Archive for gospel

Mississippi Goddam

Posted in Politics with tags , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by Richard

In memory of Medgar Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963)

Fifty years on

‘Mississippi Goddam’ remains arguably Simone’s most famous protest song and, not surprisingly, forms the basis for many responses to her work. Three powerful analyses of Simone’s role in the politics of freedom of the 1960s (by Ruth Feldstein, Tammy Kernodle and Daphne Brooks) devote much of their space to discussion of the song. Like them, I’m interested in way that Nina Simone  connected the song’s composition to a subjectivizing event and it’s worth sampling how that event, which occured in 1963, was recalled by Simone in her 1991 autobiography:

In Mount Vernon we had a little apartment built over the garage which was my private hideaway, where I went to practise and prepare for forthcoming performances. I was sitting there in my den on 15 September when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while black children were attending a Bible study class. Four of them – Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins – had been killed. Later that day, in the rioting which followed, Birmingham police shot another black kid and a white mob pulled a young black man off his bicycle and beat him to death, out in the street. It was more than I could take, and I sat struck dumb in my den like St Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realised what it was to be black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine [Hansberry] had been repeating to me over and over – it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I “came through”.

Simone’s first reaction is a desire for violent revenge for the atrocious events that have brought home to her the excess of her (and her fellow black Americans’) situation. She attempts to build a gun in order to deliver retribution to the objects of her “hatred” and “fury”. Her husband, a former police officer, discovers her and stops her, saying, “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.” Simone accepts this and sits down at her piano:

An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in my hand. It was my first civil rights song, and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down. I knew then that I would dedicate myself to the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality under the law for as long as it took, until all our battles were won.

As Simone goes on to note, when she started to become involved in the civil rights movement many already considered her an activist due to the publicity she gave to various aspects of the movement in her concerts and in interviews. She had already recorded songs such as Oscar Brown‘s ‘Brown Baby’ and her “Afrocentric” numbers from ‘Zungo’ onwards had asserted a “return to Africa” that reflected the emerging manifestoes of black nationalist organizations. But clearly Simone felt it necessary, in this retrospective account, to delimit a before and after, to hinge her commitment to civil rights upon a decisive event. Her positing of this event as both specific (the Birmingham bombing and Evers’s death) and ongoing (the decision to commit herself to civil rights).

Simone_In-Concert-coverThe event of conversion can be read into the unfolding narrative of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ itself. The tune, in the first recorded version (found on the 1964 album In Concert), starts off at something of a gallop, its uptempo rhythm seemingly eliciting pleasure from the Carnegie Hall audience, who laugh when Simone declares, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam!'”, pausing slightly before adding, “and I mean every word of it!” (to which the audience respond with more laughter).  The opening lines – “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi / God-dam!” – are repeated, as if inviting a singalong, although it quickly becomes clear that this will be a difficult tune to learn as Simone changes the melody, slowing and stretching her vocals as she asks, “Can’t you see it, can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air?” before circling back to the “Alabama / Tennessee / Mississippi” lines to conclude the song’s first section. It is at this point that she issues the next interjection: “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”, which is received with more laughter from the audience. At this point, we are just over one minute into this nearly five-minute performance.

There is a shift in the dynamics of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ here as Simone settles into the regular rhythm of what amounts, in this unusually structured song, to the first verse. The metre of the lyric stays constant for the next fifty seconds as Simone unfolds a series of increasingly stark images: “we all gonna get it in due time”; “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there”; “me and my people just about due”. The series culminates in the observation, “You keep on sayin’ ‘Go slow'”. Simone pauses for breath as the tune maintains its momentum, then moves into a new section, calling out, “But that’s just the problem”, to which her band members respond with a shout of “too slow!”. This response is issued after each of Simone’s subsequent calls: “washin’ the windows”; “pickin’ the cotton”; “you’re too damn lazy”. As the song approaches the three-minute mark, Simone returns the melody to the “Mississippi God-dam!” refrain before offering her next spoken interjection: “I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?” There is still laughter, though it is less audible and possibly more nervous than before.

