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Nina Simone and Piano!

Posted in Piano, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2018 by Richard

The news that today is being celebrated as National Album Day has inspired me to post the following text on Nina Simone’s 1969 masterpiece Nina Simone and Piano! It’s a text that’s being lying dormant for a few years and now seems a good time to do something with it.

The concept shouldn’t have been so surprising. Hadn’t it always been Nina Simone and piano? Hadn’t the piano always been the black freighter on which Pirate Nina had delivered her righteous anger, her vengeance? Hadn’t the instrument been her constant companion as she conquered the supper club set, attached herself to the civil rights movement, and became part of the counterculture? At the heart of all her triumphs, and not a few of her defeats, there had always been Nina Simone and piano. Sitting down at the instrument in late 1968, in the wake of the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, that longevity must have been palpable. And memory too: the memory of her teacher Miss Mazzy, of her parents’ nurturing of her early talent, of her shame and outrage when they were asked to move from the front row of her first recital to make room for a white couple, of the support of the citizens of Tryon, North Carolina, of her time at Juilliard, of the rejection by Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute.

The time she spent as a nightclub pianist; the lessons she gave to make a living; the night she was told she had to sing if she wanted to keep her job; the finding of a voice; the bliss of mixing Bach, boogie and blues: all of these and more were laid out before her in September 1968, like the keys of her life, like the notes of a tune for a show still being written. Then there was the voice she had found in the wake of coming through, of being blasted by the reality of America then and there and always, a tool that soon became a weapon. Who’d have known how powerful that ‘little voice’ would turn out to be? Who’d have thought it would become the thing she was known for, not piano, not classical music, not jazz music, not fleet-fingered dexterity, but voice, the voice of those she’d come to refer to as ‘my people’, though people and voice and politics had been the furthest from her mind when she’d been working on her Bach and Czerny as a girl in North Carolina. Voice and word as holy weapons, the channelled power of gospel reinvented as the Church of Nina, that history-sent incentive to turn the stage into a site for the converting of souls, a place where she and they could finally come through. A voice and another weapon – piano! – that could be hauled through the tumult of the sixties to witness, at the decade’s weary close, a point where so many hopes lay burned, tattered, and scattered to the wind, so many dreams deferred, a point where the mountain top seemed as far away as ever.

To have come within sight of a possible future and to have come only to this silence of defeat. And in that silence to sit down, without a band, without those musicians of whom she’d say ‘they are an extension of me or they don’t play with me’, to sit down without them, in RCA’s Studio B in New York, alone again naturally. To reach out one hand, and then another, to engage with the keyboard and then, as was now expected, to add voice, to proclaim the words of others and make them her own. It shouldn’t have been surprising but it was. This was something she hadn’t been given a chance to do before, to let out into the world a set of songs delivered by just Nina Simone and piano. No wonder that, in that era of gushing LP liner notes, disc jockey Tom Reed would claim that here, as if for the first time, record buyers could consume ‘pure Nina’.

Maybe this wasn’t so much pure Nina as secret Nina, the one who placed herself ‘between the keys of a piano’ and admitted that ‘my secret self is between these worlds’. The piano keyboard has frequently been used as a metaphor for race relations, for spatial proximity, a fuller picture of the dialectic of sharp and flat, of the possibility and necessity for harmony. In the 1930s it inspired the League of Coloured Peoples to name its official journal The Keys, while half a century later, in 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder took the metaphor to the top of many countries’ charts with the sentimental but resonant ‘Ebony and Ivory’. But beyond the temptingly metaphorical layout of its keyboard, the piano has acted in other ways as an integration machine. You could play Beethoven and the blues on the banjo if you wanted to – Pete Seeger did, much to the delight of his audience – but the piano allowed a way of moving between these musical worlds that was less forced, less about surprise for the sake of it and more about the ways in which musical languages had been honed at the keyboard and with the keyboard in mind. More pertinently, the piano was an instrument that existed in different public and private spheres and that could act as one of the few constants available to a young girl crossing the tracks from the black neighbourhoods to the white to take her lessons, or to a young woman moving from the salon to the saloon, or from the conservatoire to the concert hall. ‘I always had the piano’, Simone would tell Maya Angelou in a 1970 interview, ‘In either world. I began to understand something about what is called “classical music”. Its structure, its points of convergence. Its reason. And that was good.’

