Nina Simone and Piano!

Posted in Piano, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2018 by Richard

The news that today is being celebrated as National Album Day has inspired me to post the following text on Nina Simone’s 1969 masterpiece Nina Simone and Piano! It’s a text that’s being lying dormant for a few years and now seems a good time to do something with it.

The concept shouldn’t have been so surprising. Hadn’t it always been Nina Simone and piano? Hadn’t the piano always been the black freighter on which Pirate Nina had delivered her righteous anger, her vengeance? Hadn’t the instrument been her constant companion as she conquered the supper club set, attached herself to the civil rights movement, and became part of the counterculture? At the heart of all her triumphs, and not a few of her defeats, there had always been Nina Simone and piano. Sitting down at the instrument in late 1968, in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, that longevity must have been palpable. And memory too: the memory of her teacher Miss Mazzy, of her parents’ nurturing of her early talent, of her shame and outrage when they were asked to move from the front row of her first recital to make room for a white couple, of the support of the citizens of Tryon, North Carolina, of her time at Juilliard, of the rejection by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

The time she spent as a nightclub pianist; the lessons she gave to make a living; the night she was told she had to sing if she wanted to keep her job; the finding of a voice; the bliss of mixing Bach, boogie and blues: all of these and more were laid out before her in September 1968, like the keys of her life, like the notes of a tune for a show still being written. Then there was the voice she had found in the wake of coming through, of being blasted by the reality of America then and there and always, a tool that soon became a weapon. Who’d have known how powerful that ‘little voice’ would turn out to be? Who’d have thought it would become the thing she was known for, not piano, not classical music, not jazz music, not fleet-fingered dexterity, but voice, the voice of those she’d come to refer to as ‘my people’, though people and voice and politics had been the furthest from her mind when she’d been working on her Bach and Czerny as a girl in North Carolina. Voice and word as holy weapons, the channelled power of gospel reinvented as the Church of Nina, that history-sent incentive to turn the stage into a site for the converting of souls, a place where she and they could finally come through. A voice and another weapon – piano! – that could be hauled through the tumult of the sixties to witness, at the decade’s weary close, a point where so many hopes lay burned, tattered, and scattered to the wind, so many dreams deferred, a point where the mountain top seemed as far away as ever.

To have come within sight of a possible future and to have come only to this silence of defeat. And in that silence to sit down, without a band, without those musicians of whom she’d say ‘they are an extension of me or they don’t play with me’, to sit down without them, in RCA’s Studio B in New York, alone again naturally. To reach out one hand, and then another, to engage with the keyboard and then, as was now expected, to add voice, to proclaim the words of others and make them her own. It shouldn’t have been surprising but it was. This was something she hadn’t been given a chance to do before, to let out into the world a set of songs delivered by just Nina Simone and piano. No wonder that, in that era of gushing LP liner notes, disc jockey Tom Reed would claim that here, as if for the first time, record buyers could consume ‘pure Nina’.

Maybe this wasn’t so much pure Nina as secret Nina, the one who placed herself ‘between the keys of a piano’ and admitted that ‘my secret self is between these worlds’. The piano keyboard has frequently been used as a metaphor for race relations, for spatial proximity, a fuller picture of the dialectic of sharp and flat, of the possibility and necessity for harmony. In the 1930s it inspired the League of Coloured Peoples to name its official journal The Keys, while half a century later, in 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder took the metaphor to the top of many countries’ charts with the sentimental but resonant ‘Ebony and Ivory’. But beyond the temptingly metaphorical layout of its keyboard, the piano has acted in other ways as an integration machine. You could play Beethoven and the blues on the banjo if you wanted to – Pete Seeger did, much to the delight of his audience – but the piano allowed a way of moving between these musical worlds that was less forced, less about surprise for the sake of it and more about the ways in which musical languages had been honed at the keyboard and with the keyboard in mind. More pertinently, the piano was an instrument that existed in different public and private spheres and that could act as one of the few constants available to a young girl crossing the tracks from the black neighbourhoods to the white to take her lessons, or to a young woman moving from the salon to the saloon, or from the conservatoire to the concert hall. ‘I always had the piano’, Simone would tell Maya Angelou in a 1970 interview, ‘In either world. I began to understand something about what is called “classical music”. Its structure, its points of convergence. Its reason. And that was good.’

In that same interview she recalled, ‘I had my piano, my parents, my people, my church. The electricity of religion. I had my joys.’ These joys, this passion, would see her through dark times, such as the moment her dreams of being a classical concert pianist were shattered when Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute denied her the chance to study further. As she continued with her classical training, and as she turned increasingly towards the performance of popular music – first as a pianist and singer in a variety of night clubs in Philadelphia and New York, then as an increasingly successful recording artist, Simone’s constant companion was the piano. Following an ultimately unsuccessful contract with the independent Bethlehem label, she signed to Colpix and released a number of albums in quick succession. Moving to the Philips label in 1964, she recorded equally prolifically, releasing seven albums in three years. It was during this time, and her subsequent tenure with RCA, that she became strongly connected to the civil rights movement and to the revolutions taking place in art, music and social relationships. Although mainly known as an interpreter of others’ material, Simone contributed her own powerful compositions to the political song repertoire, songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Backlash Blues’, a collaboration with poet, mentor and friend Langston Hughes.

Despite releasing a number of standout albums in the 1960s – including In Concert, ’Nuff Said and Here Comes the Sun – Simone has never really been thought of as an album artist. We can think of various reasons why this is the case. Each album, and especially those from her classic period, the ‘long 1960s’, showcases the diversity of her work, splitting apart notions of coherence. Record companies might have tried to suggest unity with titles such as Folksy Nina, Pastel Blues and Silk & Soul, but the albums’ contents invariably belied such attempts to fix the sound stylistically. Another reason is that Simone’s classic period predates the time at which albums by black artists outside the jazz sphere were conceived as ‘works’ and at which albums by female artists were similarly conceived (save, perhaps, in folk music). This is partly to do with racial categorising as record companies marketed black performers as singles artists. That assumption would be challenged by the work of Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic and other (predominantly male) artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it still lingered due to predominant ideas of the culture industry and critics during the canonisation of popular music in the late 1960s, the same period that witnessed the ideology of the album as a ‘work’.

