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Nina Simone: Defining her times

15 Feb 2022 | Written by By Chris Guiton

Image courtesy of Kroon, Ron / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons


Nina Simone was a rare spirit. One of the most distinctive musicians of her generation, she brought astonishing emotional intensity as well as technical skill to her recordings and performances.

She started playing the piano at the age of three and went on to study the classical repertoire, hoping to become the world’s first African American classical pianist. Denied a scholarship to the Curtis Institute of Music in Pennsylvania (turned down, she believed, because she was black), she began to play the piano and sing at an Atlantic City nightclub. This marked a turning point in her life and by the age of twenty-four she had signed to a New York-based jazz record label.  

She went on to release over 30 studio and live albums between 1958 and 1993, spanning jazz, blues, soul and pop. Many of her recordings were cover songs. But she always put her stamp on them, reflecting both her deep immersion in the jazz tradition and her earlier classical music education. 

Her music conveyed the breadth of black experience in the United States. And, not surprisingly, given her experience of Jim Crow laws and racist prejudice in her childhood, she used her talents to support the Civil Rights Movement.  

Simone carved out her own path in life and refused to be pigeon-holed or demeaned by the musical establishment. Combining music and politics in a way that became part of the evolution of American music. 

As she said: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their choice, but I CHOOSE to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself. That, to me, is my duty.”

We can let Nina Simone relate more of her story through five of her best songs which showcase her extraordinary musical talent.

  1. I Loves You, Porgy

This gorgeous version of the jazz standard from the George and Ira Gershwin opera Porgy and Bess was Simone’s first major hit in 1959. Released as a single off her debut album Little Girl Blue, it introduced the world to her striking vocal style and wonderful jazz piano technique. The emotional intensity of the recording captures perfectly the despair at the heart of the song. 

Sadly, Simone still only in her mid-20s at the time, sold the rights for the album for $3,000 to the record label (Bethlehem). This cost her a huge sum in lost royalties over the years and was an early lesson in the exploitative nature of the music business. 

Despite all that, the song helped launch her career and rightly became one of her signature tunes.

  1. Mississippi Goddam

Every now and then a song comes along that defines an epoch. “Mississippi Goddam” was one such song. It was Simone’s impassioned response to the racist murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi in 1963. And the subsequent bombing by a Ku Klux Klan member of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young African American girls.

She wrote the song in an hour, saying later, “First you get depressed, and after that, you get mad. And when these kids got bombed, I just sat and wrote this song.” The lyrics referred scornfully to the gratuitous insults that characterised racist language and the caution of public leaders. The reaction was swift. Radio stations in the South refused to play it. Several Southern states banned it, ostensibly because of the word “goddam”. Simone also found herself blacklisted by music venues.

But “Mississippi Goddam” struck an immediate chord with people in the civil rights struggle. It was a bold political statement, driven by an urgency uncommon in a jazz song. The song’s upbeat melody made an ironic contrast with the words. This was deliberate. As she sang: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.”

  1. I Ain’t Got No/I’ve Got Life

“Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” seems at first glance like an odd title for a song. But it was actually a medley of two songs from the hit musical ‘Hair’.  

The first song was a story of poverty and loss: “Ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes/Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class/Ain’t got no skirts, ain’t got no sweaters… Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no faith.” The second song was a glorious expression of what she did have: “I’ve got my fingers, got my legs/Got my feet, got my toes, got my liver/Got my blood/I’ve got life/I’ve got my freedom/Oh, I’ve got life.” 

Melded together, she not only created something new but offered a transformative vision of how the call for freedom could take the civil rights struggle to new heights. The passion she brought to the 1968 live recording below only underlining her sense of personal commitment. 

  1. To Be Young, Gifted and Black

With this song, the High Priestess of Soul gave explicit voice to the concept of black pride. The song was inspired by Simone’s friend and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the first Black writer to have a hit Broadway show. They had a shared passion for radical politics and Simone described Hansberry as deepening her political education. 

The title of the song comes from Hansberry’s autobiographical play, ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’. The play was unfinished, as Hansberry sadly died before completing it. But it provided Simone with the inspiration she needed. As she wrote the music, her bandleader Weldon Irvine wrote the lyrics. Her instructions to Irvine were simple: write something that: “will make black children all over the world feel good about themselves, forever.” 

The song demonstrated her skill at combining a simple but evocative melody with a distinctive message about the need for self-actualisation. It rapidly became an anthem of the civil rights movement. And the power of the song still resonates across the years.

  1. Who Knows Where the Time Goes

Nina Simone’s haunting version of folk-rock singer Sandy Denny’s classic just hits that spot. This undoubtedly relates to the strength of the original song, which is an intimate reflection on the eternal themes of love, loss and change. The song is rooted in melancholy. But it’s also a song about resilience and connection. About how we handle the things that fate throws at us.  

Nina Simone recorded it at a concert in New York in 1969. In a very personal introduction, she reflected on how time dictates our personal lives. This was a distinct shift from the anger or passion on display in earlier material such as “Mississippi Goddam”, “Four Women” or “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”. 

But she was posing a pertinent question: “At some time in your life you will have occasion to say what is this thing called time?” This was at a point where the civil rights movement was running out of steam after the assassination of Martin Luther King. And she was also experiencing personal disappointments. But what a performance! 

What do you think of Nina Simone? Do you have a favourite song by her? Let us know in the comments below!


 

Chris is a writer based in Crowborough, East Sussex who loves working with words. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, listening to music and hiking, as well as having a chat with friends over a pint of Harvey’s Best Bitter. He can be contacted at www.wealdenwordsmith.co.uk or you can write a comment to him below.

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