Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

While discussing the difficulty that critics had in categorizing her music, Simone claimed, “If I had to be called something it should have been a folk singer, because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing”. While we have to treat Simone’s self-categorizations with as much care as those of any other commentator, it is nonetheless worth considering her as a folk singer. As she suggests in her autobiography, one of the ways in which she was close to folk music and its audience was via her involvement in the Greenwich Village music scene and by the interest shown by (mainly white) folk music fans in blues music and musicians of the pre-War era.

In describing the time she spent performing in Greenwich Village, Simone highlights a growing desegregation in musical tastes and crowds:

The folk kids were discovering blues players that the jazz people knew so well they regarded them as old history, nothing to do with what was happening; but to the white kids it was somebody else’s history they were hearing, so it was new and exciting. And the jazz players had their ears and minds open to other influences – they had to, or else they wouldn’t be able to play like they did.

Some of the ways in which these worlds came together can be seen by considering the song ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’, which Simone regularly performed during her career. Often described in liner notes as a “Norwegian folk song”, ‘Black Is The Color…’ had been part of the American folk repertoire for a considerable period before Simone offered her interpretation of it. It appears in Jean Ritchie‘s 1965 anthology Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, where it is listed as having been collected by Cecil Sharp in 1916 in North Carolina, Simone’s home state. The song is often sung from the perspective of a man speaking of a woman, though Ritchie’s version is addressed to a man and so is Simone’s.  Whatever the provenance of the song, it could not have failed to have other identifications given the racial politics of the time and a sense of  identity assertion could be identified here that would find subsequent articulation in the more explicit ‘Brown Baby’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.

Simone_AmazingIn addition to changing the pronouns of the song, Simone bases her version around a piano setting. While this is hardly surprising given that the piano was her instrument and that this performance was part of her first major New York concert, it does connect the performance to a longstanding classical music convention of incorporating folk songs into more “tasteful” or “artistic” styles and thus raises questions as to whether or not Simone would be considered a “folk singer” by the standards of the time, or indeed those of the present day. Still, the main feature of Simone’s rendition is her voice, its warm tone hovering over the fairly muted piano chords (her keyboard virtuosity only emerges for brief spells between verses). Simone would offer a very similar reading of the song on her 1966 album Wild Is the Wind, by which time the association of folk music with stringed instruments was firmly established, as was a folk “style”. Simone herself was not impervious to this folk style, as can be heard in her interpretation of Bob Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ (on 1966’s Let It All Out), where she is accompanied solely by driving acoustic guitar, the pounding rhythm adding a sense of doomed fatality to the song’s tragic narrative.

‘Black Is the Color…’ has an interesting connection to classical and jazz music, having been used by both Luciano Berio and Patty Waters as the basis for longer works. The version of the song that Berio used in 1964 for his song cycle Folk Songs was one rewritten by John Jacob Niles, himself a fascinating character in the bringing together of classical and folk music. In late 1965, Patty Waters used the same version of the song that Simone had used as the basis for a 14-minute exploration of avant-garde vocal techniques on her album Sings. Much of Waters’s performance involves a violent interrogation of the word “black”, emphasizing the volatility of the term and encouraging a reading of the song in which black identity is foregrounded (Waters, a white singer, was operating in a musical milieu – free jazz – that would align itself strongly with the black power movement).

Simone_-_Black_GoldA “black pride” reading of the song would also seem to apply to the version which appears on Simone’s album Black Gold, a live album recorded in 1969.  The album opens with the announcer, Ed Williams, quoting from Langston Hughes. A version of ‘Black Is the Color…’ follows, not significantly different to that featured on earlier albums. Having “completed” that version, the band perform a second version, which takes its lead from the acoustic guitar and utilizes a different, but complementary melody, a different vocalist (guitarist Emile Latimer) and singing style, different words and a different gender perspective. The first line of the song is the same, but then some changes are made: “black is her body, so firm, so bold / black is her beauty, her soul of gold”. The subsequent narrative and instrumental style guide the song very closely to what would have been, at that time, a contemporary folk style, albeit with the blues/jazz tinge utilized by singers such as Fred Neil or Tim Buckley.

The evolution of this song in Simone’s performance programme serves as a reminder of the need to situate her in a wider context than she is often placed, one that saw the blurring of boundaries between artistic styles and high and low culture. This could be described as a postmodern moment, in which Simone participated as a postmodern artist. It was at least possible to consider what she did with ‘Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair’ alongside what Burl Ives, Kitty White, Patty Waters, John Jacob Niles and Luciano Berio did with it. This moment in Simone’s career combined a rush of success with exposure to an art world that could feed her intellectual and creative needs. Greenwich Village, at the time of her tenure there in the early 1960s, was a utopian site that contained the promise for artistic, political and personal revolutions in the decade to come.

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