In 2013 I published a book about Nina Simone in which I wrote, ‘It seems difficult at this stage to imagine an extended study devoted to just one of Simone’s albums, as Ashley Kahn has done for Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, as David Quantick has done for the Beatles’ “White Album”, or as Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for many rock, pop and soul albums.’ But if I were wanting to challenge that perception and embark on precisely such a task, Nina Simone and Piano! would offer the ideal candidate, distilling as it does the components that made Simone such a compelling performer and concentrating them into the pure or secret world of a solo artist engaged in the delicate art of interpretation. All the songs on the album are written by other people, providing us with an excellent showcase of Simone’s genius at reconstruction. Time and again she takes a familiar number and locates the unfamiliar in it, mining even such seeming frivolities as Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ for hidden qualities and unplumbed depths.

One thing the album doesn’t contain is any explicit engagement with race or gender, certainly when compared to the firebrand packages that preceded and succeeded it. But such topics are not exactly absent from the album, as Simone highlights African American histories by tapping into a range of established musical styles (gospel, blues, jazz) and even exploring relatively unknown black poetry of the nineteenth century via her adaptation of a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar. At the same time, when considering the personal nature of Simone’s piano project, it is worth asking why she might have been expected to be offering more outspoken commentary on the racial politics of the time. This seems a strange point to make, given that Simone is invariably associated with issues of civil rights, black pride and identity assertion, but it is always worth asking, even if just as a prompt to re-calibrate our assumptions. What are the cultural dynamics driving the ways in which certain individuals in the public eye – those referred to by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison as ‘movement intellectuals’ – are first identified by their publics as representative spokespeople and then expected to always already be on message? What about down time, personal projects, work away from the spotlight? Such questions have been asked of figures such as Martin Luther King and it’s worth asking them of Nina Simone too. Why should she have to do what was expected of her? Wasn’t that a large part of the reason she felt so exhausted by the close of the decade, why she would say, in her 1991 memoir, that ‘on the one hand I loved being black and being a woman, and that on the other it was my colour and sex which had fucked me up in the first place’? Didn’t she sometimes want a break from having to address these feelings in her music? Or is it the case that these conflicted feelings are precisely what Nina Simone and Piano! is about?

While Simone’s vocal and keyboard skills are the main affective vehicles of Nina Simone and Piano!, the lyrics are also a vital ingredient and reward separate consideration. Although there is not a single ‘story’ told by the selected songs (which are drawn from a typically wide range of sources: Carolyn Franklin, Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Randy Newman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacques Brel), the strong presence of desolation, abandonment, apocalypse and, more hopefully, renewal provide a certain conceptual cohesion. The narrative traced from the album opener ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, with its strong sense of spiritual conviction and its resonant gospel imagery, to the almost unbearably downbeat finale ‘The Desperate Ones’ is one that models a dialectic of hope and despair that can be found throughout Simone’s career.

This dialectic tension is echoed in the ways words alternately work with and against their musical delivery throughout the album. This can be heard from the opening notes of ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, where Simone is singing through the piano keyboard before she ever opens her mouth. Her vocal, when it comes, is thick with the church, hovering across Carolyn Franklin’s melody with rich vibrato, yearning vocal stretches and deep blues inflections. The imagery of Franklin’s gospel song becomes increasingly extreme as Simone pledges fidelity to her beloved. Voice and piano grow in stridency and discordancy as the images unfold, until it’s unclear whether Simone is singing a love song or preaching the Revelation. Later, as she approaches the end of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’, she wrings all the metaphorical potential of the coming tempest, raising her voice to a shout. A similar development is used on ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’, a whimsical song by Jonathan King given an increasingly dramatic reading by Simone. The childlike tone of wonder she adopts when she starts to describe the abandoned Earth gives way to a desperate plea at the song’s close. Throughout the album, she mixes whispers, shouts and screams into more conventional singing, mapping these sonic extremes with keyboard dynamics that range from the barely-there to the apocalyptic and from supple sweetness to bitter dissonance. Her reading of Brel’s ‘The Desperate Ones’ closes the album with a series of whispers, piano trills, overdubbed vocables, gasps and death rattles until the song gives way to silence and the fateful, fatal limbo of the run-out groove/grave.

To hear Simone perform Hoagy Carmichael’s desperately beautiful ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ is to be initially stunned by her interpretation, but also to be reminded of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra or many others singing the song, and to consider the particular grammars of longing and regret that these artists brought to their renditions, then to think again about what Simone brings to her version. In terms of style, genre and musical habitation, we might think of the songs on Piano! as portals to other worlds, other artists and other musical communities, and to the continuities and discontinuities foregrounded by musical comparison. To take another example, ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ is an update of a song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Thinking about these artists together strengthens the case for Piano! as a concept album of sorts; religious redemption, refuge and revelation can be heard in Simone’s version through both musical style and posthumous connection to Johnson, a man who passed through the modern world just long enough to be fixed in the techno-memorial amber: one photograph, some family reminiscences passed on to eager blues scholars and thirty thrilling, terrifying, God-fearing gospel blues recordings.

In her later years, Simone was increasingly presented as a ‘difficult’ personality, a classic example of diva behaviour. In his brilliant and moving obituary for the singer in 2003, Ian Penman caricatured the way in which Simone was written about by journalists seemingly more drawn to the promotion of freakish spectacle than to empathetic understanding: ‘funny Nina, wonky Nina, obstreperous Nina, Nina with the outsize dreams’. As has often been noted, the word ‘diva’ does a lot of contradictory work and it’s worth digging for both positive and negative connotations. Although Simone had been quick to apply the term to herself from at least the late 1960s – part of her self-alignment with Maria Callas and no doubt also a pointed reminder to her critics of her abilities as a classical artist – the application of the word by others could be read in more negative ways. In recent years, however, the figure of the diva has been given new and more positive meanings, not least in queer identifications with performers such as Barbra Streisand, Cher, Shirley Bassey and Celine Dion. Simone can be placed amongst such performers not only by the way in which she exhibited ‘typical’ diva behaviour, but by her channelling of sentiment in her song interpretations. In my book on Simone, I wrote of the mourning and melancholy that characterised much of her work and that lay in tension with her angrier or more assertive songs of protest and black female pride. Here I want to highlight instead the dialectic of sentimentalism and subversion that finds its outlet as much on Piano! as on any of Simone’s subsequent works. Divas tend to model other ways in which sentimentalism itself can be seen and heard as subversive and the becoming-diva Simone of Piano! offers a fascinating study of this process.

In closing, I’ll touch on a provocation that I hope to expand on at another time: that Nina Simone be heard as an Afrofuturist. The provocation comes from the observation that theorists of Afrofuturism as it relates to music have tended to focus on male artists who have explicitly connected advances in music technology and style with science fiction narratives. Sun Ra, Lee Perry and George Clinton are the typically repeated holy trinity of such theories, but there have been other more recent examples: Goldie, Tricky and, in a rare opening up of the theory to female musicians, Grace Jones and Janelle Monáe. For all the fascinating insights that Afrofuturist theory has brought, one of its major problems is that it does not always allow for additional alternative ways of thinking about the future.  Having decided on a particular branch of vanguardist techno-musical innovations that it wishes to celebrate, it lumps other musical strategies in with the ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ that Afronauts such as Ra, Perry and Clinton were understood to be navigating away from.

