Pirate Jenny

The role of the contemporary popular music performer has many connections to that of the political or religious orator, a point underlined in Nina Simone’s description of the power she acquired when performing:

It was at this time, in the mid-sixties, that I first began to feel the power and spirituality I could connect with when I played in front of an audience. I’d been performing for ten years, but it was only at this time that I felt a kind of state of grace come upon me on those occasions when everything fell into place. At such times I would give a concert that everyone who witnessed it would remember for years, and they would go home afterwards knowing that something very special had happened.

Simone’s performance of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s ‘Pirate Jenny’ provides a good example of the process she describes. The song appeared on the In Concert album and shared with ‘Mississippi Goddam’ a combination of situation and prediction. In both songs the gospel-like promise of future salvation was rendered as a violent uprising, or revenge, that followed a state of “going slow” and putting up with inequality. ‘Pirate Jenny’ originally appeared as part of Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Its narrative consists of the thoughts of the titular protagonist as she cleans and slaves for a group of “gentleman” in “this crummy southern town in this crummy old hotel”.  While the hotel guests ignore or overlook her, Jenny plots her revenge for the imminent day when “the black freighter with a skull on its masthead will be coming in”. As the revenge drama unfolds, Simone veers between perky piano accompaniment and slow, drawn-out chords whose occasional dissonance echoes the dark thoughts taking root in Jenny’s mind. Meanwhile, drama is added by the use of loud bass percussion whenever the freighter is mentioned, its effect being to give a sense of a dark storm brewing. The song is clearly a “show tune”, as Simone had said about ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and she uses its changing dynamics to highlight the theatricality of the performance, moving between whispers, silence, screams and cries. This is most notable five minutes into the performance when, having established the arrival of the fateful ship and Jenny’s new role as judge presiding over who should be executed, Simone cries “in that quiet of death, I’ll say…”, then stops, allowing silence to descend on the hall. Breaking the silence with a whispered “right now … right now”, Simone continues to whisper the lyric, then to sing, as if in a dream state, in a soft voice with a hitherto unwitnessed purity of tone, about the departure of the ship with Pirate Jenny stowed aboard, the revenger’s raspy grain only returning for the final notes: “on … it … is … me”.

This mastery of dynamic control – the audience sound spellbound – is what leads Russell Berman to conclude that Simone was aiming for aesthetic rather than political affect with her version of ‘Pirate Jenny’. Her use of multiple voices and the relative ease with which the narrative of the song can be connected, in Simone’s performance, to a “racial, regional, and class specificity”, stand in stark contrast to the “crisp, mechanical”, alienating delivery of Lotte Lenya, the singer for whom Brecht and Weill habitually wrote. However, Daphne Brooks takes issue with Berman’s reading of Simone’s Brecht performances, arguing that Simone achieved an affective distanciation both here and in the Brecht/Weill-influenced ‘Mississippi Goddam’ because her protest songs were so “other” and strange for the time in which she was performing them. By “distanciation”, Brooks means a strategy of defamiliarization that aims at emotional estrangement rather than the mutuality of felling common to many protest songs and civil rights anthems of the period. It is certainly the case that Simone created sides in her performances as much as she fostered inclusion. Brooks suggests that Simone achieves a “black female distanciation” that is notably distinct from other civil rights singers such as Odetta and Fannie Lou Hamer. The distanciation achieved by Simone was perhaps not that of pure Brechtian theory (which would also eschew the kind of emotionalism Simone was known for), but it did offer an alienation technique aimed at a society that had been conditioned to accept a range of stereotypical roles for black female singers.

4 Responses to “Pirate Jenny”

  1. […] four verses. Unlike the shifting metres and dynamics of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Pirate Jenny‘, ‘Four Women’ builds its affect on consistency, each verse following what we […]

  2. […] 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 […]

  3. Rob Cordell Says:

    Does anyone know where I can find sheet music to Nina’s recording of Pirate Jenny?

  4. […] 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 […]

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