Archive for distance

Strange Fruit

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , on June 2, 2013 by Richard

Billie Holiday began performing ‘Strange Fruit’, the anti-lynching song written by Abel Meeropol (under the pen-name “Lewis Allan”), in 1939.  It was, as David Margolick notes, a difficult song to categorize at the time: “too artsy to be folk music, too explicitly political and polemical to be jazz”. Although jazz would come to be seen as a vital medium for the expression of discontent by the time Nina Simone came to record Meeropol’s song, this was not the case in 1939. Dorian Lynskey identifies the newness and strangeness of ‘Strange Fruit’ in the way it alienated audiences rather than inviting complicity or solidarity as contemporaneous propaganda songs tended to. Rather than aiming for collaboration, “the music, stealthy, half in shadow, incarnated the horror described in the lyric” (Lysnkey).

The artistry of the song (and of Holiday’s timeless performance) has invited debates about the relationship between art, popular music and protest, something Simone would have understood very clearly in her self-written protest songs and in the artistic license she took with those of others. Years later, reflecting on her attitude to protest songs during the 1960s, she wrote:

Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me I had musical problems as well: how can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like “protest music” because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.

Simone’s attitude changed as she began to compose her own protest material and to politicize that of others. Like Holiday, she would take protest material into the supper clubs and, like Meeropol and Holiday, she would make it art.


Janell Hobson, like Lynskey, notes Holiday’s ability to avoid the potential pathos of ‘Strange Fruit’ and to avoid sentimentality through the use of ironic distance. Meeropol’s words, for Hobson, fetishize the black body, which is “rendered metaphorically, even romantically, as ‘strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees'”. Holiday’s vocal “bring[s] alive the poem’s ironic edge by invoking the cynicism and despair that elevated the song from sentimentality to poignancy”. This is achieved through moments such as Holiday’s “sour” delivery of the word “bitter” and “the long, drawn-out off-key intonation of the word crop”. For her part, Simone moves between Holiday’s ironic stillness and a more anguished cry. She offers a solo piano reading with little of the mercury virtuosity of many of her recitals, opting instead for slow-moving chords over which she stretches her voice, quiet at first, rising in volume at the mention of “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze”, then dropping again.  As the song progresses, she moves through sadness, poignancy and horror, the latter articulated via the shadow of her grainy breath, which is audible at certain points. At no point does she sound sentimental, although she manages this avoidance in a manner distinct from Holiday’s. Where Holiday had adopted a distracted, flat and ironic (“sour”) tone, one which meant that the potentially “voyeuristic” lines were granted an almost Brechtian alienation, Simone’s is a more chiaroscuro reading, its light and dark textures unfolding the grim tale in the manner of a film noir. In the latter stages of the song, Simone starts to stretch the words to ever greater lengths, spending ten startling seconds on the word “leaves” (2:24-34). She saves the greatest amount of articulation for the final “crop”, substituting Holiday’s inquisitive articulation of the word for four swiftly traversed notes.

Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’, with its shift between flatness and depth of field, provides further evidence that, for her, blankness and the neutral tone were part of a wider set of performance dynamics that also included the sass of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey and the controlled vulnerability (or vulnerable control) of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Maria Callas. Perhaps one of the reasons she insisted on identifying with Callas rather than Holiday was a recognition of the multiplicity of roles she could and would play, not only within a concert performance, but even within one song.

Speaking about ‘Strange Fruit’ a few years after first recording it, Simone described it as “about the ugliest song I’ve ever heard”. She can be seen talking about the song in the following clip (from 5:30 onwards):

Pirate Jenny

Posted in Politics with tags , on June 1, 2013 by Richard

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.