Some might take it as a sign that I’ve achieved official Cleveland-citizen status.
I found myself paying close attention to an NPR piece on this year’s inductees to the Rock Hall of Fame, particularly the segment on Laura Nyro. I’ll confess to practically wearing out the needle on Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (yes, needle, which means vinyl – those really big, black CDs), her iconic 1968 album. Years later I graduated to the high tech world of cassette tapes, and her ’71 Labelle, Gonna Take a Miracle could play in my so-ugly-it-was-cute Gremlin.
What caught my ear was a brilliant interview about the new inductees’ early years when they were breaking into the business. Someone who knew her as well as he knew her music noted that Nyro’s work always did better commercially when it was covered by other artists than when she herself sang what she had written. She may have been the one to have written Stoned Soul Picnic and Sweet Blindness and Wedding Bell Blues (music and lyrics), but the 5th Dimension’s versions outsold her own by far; ditto when Blood, Sweat & Tears covered And When I Die - and Three Dog Night re-worked Eli’s Coming.
She certainly had the voice for radio – in those days the preeminent method of promoting record sales. But it was her style – or rather, her insistence on maintaining that style – that got in the way. The interviewee commented that the radio programmers – the real kingmakers - thought that her singing was too… complicated. Those other artists “took the nuances out” when they went to the recording studio. The words were the same, the notes the same – but the songs were subtly, yet entirely different. Record label execs, radio station programmers and even producers were telling her – sometimes directly but most of the time not – that she needed to smooth out her distinctions and put out something that would be “pleasing” (or, more pleasing) to more people. To sound like everyone else.
She either didn’t or simply couldn’t. The interview juxtaposed two takes on Nyro’s Save the Country, which she wrote after the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The 5th Dimension’s take was light, breezy and oddly uplifting, given the subject matter; Nyro’s own version was musically complex, almost dark. The most telling difference could be found in the last thirty seconds: the 5th Dimension ended with Save the country… now! - with an upbeat, clear and definitive pop on now! Nyro ended her version with Save the country… - with “country” trailing off in the distance, musically asking whether the country really could be saved.
Not for the first time I was taken with how much the field of education can learn from just about everywhere. How many times have schools and teachers and the assumptions of the society in which they exist demanded that their students write like someone else, think like someone else - learn like someone else? How many parents do the “Why aren’t you like ___?” dance? How many students, creative and passionate in art or science or literature ask themselves why they’re not similarly gifted in music or math or history?
This isn’t naiveté about the real world. In self-indulgent hindsight it’s easy to say that Nyro should have “stood her ground” and insisted that those Neanderthal producers and record execs play her version or none at all – except that getting her music out to a mass audience isn’t necessarily selling her soul to the devil, not to mention that there’s sometimes the small matter of making a living. Much of life is about choices and most of the time those choices are not black and white decisions. Students do need to try to get into math as much as music (and the other way around), even if it doesn’t come naturally to them; they do need to listen to others and learn from them. But there’s a huge difference between learning from someone else and mimicking them to the point of committing human plagiarism.
When people display the type of personal passion that distinguishes them from others, their teachers and their school need to reinforce that passion and applaud until their hands turn red. When the Laura Nyro of the fifth grade turns out a magnificently different essay, read it for what it is, not for what it isn’t.
Child I am here to stand by you
And you will find
Your own way hard and true…
To a Child
Music and lyrics by Laura Nyro
Jerry D. Isaak-Shapiro
Head of School