

I know the reference will be lost on most people who drive by, and like Nyro, I have no control over how the message is received. Some of the people in those cars probably think the country needs saving from the likes of me, another queer woman artist who believes, despite learning at an early age to silence my own voice, that music might not save the country, but it can save me.

Laura Nyro brought me here.

Photo: Cheryl Graham. Eastbound Interstate 80 in Iowa City.

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