Friday, December 17, 2010

No Chains On Me

I'm a latecomer to music, which makes all the old music a treasure trove I can dip into without having those emotional strings which mean so much for most listeners in music: Where did I hear this song first? What did I feel then? Was that a good time in my life?

Not having that web of memories is also a loss. But the benefit is that I can surf music without any preconditions, without assuming that only music from a certain era should speak to me and (finally, for me) without caring if the music I find fascinating is generally thought to be good or not. Coming from someone whose singing of a sad song made the whole class of kids burst laughing, I'd say I've come a loooong way.

That preamble may be to explain why I get hooked on certain songs for a while and then move on. But I keep coming back to Laura Nyro, and probably not just for musical reasons. There's something powerful about her, something I can't quite define. An audacity? And then there's the fact that she is not as famous as she should be, given her work, and how that ties into feminism.

To see what I mean by that audacity, compare the lyrics in Black Coffee (sung by Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee, among others) and Laura Nyro's When I Die. Both are great songs, and I'm not intending to present them as somehow being in the same category of songs, as somehow being really comparable. They belong to different genres and eras and their purpose is different. It's the lyrics that matter here, the way they either encourage you to feel stronger and more powerful or don't, and what women say in songs they sing.

From the lyrics:
Now a man is born to go a lovin'
A woman's born to weep and fret
To stay at home and tend her oven
And drown her past regrets
In coffee and cigarettes

Jump from that to Laura Nyro's And When I Die:

The relevant lyrics:
Give me my freedom for as long as I be. All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.
All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,
and all I ask of dying is to go naturally, only want to go naturally.

Remember that I'm not comparing the two songs as an analytical exercise; I'm trying to explain what it is about Laura Nyro's music that draws me, what it is in her message that is different from the general messages to women before her time*, what it is that makes her sound so indomitable. Even today.
*She wasn't the first one to sing differently, of course. Blues has a long history of strong songs by women, for example.