To a large extent, theoretical models suggest their own musical examples and vice versa. No doubt the types of music valorised by theorists of posthumanism and Afrofuturism respond to a common-sense association between technologically innovative art and technologically altered and/or virtualised physical and mental states. To attempt to exemplify such theories via reference to Nina Simone, who operated in the ‘traditional’ genres of jazz, blues, gospel and folk, or, conversely, to look to explain Simone’s art via reference to such technocentric conceptual models, might seem a step too far. And yet there is something in Simone’s work that calls out for a reading that goes beyond the ‘human’ and beyond the theological. For a start, her ‘traditional’ genres are hardly removed from the techno-virtual issues explored by posthumanism. A striking feature of gospel music, for example, has been the way in which it has consistently incorporated new technologies into its textual and performative arena. The gurus of Afrofuturism, meanwhile, are seen to be continuing a quest set in motion by early twentieth century bluesmen (though notably not blues women). More than this, however, Simone’s dismantling of generic and stylistic boundaries is a model of mutation, mutability and flow, all key tropes of posthumanist discourse.

Examples which link Simone to some of the key Afrofuturist case studies include her frequent allusions to Egyptian myth, her references to being a ‘robot’ and her mention of other planets, planes and spheres. But even without these parallels, I would argue that there is a sense of futurism, apocalypse and reterritorialisation prevalent throughout her mature work that is anything but ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’. In Simone’s hands and voice, the ‘black freighter’ of ‘Pirate Jenny’ is as much an Afrofuturist prediction as the liberatory ‘arks’ of Ra and Perry or Clinton’s ‘mothership’. Of course, it might be argued that, no matter what the lyrical content of her songs was, the music Simone was making was not as future-oriented as those other ‘Afronauts’. Against this, however, we could posit Simone’s famous defiance of categorisation as her particular future-directed impulse. Her black classical music articulated a space of hope and refusal just as her fellow blacks were hoping and being refused the possibility of equal treatment under the eyes of the law. And at the heart of this journey was the piano, her own black freighter, the vehicle for her lifelong dreams and ambitions and a musical technology whose complexity and versatility could straddle centuries.

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My Way

Posted in Possession with tags , , , , on July 26, 2013 by Richard

Simone_MyWayA brilliance similar to her version of ‘Suzanne‘ can be found in Simone’s reading of ‘My Way’, a song associated with Frank Sinatra. It is worth noting Simone’s and Sinatra’s mutual admiration for each other’s work and the small but significant group of songs that both recorded. Interestingly, each has recorded what might be considered the key signature song of the other. Simone is still widely remembered – outside of her more dedicated fanbase – for ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’, the song that she first recorded in the late 1950s and which has been a notable hit in at least three different eras. Sinatra included a version of the song on his 1969 album Strangers in the Night. ‘My Way’ became Sinatra’s signature song in the later stages of his career and a version by Simone was released in 1971. Other shared repertoire includes Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ and Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’, recorded in French by Simone and in Rod McKuen’s translation as ‘If You Go Away’ by Sinatra. A special group of songs written especially for Sinatra  – ‘For A While’, ‘The Single Man’, ‘Lonesome Cities’, ‘Love’s Been Good To Me’ featured prominently in the later stages of Simone’s career.

Francois‘My Way’ originated as a French chanson entitled ‘Comme d’habitude’ (‘As Usual’). It was first recorded by Claude François, a popular French singer who co-wrote the song with Gilles Thibaut and Jacques Revaux and included it on his self-titled album (1967). Paul Anka “translated” the lyric into English specifically for Sinatra, changing the main sense of the song’s lyrics and its overall message but retaining the melody. Despite numerous other versions, the song became indelibly associated with Sinatra during the 1970s following his return from “retirement”. In a concert recorded for the 1974 album The Main Event, he introduces the song by saying, “We will now do the national anthem but you needn’t rise”. The song is mentioned a number of times in Will Friedwald’s Sinatra! The Song is You. Early in the book he writes:

No popular recording artist has ever been as totally believable so much of the time as Sinatra … The results come through especially clearly in an overtly autobiographical text like ‘My Way.’ Sung by any other interpreter, including the teenage idol Paul Anka (who translated it from the original French), that 1969 hit would sound like an obnoxious joke. In fact it’s a deliberate gag in the messy mitts of Sid Vicious and an unintentional one in the trembling tremolos of Elvis Presley, both of whom recorded it.

Readers of Friedwald’s book will quickly realise that the author has very little time for contemporary (post rock ‘n’ roll) popular music, aligning him, to a certain extent, with Sinatra himself, who made a number of disparaging comments in his time about rock, despite recording a number of rock songs. It may be that Friedwald needs to denigrate other song forms, singers and even nations so that he can build up Sinatra’s role in author(iz)ing the song:

Musically, it’s an underwhelming composition that contains nearly five identical stanzas, each consisting of a string of very monotonous four-note phrases … Yet the way [Sinatra] transforms this unpromising source material takes him beyond alchemy and into the realm of sheer magic. Musically, it has no more content than most rock and roll, yet Sinatra pumps it up with the grandeur of an operatic aria, a five-minute exercise in self-indulgence that starts quietly, even intimately, and ends enormously.

This is a reasonably convincing account of the song but it rather ignores a number of salient points. Firstly, Friedwald considers this a “translation” of the original French song. However, while the melody has been kept, Anka’s words are new ones. To be fair to Friedwald, he does seem to be more interested in the melody and what Sinatra does with it but, as is clear in his references to the “autobiographical” nature of the song, he also realises that the words play a crucial role: this really is Sinatra looking back on his life, a message from him to us. Given the centrality of the words, it seems clear that we cannot make a comparison to the French version without taking account of what the latter is saying. It is a song about routine, about mundanity, in which every negative thing repeats itself “as usual”. This is a radically different message to that of ‘My Way’, a song about escaping the usual and being an individual. Furthermore, there is the issue of agency. ‘Comme d’habitude’ presents us with a narrator completely at the mercy of fate and the will of the other, while ‘My Way’ provides a battler against fate’s whims, someone whom fate has made stronger and who is able to “stand tall” and face society. In this sense, ‘Comme d’habitude’ can be connected to the chanson tradition and to other fatalistic song forms such as fado and country.

