Thursday, December 3, 2009

Leftovers (Drugs): Stoned Soul Picnic

Laura Nyro: Stoned Soul Picnic


The 5th Dimension: Stoned Soul Picnic


Laura Love: Stoned Soul Picnic


Jill Sobule: Stoned Soul Picnic


It was the summer of 1968, a year before Woodstock, a year after the impromptu San Francisco gathering popularly referred to as the Summer of Love: the free love movement was thick in the air, and though the history books have surely magnified the scale of American awareness and participation in the movement, those of us conceived in the midst of it all have been taught to believe that hope was everywhere.

Into the midst of this swamp of countercultural change came two versions of a song: one by its author Laura Nyro, a popular white R&B and soul singer, the other by the popular African-American R&B quintet The 5th Dimnension, who would go on to chart with the Aquarius theme to the musical Hair in the following year. The dual versions became part of the bridge across the rapidly-closing racial divide, and within weeks, Stoned Soul Picnic was atop both the popcharts and the Black Singles Charts; according to apocryphal record, the song was sung on "every street corner", and - given its simplicity and its message - it's easy to see why.

As much as it reflects the civil rights aspect of the sixties counterculture, Stoned Soul Picnic is a product of its times on its lyrical and sensual merits, too. It's hard to figure out what, if anything, this song is really about, beyond the strange feeling that anything could happen, and should, if people would only join together in communal celebration. Other than the word "stoned" in the chorus and title, there's no direct mention of drugs or drug-taking; this is a promise of mood, not an instruction booklet for a movement.

But there's no denying the summery, soulful, swaying melody line of both original versions, which maintains a tone that clings to subsequent covers as if it were an inevitable aspect of the song. And the organic visualizations of nature that show up in every verse sound like a great trip, indeed.

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