As an English major at Hunter College in the sixties, Patricia Spence Rudden recalls “how exciting it was to discover Laura Nyro’s music in the midst of studying literature by ‘dead white males.’ Her music was very urban; I understood it almost immediately. I began to appreciate Nyro’s lyrics in a way that academics didnâ€™t at the time. I hoped that someday Iâ€™d be able to give her work the scholarly attention it deserved.”
Decades later, Rudden, an associate professor of English at New York City College of Technology/CUNY (City Tech) has succeeded in bringing the work of Nyro and other unique female artists to serious scholarly consideration. A new book that she edited, Singing for Themselves: Essays on Women in Popular Music, was released on November 1.
The book is notable not just for the depth of research that she and other scholars from various disciplines conducted on the cultural impact of female performers working in a gamut of genres, but also because it was produced by an academic publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
The compilation examines a continuum of performers, from blues icon Etta James to punk poet Patti Smith to rocker Melissa Etheridge. Most of the essays began as conference papers, selected by the Women’s Caucus of the Midwest Modern Language Association, which examined the music, lyrics and politics of such artists in the context of academic disciplines including poetry, philosophy, sociology and women’s studies.
Rudden’s contribution, “Stacking the Wax: The Structure of Laura Nyro’s Studio Albums,” was made possible in part by a PSC-CUNY research grant, which enabled her to spend time investigating Nyro’s highly praised recordings. “They were song cycles, a long form made up of smaller units, with themes,” Rudden explains. “She structured the albums and sequenced the songs very carefully, approaching them like a classical musician.”
In her essay, Rudden explored not only the artistic side of Nyro’s work, but also the technical aspect of its production, which she says Nyro took into account as she put together her records. “The two sides mirror or complement each other. This was a new thing at the time — you could listen to a record as you would listen to a symphony. Before that, an LP was just a collection of singles and fillers.” This idea of the “concept album” was also taken up by the Beatles and other male artists.
Shortly after the publication of Singing for Themselves, Rudden presented a paper, “‘Time To Design a Woman’: Laura Nyro’s Rhetoric of the Real,” at the 49th Annual Midwest Modern Language Association Convention, held in Cleveland — home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Also, at this conference, she coordinated two panels on “Women in Rock, Pop, Jazz and Rap: What You Know to be Real: Women’s Music, Women’s Reality,” pulling together six other writers to present papers on Tori Amos, Ferron and the Dixie Chicks, among others.
Rudden’s interest in sixties music (what she calls “old school”) took root when she was a teen in New City, New York, a hamlet in Rockland County, listening to “girl” groups and singers: the Crystals, Dionne Warwick, Etta James. Later, “women’s music” emerged: the predominantly folk/acoustic work of singer-songwriters outside the mainstream of rock music, such as Margie Adam, Holly Near and Cris Williamson, who recorded on independent record labels and formed their own production companies. The male-dominated 1970s music industry didn’t take them seriously, however, and such artists created virtually an “underground economy,” says Rudden.
Now, however, “Women’s music has matured,” affirms Rudden. “Some daring young things from the independent record labels years ago are ready to collect Social Security!” She gives examples of the current “indie” scene: Ani DeFranco starting her own label, the Indigo Girls being politically active in ways that are not marginalized, the enormously successful annual Lilith Fair growing out of events like the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. “There’s an audience now that there wasn’t before. Women aren’t afraid to listen to women.”
In her classes on American literature, Rudden occasionally refers to music from the ’60s and ’70s. Though most of her students aren’t familiar with it, she says, “When I mention certain people, I discover that somebody’s record has been revived for a car commercial, or on iTunes as a ‘golden oldie.’ Most of my students have heard of the Supremes, but not the more obscure people.”
She recognizes that teaching English at a college of technology has its challenges. “When you teach at City Tech you don’t get English majors. You have to persuade them to read literature; it’s not their first activity of choice. I want to help them see that there’s more to it than what’s going to be on a test. I try to share my excitement about my discoveries.”
Among her discoveries is the humor in the work of her other specialty, Herman Melville. “His work is hysterically funny,” she maintains, citing the narrator’s comic voice in the story “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Melville’s work may seem a far cry from the passionate writing and delivery of Nyro (born Laura Nigro), but Rudden, a longtime Greenwich Village resident, sees a common thread in their work. “Nyro was a New Yorker — look how she spelled her name — and Melville was, too. That connection is the strongest. As New Yorkers we look at things in a certain way. My work on Melville concentrates on his relationship to New York City.”
Though Nyro performed infrequently and died of cancer in 1997 at age 49, her songs have been recorded by music’s biggest stars, including Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra and Linda Ronstadt; appeared in “Broken Rainbow,” the Academy Award-winning documentary about the Diné (Navajo) people; and accompanied both the Alvin Ailey Dance Company and the Canadian Ballet.
Nyro’s feminist legacy lives on in such well-known compositions as “And When I Die” and “A Woman of the World,” and Rudden is now contemplating writing a book about her. “Something solid and academic,” she explains. “that will bring home the invaluable contributions she has made to our culture.”
New York City College of Technology (City Tech) of The City University of New York is the largest public college of technology in New York State. The College enrolls more than 13,500 students in 57 baccalaureate, associate and specialized certificate programs. Another 15,000 students enroll annually in adult education and workforce development programs, many of which lead to licensure and certification. Located at 300 Jay Street in Downtown Brooklyn, City Tech is at the MetroTech Center academic and commercial complex, convenient to public transportation.