FrankSinatraA comparison of the songs leads us to the representation of mastery and submission. While the narrator of ‘Comme d’habitude’ “plays at pretending” and submits to the domination of the other (“I will wait for you”, he sings), the narrator of ‘My Way’ dominates, looking down on the kind of man “who kneels”. Gender is crucial here. “What is a man?” Sinatra asks. Clearly one who can claim all the acts and the agency that ‘My Way’ boasts, one who can master himself, others and fate itself. For Friedwald, this mastery extends to Sinatra himself, the only man who can take such paltry (feminine?) material and conjure “sheer magic” from it with his massive voice phallus, shatter its “intimacy” with his “enormity”. François, meanwhile, is left whining and weeping into his coffee, not man enough to take control of his life or his woman. We do not know from Friedwald’s account whether he is familiar with the French lyrics but it does not  require too much speculation, given what he does say about “French songs” and “kiddie-pop”, to interpret his account of ‘My Way’ as a masculine response to a feminine problem.

The droning rhythm and repetition of the melody – which Friedwald finds typical of “French songs” – seems entirely suited to the lyrical preoccupations of ‘Comme d’habitude’, and François’s version highlights this by introducing difference at the climax of the song, perhaps signifying anger finally boiling over, an escape from submission, a warning note, the hint of violence (perhaps, in this light, Sinatra merely finishes what François has initiated). What Friedwald does not ask is why Paul Anka kept the melody of the French song and lost the words. Is it possible that Anka wished to transfer the “monotony” of the melody to his account of the winner who rises above the mundane, setting in motion a dialectic between word and melody? In this sense, the song can be read as an escape from d’habitude and the habitus from which it draws its sense of itself and its self-difference: in other words, it comes to be about creativity.

This is the manner in which Nina Simone approaches ‘My Way’, the closing track of Here Comes the Sun.  Her version allows us to play Friedwald at his own game, as Mike Butler seems to do when he offers the following summary of the performance:

Is this the definitive My Way? Nina Simone, an individualist if ever there was one, is free from the self-deception that disqualifies most of the field. Which leaves Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious. The present version generates excitement from the off: bongos double the tempo as Nina takes her first note; strings swell in rising excitement; harpsichord and harp rip along, adding period charm. Nina is exultant as she swoops and dives over the hypnotic Latin beat. Frank sounds doleful in comparison, as if he can’t wait for the final curtain, and Sid is just plain silly. There’s no competition, really. (Liner notes to Here Comes the Sun CD)

A number of questions immediately arise from this. What does it mean to give a definitive version? What does it mean to say that someone really gets to what the song was about? How might this differ with songs thought of as songs (the products of songwriters) rather than as original performances? In pop, the songwriter and the original performer are sometimes the same: in rock, almost invariably. To say someone has found something fundamental in the song as song is to say they gave a proper interpretation to the piece; to say someone gets to the fundamental in a song that was already a supposedly definitive performance seems less straightforward. This does not, of course, stop music fans – including critics and other musicians – from doing so.

Mike Butler’s question as to whether Nina Simone’s version of ‘My Way’ is the definitive one might seem absurd unless viewed through the fantasy of authenticity. How can a song about doing it my way have a definitive version? And is a “definitive” version the same as an “authoritative” version? These are different words with different meanings and yet they are often used synonymously in qualitative accounts of culture. While a dictionary may list many definitions of a word, we are unlikely to hear someone say that a version of a song is a definitive version (among others); it is invariably the definitive version, making it synonymous with the authoritative version. But isn’t ‘My Way’ precisely about not taking part in something that can be defined, essentialized or authorized? Isn’t it, rather, about individualism and individual perspective? Does ‘My Way’ actually gesture towards a nascent identity politics? We certainly witness such a possibility in the versions by Nina Simone and Sid Vicious. They sing it their way and their way is entirely fitting for them. Only the illusion created by the fantasy of authenticity allows one of them to be definitive. We are talking, then, of an ideological battle for authenticity, authorship and authority rather than a cool judgement on aesthetics and style. And while this may seem to lead us into the quagmire of relativism, the fantasy of authentication tends to stop us long before we sink too far, allowing us, perhaps, to declare a “victor”.

The conversation Nina Simone has with ‘My Way’ is, as Butler intimates, a fascinating one, with the artist in complete control of her material. In addition to the features Butler mentions – harp, harpsichord, “Latin” beat – it is hard not to be surprised by the transition from one stanza to the next. Where Sinatra’s version had finished each section on a decisive note, Simone’s immediately completes the final line (each “my way”) with twelve quick keyboard stabs which work both to emphasize the line and to give a sense of climax to each verse. As a sense of ambiguity descends – will the song end here? – Simone’s right hand picks a bright ascending figure out of each “final” chord and leads us into the next verse. Each verse brings more with it musically – extra percussion, electric bass, strings – leading to a situation where, at each demise and resurrection, there is an overwhelming sense of excess. Indeed, for a song already so steeped in excess in Sinatra’s versions – especially his live performances – it seems as if Simone is trying to deliberately exceed The Voice himself.

Simone makes few changes to the lyric – “shy way” becomes “sly way”, “friend” is changed to “friends”, “spit” corrected to “spat” – and none to the sequence of the song. This is in marked contrast to her version of Dylan’s ‘Just like a Woman’ from the same album, where she places a chorus before the first verse, misses one whole verse out and, crucially, plays around with the problematic personal pronouns of the song. She does, however, add melisma and occasional interjections to the words, giving a sense of control over the material and the groove of the song (a groove her version invents, of course: who could have thought of this as a groovy song before? Certainly not “monotonous” Claude François, nor Sinatra/Friedwald). At the start of the second verse a stretched “ye-es” (0:46-0:47) provides a vocal accompaniment to the keyboard’s lead-in, providing both musical and linguistic transition (“yes, regrets…”: of course I’ve had them but that’s not what’s important now). At the very end of the last verse, the point where Sinatra’s version would be building to its climax (“The record shows/I took the blows/And did it/My/Way”), Simone adds melisma to the final “way”, stretching it to four syllables, then lets it fade into the rising strings which now take over from the vocal – there is no repetition (reassertion) of the final line. We are only 3:26 into the song when Simone’s vocal dies away. But she and the other musicians are not finished; fully aware she has set up an irresistible groove (Butler says “hypnotic”: “infectious” seems nearer the mark ), she lets the orchestra ride the song out for another minute and a half. Strings soar, swoop, hover, dive; a cymbal taps out a jazzy rhythm to add to the melange; Simone indulges herself on the piano as if she has deserved it; the strings grow in crescendo; “soulful” backing vocals join in; and it all fades out far too soon. It is a spectacular way to close an album and it seems no coincidence that it is placed at the end of Here Comes the Sun, just as Sinatra would come to place the song at the climax of his live shows. Indeed, one could argue that Simone has discovered and disseminated the evental possibilities of ‘My Way’ long before we get to hear them on The Main Event. What is the “main event” referred to in the title of that album? Is it to Frank Sinatra as the headline act? In which case, is his finale of ‘My Way’ the main event of this main event? If so, it seems that Nina Simone has beaten him at his own game.

