Speaker, speaker on the wall, how could a song be the greatest of all? One can only admit humbly which song has the most profound effect upon oneself. I admit this about Laura Nyro’s “Save The Country,” which in recent years always slays me, destroys me, wrecks me (cue Tom Petty’s wonderfully straightforward “You Wreck Me”), rattles my soul, quakes my foundations. It makes me cry with hope while I look up amazed at nuclear exploding religious images of salvation. She sings of a precious king — we have a precious king? We have a dove to ride? She sings so very brightly, “We’re gonna lay that devil down!”
About that devil . . .
“Save The Country” is an inspired civic gospel song on any hearing, but for some it has extra meaning in its historical context. For Nyro wrote “Save The Country” right after Bobby Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968. She wrote it to hurl spiritual defiance at the dark powers rampaging in her world. The song got its first recording by the end of the month.
For a nice discussion of how the song unfolds read Cheryl Graham, who steered me to this compelling live performance:
There is a deep descent in the song corresponding to the deep darkness of the year of assassinations. It’s the simple structure of her going deep that wrecks me. She starts out with a cheerful upreaching melody over I and IV chords:
Come on people, come on children
and then takes us
down to the glory river,
the river being physically a low place, lower than us in its stream bed, but here a sacred source of higher life for those who will be “washed.” To register that we are in this lower but deeply promising place, the chords are now switched around — IV to I — and the melodic figure starts from four steps lower than the song’s first note (your chin dips toward your chest when you sing it):
Gonna wash you up and wash you
Now we descend to the flat-VII chord —
which is not just serious-lower but sad-lower. There are two beats to feel this. Then we stroll thoughtfully for a couple of measures over some transition chords —
Gonna lay the devil down
followed by a feisty modulation to the ringing V chord:
gonna lay – that – devil – down!
That’s it. I’ve been drowned and resurrected — not in a grand opera way, rather in a brisk pop-song way. Oddly, the pop assurance is part of what slays me. It’s like brave little Jack dealing with the giant.
And what of my country? What about what’s going on? 1968 was a terrible year for America by some obvious measures, but I wasn’t grown up enough to feel that; personal discoveries were crowding my radar. “Save The Country” doesn’t remind me of that country’s plight — not consciously. What it references are some concerning years that have come later, always especially the current one.
Yet the history is worth thinking about. In 1968, after Nyro had sung so impressively
in my mind I can’t study war no more
Richard Nixon was elected, promising an honorable peace in Vietnam.
 The better version is on New York Tendaberry (1969).