The song moves back into the “verse” form for another series of vivid snapshots (“picket lines”, “school boycotts”, “all I want is equality / for my sister, my brother / my people and me”). Simone’s vocal, earlier so playful and inclusive, has now become furious and declamatory. The lyric becomes ever more apocalyptic as she declares, “This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die and die like flies”, then uses the line “I don’t trust you anymore” to return to the “too slow!” call-and-response section, which centres on key words of the civil rights movement (“desegregation” “mass participation”, “unification”). As the song enters its final thirty seconds, it circles back to the opening tune, with Simone swapping the “Alabama / Birmingham” couplet for “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality” and finishing with a drawn out “Mississippi God-dam!”, pounded home by pneumatic piano. As if the significance of the climax is not clear, Simone adds a punctuating “That’s it!” and the band switch into Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ to signal the end of the show.

In just under five minutes Simone manages to set a number of contemporaneous debates to music: an assertion of the “double consciousness” claimed by W.E.B. Du Bois as a conditioning factor of the black experience in America (“I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there”); a sense of desperation and an accompanying loss of faith (“I’ve even stopped believing in prayer”, she declares at one point, as if the blasphemous “Goddam” had not already proven it); and the debates played out between various civil rights groups (CORE, SCLC, SNCC ) and black leaders (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael) over the place of nonviolence and armed struggle. Mirroring the shifting musical sands of the song, the position taken up by the narrator changes as she describes a growing sense that violence is the only option left and delivers violence upon her audience through the declamatory, performative nature of the lyrics. Simone cleverly combines what J.L. Austin described as “constative” language (that which describes facts or gives information) with “performative” language (that which does functional work: greetings, warnings, threats and curses).

Roach_WeInsistWhat marked ‘Mississippi Goddam’ out from anything Simone had hitherto recorded were its anger, its sense of immediacy and insistence, and its strategies of alienation. As far as the latter goes, it could be seen as a successor to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit‘, an invasion of brutal reportage into the polite environs of the supper club. The recording on In Concert would support such a reading, witnessing as it does a subtle but noticeable change come over the audience as the song narrative unfolds. But in other crucial ways, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is a very different song from ‘Strange Fruit’, without the stillness and neutral, curious tone with which Holiday imbued her performance. Simone’s is declamatory and insistent, closer perhaps to the cry placed in the title of the classic civil rights jazz recording, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960), on which the drummer Max Roach had collaborated with Oscar Brown, Jr. and vocalist Abbey Lincoln.

As Dorian Lynskey points out, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ also echoes the voice overheard in the crowd witnessing King’s “I have a dream” speech, a voice which responds to King’s vision by crying “Goddam!” It is this declamatory quality that gave the song its power and that gave it a foothold in history, making it now seem both evocative of its time and continually, insistently relevant and disturbing. “Goddam” may have been a ruder, more shocking declaration in the Carnegie Hall atmosphere of 1964 than it would be today, but, because we know this, we can still witness the unsettling process of hearing Simone alienate her audience as the song unfolds. What is more, the decades that have elapsed since this landmark recording have done little to diminish the power of lines such as “you’re all gonna die and die like flies”.

As this line makes clear, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is notable for its assertion of a desire for revenge, one that can be connected to the more vengeful parts of the Bible. If the statements were too violent to be categorized as gospel, the song nonetheless shared a predictive element often found in gospel. There is also an echo of the interplay between singer and audience that Simone used in her gospel songs, although “interplay” may be the wrong word, for what Simone often seems to do is highlight the barrier dividing herself and the audience even as she seems to invite participation. On the recording of ‘Children Go Where I Send You‘ the singer alerts the audience to the recreation of a revival meeting while suggesting that they probably don’t know what that is; so too, in ‘Mississippi Goddam’, where the breach is highlighted by the between-verse commentary (“this is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written yet”, “I bet you thought I was kiddin”).