The Other Woman

Posted in Possession with tags , , , on July 14, 2013 by Richard

Simone-let-it-all-outIn many of her performances, Nina Simone communicated a fascinating mixture of agency and passivity, ownership and submission. A related dynamic can be found in ‘The Other Woman’, a song Simone performed throughout her career and which brings together aspects of physicality with the deceptive passivity of the torch song.  In fact, the song is only superficially torch-like. The first verses compare the physical attributes of “the other woman”, the narrator’s rival who “finds time to manicure her nails”, who “is perfect where her rival fails” and who, it initially appears, is the one favoured by the man in the song. A triangle is set up of a desirable, cheating husband, a faithful but unglamorous wife and mother painfully aware of her husband’s infidelity, and the “perfect” lover.

This scenario of an abandoned woman comparing herself to a rival and staying faithful to her man despite his betrayal would not be out of place in a torch song. The sadness of Simone’s tone and the “pathetic” piano accompaniment appear to underline an interpretation of the song as one of passivity and submission. However, there are clues, even before the song enters its second phase, that the glamorous lover, described at one point as a “lonesome queen”, does not necessarily hold the upper hand; we are told, for example, that her time with the husband is “a change from old routine”. This aspect then becomes the focus of the song as it hinges on the crucial word “but” (which Simone stretches to several beat-less seconds on most recorded performances). “Bu-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-ut”, we are told, “the other woman / will always cry herself to sleep” and “will never have his love to keep”. Her ultimate destiny is to spend her life “alone”, a word given extra emphasis on the version heard on Let It All Out by being preceded with one of Simone’s (at that time) trademark “scats” and underlined by a variation of the “Wenceslas” theme that Simone regularly wove into ‘Little Girl Blue‘.

The relish given to this finale suggests a kind of revenge enacted by the song’s narrator. She may not be the “winner” (if anyone is, it is surely the husband, who escapes the song unscathed and still desired), but the element of justice and/or revenge connects the song to a tradition that has more in common with the sometimes ambiguous feminism of country music than with the submissive stance of the torch song (interestingly, country star Loretta Lynn recorded a (different) song called ‘The Other Woman‘). Common to both traditions, however, is a sense of transition from suffering, subjected lover to singing subject in control of the situation and its narrativization. If history is written by the victors, the narrative signals some sort of victory over fate, the singing of it even more so.

Sunday in Savannah / Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) / Mississippi Goddam

Posted in Lateness, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on July 5, 2013 by Richard
MLK_Funeral_Wagon

Martin Luther KIng’s funeral procession, April 9th 1968, Atlanta, Georgia

‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead’, Nina Simone’s haunting tribute to Martin Luther King, was one of a suite of songs performed by Simone and her band at the Westbury Music Fair in New York on Sunday 7th April 1968, shortly after King’s murder. Simone begins introduces ‘Sunday in Savannah’, the first song in what subsequently came to be known as “The Martin Luther King Suite”, by expressing surprise that her audience have turned up to the concert hall given the tragic events of recent days.  “Happily surprised” that they have, however, she expresses hope that the evening’s performance can act as some sort of healing ritual, or working-through of the mourning process.  An elegiac note is struck with the languid ‘Sunday in Savannah’, a song which bears no direct reference to King or his murder but rather imagines a peaceful continuation of everyday life in a religious community, a practice, it implies, which King should have been able to pursue instead of having to take up the fight against an unnecessary evil. The longing here is not for what was but for what might have been had historical circumstances been different, had humankind been more tolerant, or had the dream that King foretold come to pass into reality. The sense of harmonious continuity is emphasized in the musical accompaniment by the organ (played by Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon) and by the lightest of touches from piano, guitar and drums. Only at the song’s culmination do voice and piano become discordant and harsh, as Simone substitutes “Atlanta” for “Savannah”, invoking King’s home town and pointing out “it’s the same thing, same State, same feeling”.

‘Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)’ was a song written by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor in response to King’s assassination. As Simone says at the outset, the band had had just one day to learn it and the performance subsequently seems to veer between the rehearsed and the improvised. ‘Why?’ has made various appearances on record and CD, initially appearing in edited form on the RCA album ‘Nuff Said (1968) and later being partially restored to its original version as part of the “Martin Luther King Suite” on the compilations Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times and Sugar in My Bowl. The full, unedited version can be heard on the compilation Forever Young, Gifted & Black (2006) and begins in a quietly elegiac tone as Simone introduces the song. Taylor’s suitably epic opening – “Once upon this planet Earth” – sets the tone for a reverential account of King’s life, work and dreams. To begin with, Simone stays clear of militancy as she emphasizes King’s Christian message, the tragic sacrifice he was forced to pay and the possibility that he might have died in vain. Lateness is the song’s keynote: King’s lateness, Simone’s growing sense of lateness (which would transform itself into a perpetual process of mourning) and a general sense of lateness and loss for the civil rights movement. In one of the many unanswered questions of the song, Taylor and Simone ask “is it too late for us all?”

‘Why?’ can be heard as a motivated act of remembering, wondering and yearning. As remembrance the narrative is not inaccurate but, as with many elegies, accuracy is less important than the act of recalling a person’s life and its meaning for a wider congregation. ‘Why?’ acts as a song of wonder and yearning simply through its positing of childishly simple, yet difficult-to-answer, questions. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t things be different? The black female voice, which Farah Jasmine Griffin describes as one of the “founding sounds” of the USA, has often been called upon to provide solace in moments of historical rupture. It is also a voice that “expresses a quality of longing: longing for home, for love, for connection with God, for heaven, for freedom … a conduit between what and where we are and what and where we want to be”. As with the musical role models amd social movment spokespeople discussed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, it is clear that Simone needed to offer a response to the tragedy of April 4 and that those affected by the tragedy needed to hear from an artist of her stature, ability and socio-political position.

