Archive for protest songs

Sunday in Savannah / Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) / Mississippi Goddam

Posted in Lateness, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on July 5, 2013 by Richard
MLK_Funeral_Wagon

Martin Luther KIng’s funeral procession, April 9th 1968, Atlanta, Georgia

‘Why? (The King of Love is Dead’, Nina Simone’s haunting tribute to Martin Luther King, was one of a suite of songs performed by Simone and her band at the Westbury Music Fair in New York on Sunday 7th April 1968, shortly after King’s murder. Simone begins introduces ‘Sunday in Savannah’, the first song in what subsequently came to be known as “The Martin Luther King Suite”, by expressing surprise that her audience have turned up to the concert hall given the tragic events of recent days.  “Happily surprised” that they have, however, she expresses hope that the evening’s performance can act as some sort of healing ritual, or working-through of the mourning process.  An elegiac note is struck with the languid ‘Sunday in Savannah’, a song which bears no direct reference to King or his murder but rather imagines a peaceful continuation of everyday life in a religious community, a practice, it implies, which King should have been able to pursue instead of having to take up the fight against an unnecessary evil. The longing here is not for what was but for what might have been had historical circumstances been different, had humankind been more tolerant, or had the dream that King foretold come to pass into reality. The sense of harmonious continuity is emphasized in the musical accompaniment by the organ (played by Simone’s brother, Sam Waymon) and by the lightest of touches from piano, guitar and drums. Only at the song’s culmination do voice and piano become discordant and harsh, as Simone substitutes “Atlanta” for “Savannah”, invoking King’s home town and pointing out “it’s the same thing, same State, same feeling”.

‘Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)’ was a song written by Simone’s bassist Gene Taylor in response to King’s assassination. As Simone says at the outset, the band had had just one day to learn it and the performance subsequently seems to veer between the rehearsed and the improvised. ‘Why?’ has made various appearances on record and CD, initially appearing in edited form on the RCA album ‘Nuff Said (1968) and later being partially restored to its original version as part of the “Martin Luther King Suite” on the compilations Saga of the Good Life and Hard Times and Sugar in My Bowl. The full, unedited version can be heard on the compilation Forever Young, Gifted & Black (2006) and begins in a quietly elegiac tone as Simone introduces the song. Taylor’s suitably epic opening – “Once upon this planet Earth” – sets the tone for a reverential account of King’s life, work and dreams. To begin with, Simone stays clear of militancy as she emphasizes King’s Christian message, the tragic sacrifice he was forced to pay and the possibility that he might have died in vain. Lateness is the song’s keynote: King’s lateness, Simone’s growing sense of lateness (which would transform itself into a perpetual process of mourning) and a general sense of lateness and loss for the civil rights movement. In one of the many unanswered questions of the song, Taylor and Simone ask “is it too late for us all?”

‘Why?’ can be heard as a motivated act of remembering, wondering and yearning. As remembrance the narrative is not inaccurate but, as with many elegies, accuracy is less important than the act of recalling a person’s life and its meaning for a wider congregation. ‘Why?’ acts as a song of wonder and yearning simply through its positing of childishly simple, yet difficult-to-answer, questions. Why does it have to be this way? Why can’t things be different? The black female voice, which Farah Jasmine Griffin describes as one of the “founding sounds” of the USA, has often been called upon to provide solace in moments of historical rupture. It is also a voice that “expresses a quality of longing: longing for home, for love, for connection with God, for heaven, for freedom … a conduit between what and where we are and what and where we want to be”. As with the musical role models amd social movment spokespeople discussed by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison, it is clear that Simone needed to offer a response to the tragedy of April 4 and that those affected by the tragedy needed to hear from an artist of her stature, ability and socio-political position.

But ‘Why?’ does not consist solely of questions. To be sure, it manifests one of the commonly understood phases of mourning in its bewildered and uncomprehending ‘whys’, in its pain and numbness. But it also enacts another phase of mourning by showing anger and a refusal to accept what has happened. After seven minutes of Taylor’s elegiac gospel song (closer, perhaps, to the kind of “sorrow songs” discussed by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk), Simone and the band start to raise the volume and the singer’s voice takes on a harder edge as she poses a new question: what will happen in the cities now that “our 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 what life is”, a moment of decision – an event – where the attainment of a new, more meaningful subjectivity is recognized, a commitment and fidelity that can survive even death. To a dramatically rolling piano accompaniment, Simone testifies that “you know what freedom is, for one moment of your life”. As she returns to Taylor’s lyric – “what’s gonna happen / now that the King of Love is dead?” – the song takes on a new, less fatalistic, more assertive dimension, no longer a question raised to a cruel God, but rather a threat and prediction of “the fire next time“.

During the song, Simone also takes the time to reflect on the loss of other role models and cultural beacons: “Lorraine Hansberry left us … and then Langston Hughes left us, Coltrane left us, Otis Redding left us. Who can go on? Do you realize how many we have lost? … We can’t afford any more losses. … They’re shooting us down one by one.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other incidents, not least the church bombing that had inspired the writing of the song. At one point she replaces “Tennessee” with “Memphis”, a reference to the city where King was shot; later, calling upon the audience to join her in song, Simone shouts “the time is too late now … the King is dead!” As if it were not clear that ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is delivering on the threats hinted at in ‘Why?’, Simone declares “I ain’t about to be nonviolent honey!” Unlike the version of the song immortalized on the In Concert album, here it is Simone who is laughing. Her laughter seems as strange and out of place as that of the audience in the earlier version but we should probably hear it as an illogical response to an illogical and impossible situation.

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

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”).

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.

Simone-strange-fruit

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):