Smith Becomes Latest Tour Stop for Boston Musician

lydiawarrenLike many Ada Comstock Scholars, Lydia Warren’s path to Smith has been roundabout, filled with detours, endeavors and experiences gained through hard work and wits.

In Warren’s case, her life before Smith was that of a blues musician—performing as a singer and guitarist in smoky clubs, building an audience while cultivating her style and musical chops, spending months at a time on the road.

It was an education of a different kind than Smith offers, though no less rich in knowledge and insight.

As the Ada Comstock Program celebrates the 136th anniversary of Ada Comstock’s birth, on December 11, 1876, the program also celebrates 37 years, since its founding, of providing a place for women like Lydia Warren AC‘14J, who have lived some life, to rediscover and resume their intellectual exploration.

“The Ada program is the perfect fit for me,” says Warren. “The fact that programs like this exist, for people who don’t follow the conventional path, is so refreshing.”

“Ada Comstock graduated from high school at age 15, became a college president when most women didn’t have the opportunity to attend college and married for the first time at age 67,” notes Sid Dalby, associate director of admission. “Ada did things in her own time, in her own way, just like our current Ada Comstock Scholars.”

For Warren, there was little doubt about what she wanted to do after high school. From the time she recorded and self-produced her first album, as a high school senior in Franklin, Mass., her life has revolved around music, and she has built a successful career as a performer, traveling to festivals, selling her albums and frequenting clubs in the greater Boston area.

It was only a few years ago, after about a decade of that life, that Warren considered going back to school. The national economy had taken a hard hit, and while that might be fodder for more poignant blues, it wasn’t good for business. Many clubs closed, strapped municipalities cut back their arts budgets, gigs were drying up.

Warren enrolled in courses, first at MassBay Community College in Framingham, Mass., then at Middlesex Community College, in Bedford, Mass., from which she graduated in 2010 with an associate’s degree in music.

Even after her acceptance to Smith, the blues weren’t quite ready to relinquish Warren to full-time academia. She deferred her admission for a semester to travel to Amsterdam for a months-long performance tour. It was another notch on her world-traveling resume, having performed in Lebanon, Italy, Germany, Canada, and all across the United States.

Not that Warren has given up on the blues or music now that she’s an Ada Comstock Scholar. She has continued to perform during her Smith career, and plans to camp out in the recording studio for three days during the upcoming holiday break to record her sixth album.

For that matter, blues plays a central role in her academic study as well. Formally a music major, Warren is also completing a certification in ethnomusicology, with an emphasis on blues.

“Blues hasn’t been widely analyzed as a musical discipline from the inside,” she explains. “As someone who’s come up in the blues world, I hope I can study blues from an informed perspective.”

Since about age 15, it’s always been about the blues for Warren, a rock bass player at the time. After viewing a video of legendary bluesman Albert King, she knew what she wanted. She went to her father, a fellow guitarist, and “I said, ‘I want to trade in my bass equipment and get a guitar.’”

Her father accommodated her passion, accompanying her to clubs and introducing her to other musicians. Soon enough, Warren struck out on her own as a performer—a standout as a young female teen among seasoned blues musicians.

It’s a status Warren has been comfortable with ever since, fronting stages worldwide and now embarking on uncharted academic territory.

Standing out and blazing new paths are notions Ada Comstock—an 1897 Smith graduate who became the first female president of Radcliffe—would be comfortable with, whether it’s breaking new ground for women in academia or playing the blues.