But ‘Why?’ does not consist solely of questions. To be sure, it manifests one of the commonly understood phases of mourning in its bewildered and uncomprehending ‘whys’, in its pain and numbness. But it also enacts another phase of mourning by showing anger and a refusal to accept what has happened. After seven minutes of Taylor’s elegiac gospel song (closer, perhaps, to the kind of “sorrow songs” discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk), Simone and the band start to raise the volume and the singer’s voice takes on a harder edge as she poses a new question: what will happen in the cities now that “our people are rising”? Utilizing some of the stop-start drama of her reading of ‘Pirate Jenny‘, Simone brings the searchlight of her voice to flash on “that moment that you know what life is”, a moment of decision – an event – where the attainment of a new, more meaningful subjectivity is recognized, a commitment and fidelity that can survive even death. To a dramatically rolling piano accompaniment, Simone testifies that “you know what freedom is, for one moment of your life”. As she returns to Taylor’s lyric – “what’s gonna happen / now that the King of Love is dead?” – the song takes on a new, less fatalistic, more assertive dimension, no longer a question raised to a cruel God, but rather a threat and prediction of “the fire next time“.

During the song, Simone also takes the time to reflect on the loss of other role models and cultural beacons: “Lorraine Hansberry left us … and then Langston Hughes left us, Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us. Who can go on? Do you realize how many we have lost? … We can’t afford any more losses. … They’re shooting us down one by one.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other incidents, not least the church bombing that had inspired the writing of the song. At one point she replaces “Tennessee” with “Memphis”, a reference to the city where King was shot; later, calling upon the audience to join her in song, Simone shouts “the time is too late now … the King is dead!” As if it were not clear that ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is delivering on the threats hinted at in ‘Why?’, Simone declares “I ain’t about to be nonviolent honey!” Unlike the version of the song immortalized on the In Concert album, here it is Simone who is laughing. Her laughter seems as strange and out of place as that of the audience in the earlier version but we should probably hear it as an illogical response to an illogical and impossible situation.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

Bye Bye Blackbird

Posted in Categories with tags , , on June 19, 2013 by Richard

Simone_AtVillageGateNina Simone’s rendition of the 1920s Tin Pan Alley standard ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’, which appeared on her 1962 album At the Village Gate, provides a fine example of the artist’s classically-flavoured style. The version recorded by Simone and her band is an instrumental one; shorn of the familiar lyrics, the resulting performance showcases instrumental virtuosity, in particular the musical alchemy between Simone and guitarist Al Shackman. Simone’s piano introduction is restrained and elegant, initially offering few clues to the identity of the song, then allowing fragments of the melody to enter. After nearly two minutes, Simone shifts to comping at the piano as if for a standard jazz rendition of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ and Shackman assumes the spotlight, the growing dynamism of his guitar work amplified and underlined by Bobby Hamilton’s drum fills. At 3:32 Simone asserts her leadership via an insistently repeated note that pecks at the “Blackbird” melody before developing first into a jazz solo, then alternating scattered jazz notes with waves of tones and scales more associated with the teleology of classical style. Yet, even as she channels the techniques of European virtuosi from Bach to Liszt, the addition, at the six-minute mark, of wordless, scatted vocals, “blackens” the music, claiming it for a jazz-singing tradition that leads from Louis Armstrong to Abbey Lincoln and beyond. To use a less explicit term (though its use is no less resonant in its racial implications), we could follow Farah Jasmin Griffin and Salim Washington in their description of the way Billie Holiday “blued” the material she performed.

This description of ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ runs the risk of suggesting that there are clear points when Simone switches from one style (jazz) to another (classical). For the purposes of analysis, of course, it is necessary to identify decisive, illustrative moments in the recording. Analysis requires at least the fantasy of stasis, of moments frozen long enough for interpretation to take place. Music, however, is a flowing, temporal experience and, while its temporal qualities do not make it resistant to analysis, we must remain alive to the ways in which various elements coalesce, mutate, relate, respond to, reflect and feed each other. The processes of “blackening” or “blueing” suggest ways by which we can recognize such flow in Simone’s work. The interlacing, or overlaying, of the scatted vocal with classical piano style on ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ highlights the extent to which we should stay alive to the hybridizing processes of musical performance even as we apply our attention to particular musical objects. Such processes are often recognized in discourse about music, for example when artists are described as “jazzing” or “jazzing up” pieces of music not previously associated with the genre of jazz. Nina Simone’s work invites us to see classical music as a process too, to note the inclusion into popular songs of certain signifiers of classical style (certain types of motivic figures, certain conventions, sections which are not “jazzed”, which stay close to “the rules”). Describing the music of Chicago, in his poem ‘The Windy City’, Carl Sandburg used the memorable phrase “they jazz the classics”; perhaps we could see Simone’s contribution to black classical music as a determination to “classicalize” jazz.

My Father

Posted in Lateness with tags , , , on June 16, 2013 by Richard

judycollinswhoknowsJudy Collins’s ‘My Father’ first appeared on the artist’s 1968 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes. The song tells of the promises made by the narrator’s father, the most memorable of which involve living in France and “boating on the Seine”. The song operates as a kind of memoir, as the narrator recalls her childhood in Ohio, her father working in the mines and the dreams he would share with his daughters. A second verse adds mature experience, recording the disappearance of the narrator’s sisters to the distant cities of Denver and Cheyenne. Left behind, she witnesses the disappearance, too, of her father’s dreams, the colours of which “faded without a sound”. The third verse moves to the present, where we find the narrator living in France with her children and telling tales of her father’s life; perhaps her father is living with them, staying true to his promise, for the closing lines describe the narrator watching “the Paris sun / set in my father’s eyes again”.

Collins’s father was a blind singer and radio broadcaster who, by her own accounts, had a strong influence on his daughter’s life. He died in 1967 and there is little doubt that this song was inspired by his passing. That said, it is not “autobiographical” in the sense of being all about Collins or her father. He is not the miner mentioned in the first and third verses, the family did not live in Ohio and Collins did not have any older sisters. As for the role of Paris in the song, this seems to be entirely fictional, though we cannot be sure of the veracity of the father’s promise. Clearly, then, the song is a “fictional” narrative, written and sung by Collins as both author and vocal actor. Yet the sadness of the melody, the sense of loss evoked by the lyrics and the reference to the sun setting in “her” father’s (blind?) eyes cannot help but evoke the notion of a direct remembrance of Collins’s own late father.

