Archive for the Categories Category

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.

Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair

Posted in Categories with tags , , , on May 9, 2013 by Richard

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.


Posted in Categories with tags , , , , on May 8, 2013 by Richard

While it could be argued that Simone presented her “folk” material in a fairly restrained manner, keeping something of the textual reverence displayed by her contemporary Odetta, her gospel numbers tended to be wilder affairs, possessed of a different kind of power to that found in Odetta’s voice. Power, pleading and confusion are the key markers in Simone’s reading of ‘Sinnerman’, a track described by Richard Middleton as a “last-day drama”. Certainly, there is an apocalyptic feel to the song, aided by its epic running time (notable in at least three recorded versions by Simone ), its “implacable” piano vamp (Middleton) and its depiction of an unredeemable sinner caught between God and the Devil. Over the endless, infectious piano, the song is played out in what initially seems like a duologue in which the speaking roles are limited to two voices, not necessarily in conversation. The Sinnerman is addressed as “you” at various points but speaks as “I” for most of the song, although it is not difficult to imagine, given the terror and confusion that reign over this transgressing subject, that everything we hear represents the Sinnerman’s own bewildered thought and speech. As in ‘The City of Refuge’, a song recorded by the gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson, the protagonist is constantly running. The relentless verses chase the sinner as “he” runs to the rock, to the sea and to the river (both of which are “bleeding” and “boiling”), each time finding neither refuge nor respite from his all-seeing, vengeful God. Even when he runs “to the Lord” he is told to “run to the Devil” and is left with little option but to plead with the Lord to “bring down power”.

The power play of the text is matched by the shifting dynamics of the song. Eventually the implacable piano crashes to a halt (3:35) and drums, bass and guitar carry the groove. There is a clapping interlude with no instrumental accompaniment, during which the piano starts up again, slowly at first and then gradually building back into the vamp and a repeat of some of the verse elements – the boiling river and sea. Simone’s voice rises to a shout (“where were you when you ought to be praying?”) and, as the band move into a repeat of the “bring power” section, the pleading becomes desperate, eventually moving into a wordless kind of scat that Middleton describes as “glossolalic” (a reference to the religious practice of speaking in tongues), succeeded by “a drum-kit conclusion of Old Testament severity”. Like the sinner, we are caught between a rock and a hard place, not knowing where to go or what to expect. It is tempting to read the song as one of paranoia, or, at least, of the kind of double consciousness with which Simone so often identified, a consciousness that offers the subject an always already confused sense of belonging. In a lesser known version of ‘Sinnerman’ included on the album Gospel According to Nina Simone, the artist inserts a line from her signature song “Mississippi Goddam” – “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there” – which serves as both an intertextual reference for performer and audience and as a way of cementing the Sinnerman’s predicament.

Children Go Where I Send You

Posted in Categories with tags , , on May 7, 2013 by Richard

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.

Little Girl Blue

Posted in Categories with tags , , , , on April 22, 2013 by Richard

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


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.