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free

Posted in Possession with tags , , , , , , , on May 10, 2013 by Richard

In interviews, and in her autobiography, Nina Simone liked to describe the sense of power she felt when, as a child, she would play music in the church. She also frequently alluded to a sense of oneness she would experience on stage when, treating her audience much as she would a church congregation, she engaged in a process of musical transportation. Examples of this process can be found in various performances of a song she first recorded on her 1967 album Silk & Soul. ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’, written by Simone’s fellow North Carolinian Billy Taylor, works, in its basic form, as one of many “freedom songs” written during the civil rights era that brought together aspects of folk, soul and gospel. Simone’s studio version provides instant swing with its rolling piano chords and finger-clicking intro.  Like the soul- and gospel-inspired compositions of Charles Mingus and Horace Silver, the instruments (here, Simone’s piano and the simple click rhythm) seem to already be singing before any words are uttered, a feeling also present in Taylor’s instrumental jazz trio recording (and in this later performance by Taylor).  However, it is the famously yearning words that connect Simone’s version to the spirit of the times, becoming a collective anthem alongside Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and the ubiquitous ‘We Shall Overcome’. The key words and phrases in Dick Dallas’s lyric – “break the chains”, “remove all the bars that keep us apart”, “every man should be free”, “longing to live”, “I’d soar to the sun”, “I’d sing ‘cos I’d know” – resonate with the classic freedom songs of the era. If the ever-present wish, with its seeming lack of fulfilment, sounds a melancholy note, the actual music sends a more affirmative message. Stabs of brass provide soul power and gospel clarification, suggesting that all the ambitions voiced in the song, the “longing to live” might just be within reach. It is even possible, due to the shift of the modal verb and Simone’s articulation, to hear the repeated “I’d know how it feels” at the end of the song as “I know how it feels”. Like many of the finest freedom songs, a certain amount of ambiguity refuses a “closed” meaning and allows for the imagination of utopian space.


At the same time, for all the song’s collective message, it is always possible to read other messages into Simone’s performances and to see certain songs as vehicles for connecting different aspects of the artist’s life. In a filmed performance of the song used in Joel Gold’s film Nina, Simone slows the tempo and opens the song space by adding improvised elements.  As the crowd clap and shout affirmative messages in response to Simone’s clearly articulated vocals, the concert takes on the atmosphere of a religious revival meeting. At the point where the artist embarks on a jazz-influenced piano solo, Gold’s editor Frederick Charney intercuts material from a filmed interview in which Simone describes such meetings: “Nothing stops happening until everyone in the room is satisfied … there’s no such things as the end [of a song]”. Simone describes the interactive nature of song performance in revivals as “like being in touch with a hundred or 200 human beings at one time … that’s a fantastic thing”. Cutting back to the concert performance, we witness Simone improvising additional wishes to Dallas’s lyric (“I’d sing so much better … I’d dance so much better … I’d be a little less mean”) as a “call” to the band’s response. To enthusiastic audience feedback, she testifies to a dream of flying and speaks of having her eyes opened to a “new vision”. Having now assumed the role of gospel preacher, Simone continues: “The Bible says ‘be transformed by the renewing of your mind'”, then jumps up from her piano stool to take a position at the front of the stage, swaying with the music, screaming, clapping and leading her congregation. Returning to the piano, she sings about a moment in her life when she would know the feeling of freedom, stretching the final “free!” over several seconds. The phrase “for one moment in my life” resonates with her use of almost identical words during the contemporaneous “Martin Luther King Suite” (“for one moment of your life”), connecting to that testimony and showing how Simone, like King, used particular “formulas” and “key-signature phrases” as part of her affective work (see Richard Lischer’s book The Preacher King).


