Little Girl Blue

Nina Simone’s defiance of musical categorization, so often remarked upon, can be witnessed on her very first official recordings. Although these date from late 1957, the eleven selections that made up her debut album Little Girl Blue were not released until at least a year later. By the time Simone came to record for Bethlehem, she had been honing her craft in bars and nightclubs for some time and, while her rejection by the elite Curtis Institute of Philadephia did not singlehandedly dissuade her from her ambitions to be a classical musician, it certainly focussed her mind on what she was doing successfully, namely serving up a wildly mixed menu of classical, jazz, folk, pop and other sounds for nightclub patrons in search of something different. It made sense, therefore, to keep to this formula and style for her first official recordings and made her debut album, in the words of her biographer Nadine Cohodas, “another irreversible step toward a pop career”.

The mix of styles employed by Simone was a feature that many commentators immediately highlighted. When Little Girl Blue was released, the accompanying liner notes by Joseph Muranyi described Simone as “an unlikely combination of Marian Anderson and Ma Rainey”, making reference to the African American classical singer and the early twentieth century blues singer. Despite noting this fusion, Muranyi seemed keen to establish Simone as a jazz artist rather than a pop star, signalling one of the ways that the politics of authenticity, then as now, required an “other” (in this case, what Muranyi referred to as “the ‘pop’ style”) against which a definition of authentic artistry could be projected.

The mix of jazz, pop and more is powerfully exemplified by the title track of the album, a song written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart for the 1935 musical Jumbo. ‘Little Girl Blue’ had previously been recorded by Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and would subsequently be recorded by Doris DayJanis Joplin and the Carpenters among others. Simone drops the opening verses included in earlier versions (“When I was very young the world was younger than I … Now the young world has grown old / Gone are the tinsel and gold”) and instead introduces the song by playing a handful of bars from the Christmas carol ‘Good King Wenceslas’, which are then used as a countermelody to the main song. On the version on the debut album, Simone begins with the “Wenceslas” melody, which she then develops for a minute as she might with a Bach fugue. Just as the drama is building, she cuts the improvisation and launches into the lyric: “Sit there and count your fingers…”. She then offers a fragile reading of what is essentially a melancholy song, part comfort for a lovelorn orphan, part yearning for the thrill of new romance. At various points throughout the song the “Wenceslas” melody reappears and it is also used to bring the performance to a close.

The title track is also significant in that it was the tune Simone used to “test” the guitarist Al Shackman when it was first suggested he accompany her. Shackman would go on to work with Simone on numerous occasions over the course of her career and he can be heard on many of her recorded performances. In her memoir, Simone describes her astonishment at the way in which Shackman was able to follow what she was doing and even to anticipate where she might go. After the guitarist passed the ‘Little Girl Blue’ test with flying colours, the pair “played Bach-type fugues and inventions for hours, and all the way through we hardly dared look at each other for fear that the whole thing would come tumbling down”.

Although Shackman was not able to be part of the Bethlehem sessions, it is precisely this sense of fragility that flickers through Simone’s recording of ‘Little Girl Blue’, especially the moments in the song where she pauses on the most forlorn imagery: the girl left alone, the raindrops, the narrator’s melancholic observation that “you might as well surrender”, and, perhaps most movingly, the word “blue” that ends the song. There is a signal here, perhaps more than with any of her other recordings from this session, of what would be a recurring theme in Simone’s work, the interruption of an often swinging, soulful or funky set with a fragile lament that seemed to contain the weight of years. As listeners with the whole of Nina Simone’s recorded legacy at our disposal, it is difficult not to hear in ‘Little Girl Blue’ an early example of the singer’s late voice, even a precursor to the title track of her last studio album, A Single Woman.

Simone reprised ‘Little Girl BLue’ for her Philips album Let It All Out​. The song is taken at a brisker pace and much of the earlier ornamentation is omitted: there is little sense here of the Bach fixation or even of the jazz possibilities of the song. Rather, the song is an example of what Richie Unterberger calls Simone’s ‘adult pop-oriented” material, a two-and-a-half minute snapshot of standard Simone repertoire. The version is not without interest, however, and Simone uses her brief exposition to dwell on some crucial moments of the song text. This all takes place in the second half of the song, beginning with the vocal flutter that enters the delivery of the lines “all you can eh-ver co-ount on ah-are the raindrops / that fall on Little Girl Blue” (1:10 – 1:23), includes the vibrato-laden elongation of the word ‘Blue’ and the piano trill that punctuates the song at 1:25, and culminates with the elongated delivery of the song’s final section:

​Ain’t no use, old gi-rl

You might as well surrender

Cause your hopes are getting slender

Why won’t some-body send

A-ah-ah te-eh-nder

Blue boy

To-oo-oo che-ee-er little girl

Blue-oo-oo-oo-oo

Simone included a rendition of ‘Little Girl Blue’ in her set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Prior to her appearance at the festival, Simone had been living away from the USA for a number of years, first temporarily in Barbados, then for a longer period in Liberia. She had not appeared at Montreux since 1968 and was given an enthusiastic reception after being announced by festival organizer Claude Nobs. Simone must have unsettled many with her first gestures; following a long bow, she stood at the front of the stage staring out into the audience for more than 30 seconds, a long time in such a setting (and when viewing the recording of the concert), then sat down at the piano and began to compose herself. In a voice alternating between soothing intimacy and a harder-edged tone, Simone announces her return but declares that she will not be doing any more jazz festivals after this one as she will “graduate to a higher class”. She then announces that “We will start from the beginning” and plays the familiar “Wenceslas” theme that introduces ‘Little Girl Blue’. The ensuing version is notable for a number of lyrical changes, most obviously the repeated references to “liberated little girl blue” and “little lady, Miss Sadie”. Simone sings the line “all you can count on is yourself” as if she is reflecting on her own situation, a feeling that also comes when she adds the lines “ain’t no use to try to tell them / they wouldn’t understand if you tried to tell them”. The close of the song involves Simone playing the “Wenceslas” theme, improvising new piano and vocal lines (including African terms) and appearing to finish the track by leaping from her piano stool, only to returning to sing the closing lines once more.

2 Responses to “Little Girl Blue”

  1. […] 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‘. […]

  2. In critiquing Mr. Muranyi’s liner notes, it is said, “Muranyi seemed keen to establish Simone as a jazz artist rather than a pop star, signalling one of the ways that the politics of authenticity, then as now, required an ‘other’.” He did have a bias towards jazz, and intended on elevating Ms. Simone’s music away from a possible pop pigeon hole. It is worth noting the Muranyi was the last clarinetist in Louis Armstrong’s All Stars, as well as being a performer and songwriter in his own right.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: