Children Go Where I Send You

Coming from a strict religious background, Nina Simone had had experience of “church language” from an early age. In her memoir, she recounts how, as a young girl, she would play piano in church to accompany the gospel singing of the congregation. This gave her a sense of the power of performance: “When I played I could take a congregation where I wanted – calm them down or lift them up until they became completely lost in the music and atmosphere”. She describes how people in church were seized by the music, finding themselves “transported” to another place. Meanwhile her mother, Mary Kate Waymon, referred to non-church music as “real” music, ordering her daughter: “Don’t play any of those real songs”. While the former Eunice Waymon’s decision to do just this would lead to the adoption of a new name and subsequent fame, the music of the church remained a strong feature in Nina Simone’s repertoire.

Simone_AmazingThe sacred and the secular have frequently been presented as twin strands in African American music over the past two centuries. As many scholars have noted, the boundaries between these supposed styles of music are always shifting and there are numerous examples of musicians who moved between the two worlds, from Thomas A. Dorsey to Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin. However, that does not mean that the perception of the split was unimportant. For Nina Simone, the sacred/secular split, if it did figure, may have been just one more case of double consciousness, of being between two worlds, but it would appear from her memoir that there was some initial discomfort in negotiating her path between them, just as there was in her weaving between classical and popular styles. As for many performers before her, leaving the musical milieu of the church for the world of “real songs” was also a leave-taking from home and her past. In the 1992 film La Légende, we witness Simone making a trip home to reunite with her mother and her daughter, during which she is filmed playing for the local church congregation as a kind of homecoming. On Fodder on My Wings (1982) – an album imbued with a sense of “lateness” and retrospection through its experiential perspective on Simone’s life and career, her deceased father and a religious reconciliation of sorts – Simone introduced a version of the gospel song ‘Heaven Belongs to You’ (also known as ‘If You Pray Right’) by speaking about her father singing it when she was three and also calling it an “African song”.  The references to ancestral and cultural roots bear witness to some of the ways in which Simone returned to gospel throughout her career as a way of reconnecting with where she was from.

Gospel featured on the very earliest recordings Simone made for Colpix, with The Amazing Nina Simone containing ‘Children Go Where I Send You’ and ‘Chilly Winds Don’t Blow’, the first fairly conventional, the second much less so. ‘Children’ utilizes a classic barrelhouse piano style that became associated with gospel following the pioneering work of Arizona Dranes, asserting a sense of joy in playing and, as Simone’s commanding vocal enters, in singing too.  Backed by drums which match the piano riffs, Simone drives the vocal home, speeding up her delivery as the song progresses to impart a sense of drive and momentum, of being taken over by the spirit of the music and by the incantatory magic of the song lyric: “eight for the eight that stood at the gate / seven for the seven came down from Heaven / six for the six that couldn’t get fixed”, and so on to the inevitable climax of “one for the little bitty baby / who was born born born in Bethlehem”. In fact, the final line is also one of the first because this song, like ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’, starts with the one, then accumulates one number on each verse, providing a forward-reverse development and, ultimately a cyclical structure as the song closes once again on “born in Bethlehem”. Simone displays further mastery over her material by suddenly cutting the hectically paced, syllable-based delivery of the lyrics at the song’s conclusion (2:17) to use melisma to double the syllable of “was” and extend the word “born” before the climactic “in Beth-le-he-em”. Throughout this version, the vocal harmonies or responses we might expect from a gospel song are absent, with Simone’s the only voice present. Other versions of the songs have included such harmonies. The Golden Gate Quartet, exponents of the “jubilee style” of gospel singing used only vocal harmonies in their version of ‘Go Where I Send Thee’, which dates from the 1930s. The song was also incorporated into Black Nativity, a Broadway show written by Langston Hughes which used gospel numbers sung by Marion Williams and Alex Bradford and their respective groups. The Black Nativity version includes both the Dranes-style barrelhouse piano and the vocal harmonies of the gospel choir.

If participation was only hinted at in the studio recording, Simone took the opportunity to work the song for all its improvisatory, participatory properties in live performance. At the 1961 Village Gate concert recorded by Colpix, she provided an extended rendition of the song.  Opening more or less as normal she then drawls an instruction to her band (Al Shackman on guitar, Chris White on bass and Bobby Hamilton on drums) in a deliberately “Southern” accent: “Take your time, boys, we’ve got a while to go now”. Although Simone was born and grew up in the South, she had, by the time she began performing publically, removed many traces of a Southern accent from her speaking and singing. This was no doubt due to the training she received as she prepared to be a concert pianist. She would later mock such preparation in her protest song ‘Mississippi Goddam’ as being made “to talk real fine just like a lady” as a way of escaping stereotypes attached to southern, working-class black women. Whatever her reasons for adopting the commanding and relatively accent-free “queenly” voice she would be known for, Simone would frequently move into other voices as part of her performance style (particularly notable on her composition ‘Four Women’). Her “gospel voice” should therefore be understood as one of a variety of “vocal masks” adopted by Simone; on the Village Gate version of ‘Children’, that voice is also regionalized, both via her instruction to her band members and by the way she asks the audience if they’ve ever been to a revival meeting, following up with “you’re in one now!” The act is clearly an effective one because, following various extemporizations on the main “Children go where I send you” theme, an audience participation occurs in which the crowd clap along as though possessed. Listening in, we witness Simone’s enjoyment in the power she has to transport her congregation, to “send” her children where she wishes.

One Response to “Children Go Where I Send You”

  1. […] 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 […]

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