In an earlier section of Gold’s film, Simone attempts to answer a question posed by an interviewer: ”What is ‘free’ to you?” In response, she describes a feeling she occasionally gets onstage, then clarifies freedom as “no fear” and “something to really really feel … like a new way of seeing”. With the help of Gold and Charney, Simone is able to take possession of Taylor and Dallas’s song, connecting it to her religious background and to the freedom she sought in performing music. At the same time, the freedom she describes involves giving herself over to a situation that is larger than she or any one individual, one that is created through religious possession and group psychology. The “new way of seeing” echoes other statements Simone made about Saint Paul-like moments of “coming through” or “turning on”, suggesting she attained (and was taken over by) a new subjectivity in response to such epiphanies. For the philosopher Alain Badiou, who sees in Saint Paul an example of a subjectivity based upon recognition of universal truth, the realization engendered by epiphany is one which, through the processes of fidelity, searching and constant renewal, allows the subject to reject conformity. Badiou uses the same words of Paul quoted by Simone – “Do not be conformed to the present century, but be transformed by the renewal of your thought [mind]” (Romans 12.2) – to highlight the universalism that, for Badiou, is Paul’s greatest legacy:

Far from fleeing from the century, one must live with it, but without letting oneself be shaped, conformed. It is the subject, rather than the century, who, under the injunction of his faith, must be transformed. And the key to this transformation, this “renewal”, lies in thought.

Freedom, then, can be gained through nonconformity, and thought – the quest for the knowledge of how it would feel – is the first step towards freedom.


Another filmed performance of ‘I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free’ combines the religious aspects mentioned above with a kind of “embodying” of the song that, paradoxically, allows the singer to break free of her own body for a fleeting moment and to suggest that one of the freedoms promised is, in fact, freedom from bodily determinism. The performance comes from Simone’s astonishing set at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Simone begins the song with the familiar piano motif, not deviating far from the recorded version, although she extends the pre-vocal section as if to get into the groove.  The subsequent rendition also follows the recorded version, save for a few interjections, a greater amount of jazz phrasing on the vocals and some harsh piano stabs (something of a Simone trademark, deployed at strategic “punctuating” moments and very frequently at the close of songs). The changes come towards the end of the song, the first being when Simone shifts into falsetto as she imagines being a bird, her voice soaring with the lyric to a height all the more notable for her infrequent use of such high pitch. For a few moments it is as if she really is breaking free of anything in the song that might be binding her, even the very thing that makes singing and playing possible, the music itself.

“Spirit’s movin’ now”, Simone observes, realising the new freedom she has found and connecting it to a religious notion of transcendence. As if confirming the confusion over whether she originally sang “I’d know how it feels” or “I know how it feels”, she testifies to the latter as she improvises new lyrics and interjections: “Got news for you. I already know … Jonathan Livingston Seagull ain’t got nothing on me”. She shouts the word “free!” four times in succession, then develops it into “I’m free and I know it”. Changing to a new, seemingly improvised tune, Simone sing-speaks the truth she’s discovered: “I found out how it feels not to be chained to any thing, to any race to any faith to anybody, to any creed to any hopes to any anything”. Again, we could read this “religiously”, seeing this freedom as an escape from earthly concerns, even from the body itself. However, given the denial of faith and creed here, it is equally tempting to connect the performance to the kind of identity politics later theorised by writers such as Judith Butler. This was the other side to Simone’s assertive anthems (notably ‘To Be Young, Gifted and Black’), this loss of bodily identification that imagined freedom from biology and culture, a freedom that would find its ultimate expression in her extraoridnary, but little known, reading of Exuma’s ’22nd Century’. The Montreux performance of ‘I Wish I knew’ presents yet another aspect of Simone’s enigma: how she could turn what seems to be the very epitome of humanistic communication, this ‘civil rights anthem’, into a vision of posthumanism. Transformation indeed.

Sinnerman

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.