Archive for show tunes

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”).

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.

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

Blue-oo-oo-oo-oo

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.