The posts on this site include musical examples taken from Spotify and YouTube. The Spotify links are collected on this page as a playlist to be updated as more posts are added. Wherever possible I’ve tried to link to the Spotify version of the song/album referred to in the post but this isn’t always possible. One of the great frustrations of accessing Nina Simone’s recorded legacy is the ubiquity of shoddily produced anthologies of her music, mostly involving the early recordings for which she signed away copyright. This is a topic I bring up a number of times in my book and there’s a bit more on the subject below (after the playlist).

Nina Simone’s Purloined Voice

The “capricious behaviour” and “bizarre demands” associated with Nina Simone tend to fall into two categories: those resulting from her disappointment with inattentive (“disrespectful”) audiences and those resulting from her treatment at the hands of the music industry. Ironically, when Simone is recalled, she is often remembered for her hit ‘My Baby Just Cares For Me’, a song she not only thought was slight but which caused her considerable disappointment due to its having been part of her first disastrous record deal with Bethlehem Records in the 1950s, when she signed away for a paltry sum the rights to the material she recorded. In her later concerts, Simone invariably included ‘My Baby…’ in her set, often as an encore and often with an introduction such as that found on her Live at Ronnie Scott’s recording: “I think this is what you’ve been waiting for”.

For much of her career, Simone was painfully aware of the fact that her voice had been stolen from her and this awareness, combined with other issues that often clouded her mind, led her to behave in “irrational” ways. Lucy O’Brien describes waiting for an interview with Simone while the singer harangued her publicist for not making sure copies of Simone’s autobiography were in the shops, ignoring the fact that the book had not yet been published. In another often cited example, Simone appeared on an American television chat show to promote A Single Woman and demanded to be paid then and there; following this incident, her current record label Elektra decided to drop her. In these examples, and numerous others, we witness Simone’s fear of the theft of her voice articulated as diva-like behaviour.

At the time of writing (although quite likely not for very much longer) the few remaining high street music stores in the UK contain surprisingly large “Nina Simone” sections – surprising because the amount of music on offer seems to be in inverse proportion to the amount of Simone’s music actually known or heard in or outside these stores. Her music is in full view (and within easy earshot), but not in its classic form, very often not in an artist-endorsed form and frequently in poorly recorded and packaged compilations.

We can posit various reasons for the difficulty in identifying a “classic” Nina Simone album. Each album, and especially those from her classic period (the “long 1960s”), showcases the diversity of her work, splitting apart notions of coherence. Record companies might have tried to suggest coherence with titles such as Folksy Nina, Pastel Blues and Silk & Soul, but the albums’ contents invariably belied such attempts to fix the sound stylistically. Another reason is that Simone’s classic period predates the time at which albums by black artists outside the jazz sphere were conceived as “works” and at which albums by female artists were similarly conceived (save, perhaps, in folk music). This is partly to do with racial categorizing, with record companies marketing black performers as singles artists, an assumption that would be challenged by the work of Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Funkadelic and other (predominantly male) artists of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, the assumption lingered due to predominant ideas of the culture industry and critics during the period of popular music canonization, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, the same period that witnessed the ideology of the album as a “work”.

In the twenty-first century, it may make little sense to speak of “albums”. Simone’s work, it could be argued, is prime playlist material for the iTunes age. We can pick and choose, categorize and reorganize, take the open text of her life and work and fashion it (“remixed and reimagined”) to our own patterns in true postmodernist style. Will Friedwald makes a similar point in his appraisal of Simone’s work, suggesting various themed playlists that would enable the listener to rediscover her work in a more coherent fashion: “Simone sings Broadway … songs with blues elements and blues associations … traditional spirituals and religious songs … traditional American and European songs … traditional music from the African diaspora …”.

But even when we think in terms of the playlist, there is still an ideology of the album at work and it is still, for better or worse, attached to critical appraisal. Simone deserves such appraisal. Her work needs to be written about as work. It seems difficult at this stage to imagine an extended study devoted to just one of Simone’s albums, as Ashley Kahn has done for Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, as David Quantick has done for the Beatles’ “White Album”, or as Continuum’s 33 1/3 series has done for many rock, pop and soul albums. It is perhaps easier to imagine such a process being applied to particular songs in a manner similar to David Margolick’s account of ‘Strange Fruit’; indeed, shorter articles have already devoted space to contextual studies of ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Pirate Jenny’. In my book, and the posts on this site, I sketch some possible approaches to the study of Simone’s songs and albums, though these are only preliminary accounts of what, in my opinion, deserve to be more extended works.

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