Nina Simone, of course, approached the song as a cover version, a move we might assume would further remove the possibility of any authorial connection to a father that might be considered “hers”. Yet, in much the same way that Collins’s fictional song is still somehow about her and her father, so Simone’s reading removes the fiction dividing the song’s singer from its subject. A fragment of a recording session released in 1998 shows that the singer intended to cut the song in 1971. This suggests that she had been listening to Collins’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes, the title song of which she had recorded in late 1969. In this first recorded attempt, Simone changes the first line to “My father always promised me”, but then only gets through six lines of the first verse, stopping after “He worked in the mines” to declare to those assembled in the studio, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not [for?] me. [Pause] My father always promised me that we would be free but he did not promise me that we would live in France”. Simone then collapses into laughter. A male voice asks “How about Brooklyn?” to which Simone immediately responds, “No. My father knew nothing about New York at all. He promised me that we would live in peace. And that maybe I can still get”. She then removes the song from consideration in that session.

simone_baltimoreSimone did come back to the song later, including a version on Baltimore (1978), her first album of new recordings for many years.  She was later dismissive of the album, claiming she had had no control over the choice of material, but this seems doubtful in the case of ‘My Father’ given the attempt to record the song earlier in the decade. Simone presents the song as three verses, omitting Collins’s fourth verse. As in the earlier reading, she sings “My father always promised me”, singularizing the object pronoun. Other notable changes include her adjustment of the last line of each verse. In the first, she hovers on the final word “time”, letting it drift for six seconds (1:27 to 1:33) so that it becomes more of a hum or drone than a word, before resolving the melody with a repeat of the last two words, “in time”. In the second verse a similar expectation is set up in the second half by a slight vocal drone on “alone”. Simone then alters Collins’s words to sing the couplet “Hoping that my father’s dreams / would someday take me home”. “Home” features a vocal drone (2:50 to 2:53), aligning it with the end of the previous verse (“time”) and with “alone” from this verse. There is a slightly longer pause than in the previous verse and then a repetition of “take me home”. At the close of the third and final verse, Simone again alters the lyrics, seemingly due to a mistake: “And watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes … again”. At the place where the vocal drone had been in the earlier verses, she offers the word “eyes” (4:17 to 4:22), starting out on the same droning note as before but quickly moving into a soft melisma that lets the word float briefly before the resolution of “again”. Simone’s reading of the song, then, serves to emphasize crucial words to underline a narrative of loss and yearning. Meanwhile, this yearning is backed up by an “aching” string arrangement that builds gradually during the first verse and then soars at significant moments of the narrative in the second and third verses: “grown up dreams”, “danced alone”, “children dance and sing”, “I sail my memories of home”.

The words that Simone emphasizes – time, alone, home, eyes – may remind us of a relationship made by Walter Benjamin between gaze and familiarity:

Inherent in the gaze … is the expectation that it will be returned by that on which it is bestowed. Where this expectation is met (which, in the case of thought processes, can apply equally to an intentional gaze of awareness and to a glance pure and simple), there is an experience [Erfahrung] of the aura in all its fullness.

Following on from Benjamin, Eric Santner writes, “Home … is first and foremost that place … where one finds the aura constituted by eyes that return a gaze”. The narrator of ‘My Father’ seems to articulate the quest for such a place. Home is here a remembered past but one that is never stable in that it resides in a place of constant dreaming, of escape. It is mostly spoken from a place described by Benjamin as “an intentional gaze” – or from memory, which we could figure as a search for a past that looks back at the searcher – but the only explicit reference to eyes is that of the final line of the third verse. In Collins’s version, it is tempting to read into this lyric a reference to her father’s blindness, yet Simone’s handling of these lines is perhaps more fascinating. The curious slippage that leads to “watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes…again” compels us to dwell on the notion of the gaze. The sense of confusion here – who is watching what? – emphasizes gaze as process over any obvious sense of someone looking or someone or something being looked at. If we do pick apart the meaning, however, we seem to be left with this: where the “correct” version had a narrator watching the sun reflected in her father’s (possibly blind) eyes, this version emphasizes the father’s own watching, with the narrator’s watching now resigned to a secondary place, a watching of a watching.

It is tempting to read this secondary watching as a kind of determination, such as that settled on by Simone after what she felt was her father’s betrayal of her trust. Overhearing him lie to one of her brothers about the importance of his role in the family – a role reduced in reality due to ill health – Simone was shocked and found herself making a vow not to see him again, a promise she kept even as he lay dying. Hers was a refusal of familiarity and home, a refusal to go back to a place that would return her gaze. The secondary watching described in the last line of ‘My Father’ can be read as the passive awareness of a daughter waiting for her father to die: “I knew I was hurting Daddy and myself more,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but there was nothing I could do: I was helpless because of the vow I had made, the vow I had to obey”.

This hurt was one that would continue to grow in Simone in later years, leading to regret that she had not reconciled herself with her father. It is perhaps the replacement of that earlier refusal of the gaze with a subsequent longing for it that explains Simone’s return to ‘My Father’.  This certainly seems to be the case in the film La Légende, where the song is played over footage of Simone visiting her father’s grave in Tryon, her home town (from 5:04 in the clip above). The father represents the lure of the promised land (“freedom”, “peace”, “France”) which he cannot deliver, leaving the daughter to seek it out herself (“maybe that I can still find”) even as she fears utopia may be not be a place that lies ahead but one she has abandoned long ago, leading to what Santner calls a “utopian libido … a yearning for a space of specular mutuality”. Furthermore, “The absence of a space where eyes return a gaze initiates … all those quests for and conquests of new territories of auratic experience, new searches for the gaze that would finally authenticate one’s worth and reality”. In this context it is worth repeating Simone’s view of this search: “Sometimes I think the whole of my life has been a search to find the one place I truly belong”.

Mississippi Goddam

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by Richard

In memory of Medgar Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963)

Fifty years on

‘Mississippi Goddam’ remains arguably Simone’s most famous protest song and, not surprisingly, forms the basis for many responses to her work. Three powerful analyses of Simone’s role in the politics of freedom of the 1960s (by Ruth Feldstein, Tammy Kernodle and Daphne Brooks) devote much of their space to discussion of the song. Like them, I’m interested in way that Nina Simone  connected the song’s composition to a subjectivizing event and it’s worth sampling how that event, which occured in 1963, was recalled by Simone in her 1991 autobiography:

In Mount Vernon we had a little apartment built over the garage which was my private hideaway, where I went to practise and prepare for forthcoming performances. I was sitting there in my den on 15 September when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while black children were attending a Bible study class. Four of them – Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins – had been killed. Later that day, in the rioting which followed, Birmingham police shot another black kid and a white mob pulled a young black man off his bicycle and beat him to death, out in the street. It was more than I could take, and I sat struck dumb in my den like St Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realised what it was to be black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine [Hansberry] had been repeating to me over and over – it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I “came through”.

