Stoned Soul Picnic (1968)

Laura Nyro

Written by Laura Nyro
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Stoned Soul Laura Nyro pink gownLaura Nyro (Neer-o) cannot be easily categorized. She brings to her songs elements of Rock, Jazz, Soul, Opera, Folk and 1960s Avant Garde Art pop, even Musical Theater. “Stoned Soul Picnic” doesn’t rock in the conventional sense but rolls and rolls and rolls.

Its quirky lyrics, including a made-up verb, surry, are opulently dreamy, a complex meditation on a day – maybe in the country – when the world is at ease, nature’s arms welcoming. An odd sojourn for a young woman who had been raised in The Bronx and schooled at the Ethical Culture Society and New York’s High School of Art and Music. Her summers at Catskill Mountain resorts where her father played trumpet for various bands may hold the key to her love of nature.

“Stoned Soul Picnic” – a synthesis of New York influences

Yet, Nyro is quintessentially “New York.” The cityscape at night, – her biggest-selling single was a cover of The Drifters’ “Up On The Roof” – the secrets in hallways, the sour milk smell in summer, the eye-glazing throngs, the quest for refuge, the glory, the failure, and longings dwell in her voice. Perhaps it’s the unsolvable tension between city and country that gives her songs their clout.

“Stoned Soul Picnic” is a stately song, proceeding like a queen through the streets of her capital city. Underneath there are many textured rhythms and counter rhythms, the singer providing her own harmonies off the beat. It has the kind of soul that flows up subway steps, or across a freshet in an upstate New York summer. There is plenty of Harlem in the song. There is a touch of the Jazz band. There are moments when Laura’s singing metamorphoses almost into an early form of Rap.

Can you surry?
Stoned Soul Nyro on fire escapeCan you picnic?
Can you surry?
Can you picnic?

C’mon, c’mon and
Surry down to a stoned soul picnic
Surry down to a stoned soul picnic
There’ll be lots of thyme and wine
Red yellow honey
Sassafras and moonshine
Red yellow honey
Sassafras and moonshine
Stoned Soul
Stoned Soul

The singer-songwriter said of the word surry, “Oh, it’s just a nice word.” She would employ this word invention on the title of what is perhaps her most well-known album, New York Tendaberry. 

There’s a tender moment ripe as a berry and voila, the tendaberry is born.

“Picnic” is no slouch in the recognition game. It reached #3 on the charts for the smooth, jazzy group The Fifth Dimension of “Up, Up And Away” fame.

“Stoned Soul Picnic” is from Laura’s album Eli and the Thirteenth Confession (a title that neatly blends Nyro’s Jewish and Italian ethnic background). Album Eli also gave the world Three Dog Night’s monster hit single “Eli’s Comin.”

She sprinkles some magic sunlit motes, capturing a New York version of the hippie visionary code:

stoned soul nyro overlooking nyThere’ll be trains of blossoms
There’ll be trains of music
There’ll be music
There’ll be trains of trust
Trains of golden dust
Come along a surry oh
Sweet trains of thought
Surry on down
Can you surry?
Can you surry?

The lines anticipate by a year Joni Mitchell’s line from “Woodstock,” “We are stardust, we are golden.” It’s dreamy, druggie, out over the glowing city and the folksy mountains beyond, but Nyro’s earthiness grounds it. No matter what she’s singing, you know she believes in it.

Her producer and arranger for “Stoned Soul” and its mother album was Charlie Calello, who also worked with artists like Frank Sinatra, Al Kooper, Bruce Springsteen, Barbra Streisand and Ray Charles.

Stoned Soul apartment

Laura Nyro’s apartment, left 

The electric guitarist on the record was Hugh McCracken, famed for, among other tracks, the lines laid down on “Brown-Eyed Girl.” His sharper style contrasts with the etherealness Nyro creates.

Her flutist was Joe Farrell, who played with the likes of Maynard Ferguson, Charlie Mingus and Hall & Oates. Bassist Chuck Rainey played with Steely Dan and Aretha among others. Nyro plays piano with passion and some technical ability. Slipping in and out of the background are African percussion, saxophones, trumpets. It’s as beautiful as a song gets.

And, it’s not blue-eyed soul, a somewhat back-handed compliment when used too loosely. “Stoned Soul” comes rising out of one young woman’s soul directly, the express track, not the local. To borrow from Bob Dylan, Laura Nyro knew how “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free.” She was innovative, meticulous in detail, and exudes a sense of freedom and possibility that is as pointed half a century later as it was when it was recorded.

Surry on down.

 

mangoids
  • Laura Nyro said in an interview in 1970, about music and art and communication, ““The world is going through a moral revolution and sometimes I feel like a mirror in a storm—a mirror that’s smashed against the earth.”
  • She also said: “Since my first album (Eli and the Thirteenth Confession), I wrote these songs, and, when I sit down to write, there ain’t nothin’ but me and the piano. I know that there are a lot of people who write for a market. I can’t do that . . . that’s out. When I sit down at the piano, I don’t think about other people—will they think this or be that?—I sit down and the communication comes from my heart and on to the paper and the piano… that’s where it is and, if it communicates from there—beautiful.”

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