Simone’s first reaction is a desire for violent revenge for the atrocious events that have brought home to her the excess of her (and her fellow black Americans’) situation. She attempts to build a gun in order to deliver retribution to the objects of her “hatred” and “fury”. Her husband, a former police officer, discovers her and stops her, saying, “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.” Simone accepts this and sits down at her piano:

An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in my hand. It was my first civil rights song, and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down. I knew then that I would dedicate myself to the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality under the law for as long as it took, until all our battles were won.

As Simone goes on to note, when she started to become involved in the civil rights movement many already considered her an activist due to the publicity she gave to various aspects of the movement in her concerts and in interviews. She had already recorded songs such as Oscar Brown‘s ‘Brown Baby’ and her “Afrocentric” numbers from ‘Zungo’ onwards had asserted a “return to Africa” that reflected the emerging manifestoes of black nationalist organizations. But clearly Simone felt it necessary, in this retrospective account, to delimit a before and after, to hinge her commitment to civil rights upon a decisive event. Her positing of this event as both specific (the Birmingham bombing and Evers’s death) and ongoing (the decision to commit herself to civil rights).

Simone_In-Concert-coverThe event of conversion can be read into the unfolding narrative of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ itself. The tune, in the first recorded version (found on the 1964 album In Concert), starts off at something of a gallop, its uptempo rhythm seemingly eliciting pleasure from the Carnegie Hall audience, who laugh when Simone declares, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam!'”, pausing slightly before adding, “and I mean every word of it!” (to which the audience respond with more laughter).  The opening lines – “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi / God-dam!” – are repeated, as if inviting a singalong, although it quickly becomes clear that this will be a difficult tune to learn as Simone changes the melody, slowing and stretching her vocals as she asks, “Can’t you see it, can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air?” before circling back to the “Alabama / Tennessee / Mississippi” lines to conclude the song’s first section. It is at this point that she issues the next interjection: “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”, which is received with more laughter from the audience. At this point, we are just over one minute into this nearly five-minute performance.

There is a shift in the dynamics of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ here as Simone settles into the regular rhythm of what amounts, in this unusually structured song, to the first verse. The metre of the lyric stays constant for the next fifty seconds as Simone unfolds a series of increasingly stark images: “we all gonna get it in due time”; “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there”; “me and my people just about due”. The series culminates in the observation, “You keep on sayin’ ‘Go slow'”. Simone pauses for breath as the tune maintains its momentum, then moves into a new section, calling out, “But that’s just the problem”, to which her band members respond with a shout of “too slow!”. This response is issued after each of Simone’s subsequent calls: “washin’ the windows”; “pickin’ the cotton”; “you’re too damn lazy”. As the song approaches the three-minute mark, Simone returns the melody to the “Mississippi God-dam!” refrain before offering her next spoken interjection: “I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?” There is still laughter, though it is less audible and possibly more nervous than before.

The song moves back into the “verse” form for another series of vivid snapshots (“picket lines”, “school boycotts”, “all I want is equality / for my sister, my brother / my people and me”). Simone’s vocal, earlier so playful and inclusive, has now become furious and declamatory. The lyric becomes ever more apocalyptic as she declares, “This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die and die like flies”, then uses the line “I don’t trust you anymore” to return to the “too slow!” call-and-response section, which centres on key words of the civil rights movement (“desegregation” “mass participation”, “unification”). As the song enters its final thirty seconds, it circles back to the opening tune, with Simone swapping the “Alabama / Birmingham” couplet for “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality” and finishing with a drawn out “Mississippi God-dam!”, pounded home by pneumatic piano. As if the significance of the climax is not clear, Simone adds a punctuating “That’s it!” and the band switch into Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ to signal the end of the show.

In just under five minutes Simone manages to set a number of contemporaneous debates to music: an assertion of the “double consciousness” claimed by W.E.B. Du Bois as a conditioning factor of the black experience in America (“I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there”); a sense of desperation and an accompanying loss of faith (“I’ve even stopped believing in prayer”, she declares at one point, as if the blasphemous “Goddam” had not already proven it); and the debates played out between various civil rights groups (CORE, SCLC, SNCC ) and black leaders (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael) over the place of nonviolence and armed struggle. Mirroring the shifting musical sands of the song, the position taken up by the narrator changes as she describes a growing sense that violence is the only option left and delivers violence upon her audience through the declamatory, performative nature of the lyrics. Simone cleverly combines what J.L. Austin described as “constative” language (that which describes facts or gives information) with “performative” language (that which does functional work: greetings, warnings, threats and curses).

Roach_WeInsistWhat marked ‘Mississippi Goddam’ out from anything Simone had hitherto recorded were its anger, its sense of immediacy and insistence, and its strategies of alienation. As far as the latter goes, it could be seen as a successor to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit‘, an invasion of brutal reportage into the polite environs of the supper club. The recording on In Concert would support such a reading, witnessing as it does a subtle but noticeable change come over the audience as the song narrative unfolds. But in other crucial ways, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is a very different song from ‘Strange Fruit’, without the stillness and neutral, curious tone with which Holiday imbued her performance. Simone’s is declamatory and insistent, closer perhaps to the cry placed in the title of the classic civil rights jazz recording, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960), on which the drummer Max Roach had collaborated with Oscar Brown, Jr. and vocalist Abbey Lincoln.

As Dorian Lynskey points out, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ also echoes the voice overheard in the crowd witnessing King’s “I have a dream” speech, a voice which responds to King’s vision by crying “Goddam!” It is this declamatory quality that gave the song its power and that gave it a foothold in history, making it now seem both evocative of its time and continually, insistently relevant and disturbing. “Goddam” may have been a ruder, more shocking declaration in the Carnegie Hall atmosphere of 1964 than it would be today, but, because we know this, we can still witness the unsettling process of hearing Simone alienate her audience as the song unfolds. What is more, the decades that have elapsed since this landmark recording have done little to diminish the power of lines such as “you’re all gonna die and die like flies”.

As this line makes clear, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is notable for its assertion of a desire for revenge, one that can be connected to the more vengeful parts of the Bible. If the statements were too violent to be categorized as gospel, the song nonetheless shared a predictive element often found in gospel. There is also an echo of the interplay between singer and audience that Simone used in her gospel songs, although “interplay” may be the wrong word, for what Simone often seems to do is highlight the barrier dividing herself and the audience even as she seems to invite participation. On the recording of ‘Children Go Where I Send You‘ the singer alerts the audience to the recreation of a revival meeting while suggesting that they probably don’t know what that is; so too, in ‘Mississippi Goddam’, where the breach is highlighted by the between-verse commentary (“this is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written yet”, “I bet you thought I was kiddin”).