In that same interview she recalled, ‘I had my piano, my parents, my people, my church. The electricity of religion. I had my joys.’ These joys, this passion, would see her through dark times, such as the moment her dreams of being a classical concert pianist were shattered when Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute denied her the chance to study further. As she continued with her classical training, and as she turned increasingly towards the performance of popular music – first as a pianist and singer in a variety of night clubs in Philadelphia and New York, then as an increasingly successful recording artist, Simone’s constant companion was the piano. Following an ultimately unsuccessful contract with the independent Bethlehem label, she signed to Colpix and released a number of albums in quick succession. Moving to the Philips label in 1964, she recorded equally prolifically, releasing seven albums in three years. It was during this time, and her subsequent tenure with RCA, that she became strongly connected to the civil rights movement and to the revolutions taking place in art, music and social relationships. Although mainly known as an interpreter of others’ material, Simone contributed her own powerful compositions to the political song repertoire, songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Backlash Blues’, a collaboration with poet, mentor and friend Langston Hughes.

Despite releasing a number of standout albums in the 1960s – including In Concert, ’Nuff Said and Here Comes the Sun – Simone has never really been thought of as an album artist. We can think of various reasons why this is the case. 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 unity 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 categorising as record companies marketed black performers as singles artists. That assumption 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, but it still lingered due to predominant ideas of the culture industry and critics during the canonisation of popular music in the late 1960s, the same period that witnessed the ideology of the album as a ‘work’.

In 2013 I published a book about Nina Simone in which I wrote, ‘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.’ But if I were wanting to challenge that perception and embark on precisely such a task, Nina Simone and Piano! would offer the ideal candidate, distilling as it does the components that made Simone such a compelling performer and concentrating them into the pure or secret world of a solo artist engaged in the delicate art of interpretation. All the songs on the album are written by other people, providing us with an excellent showcase of Simone’s genius at reconstruction. Time and again she takes a familiar number and locates the unfamiliar in it, mining even such seeming frivolities as Jonathan King’s ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’ for hidden qualities and unplumbed depths.

One thing the album doesn’t contain is any explicit engagement with race or gender, certainly when compared to the firebrand packages that preceded and succeeded it. But such topics are not exactly absent from the album, as Simone highlights African American histories by tapping into a range of established musical styles (gospel, blues, jazz) and even exploring relatively unknown black poetry of the nineteenth century via her adaptation of a text by Paul Laurence Dunbar. At the same time, when considering the personal nature of Simone’s piano project, it is worth asking why she might have been expected to be offering more outspoken commentary on the racial politics of the time. This seems a strange point to make, given that Simone is invariably associated with issues of civil rights, black pride and identity assertion, but it is always worth asking, even if just as a prompt to re-calibrate our assumptions. What are the cultural dynamics driving the ways in which certain individuals in the public eye – those referred to by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison as ‘movement intellectuals’ – are first identified by their publics as representative spokespeople and then expected to always already be on message? What about down time, personal projects, work away from the spotlight? Such questions have been asked of figures such as Martin Luther King and it’s worth asking them of Nina Simone too. Why should she have to do what was expected of her? Wasn’t that a large part of the reason she felt so exhausted by the close of the decade, why she would say, in her 1991 memoir, that ‘on the one hand I loved being black and being a woman, and that on the other it was my colour and sex which had fucked me up in the first place’? Didn’t she sometimes want a break from having to address these feelings in her music? Or is it the case that these conflicted feelings are precisely what Nina Simone and Piano! is about?

While Simone’s vocal and keyboard skills are the main affective vehicles of Nina Simone and Piano!, the lyrics are also a vital ingredient and reward separate consideration. Although there is not a single ‘story’ told by the selected songs (which are drawn from a typically wide range of sources: Carolyn Franklin, Hoagy Carmichael, Leonard Bernstein, Randy Newman, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Jacques Brel), the strong presence of desolation, abandonment, apocalypse and, more hopefully, renewal provide a certain conceptual cohesion. The narrative traced from the album opener ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, with its strong sense of spiritual conviction and its resonant gospel imagery, to the almost unbearably downbeat finale ‘The Desperate Ones’ is one that models a dialectic of hope and despair that can be found throughout Simone’s career.

This dialectic tension is echoed in the ways words alternately work with and against their musical delivery throughout the album. This can be heard from the opening notes of ‘Seems I’m Never Tired of Lovin’ You’, where Simone is singing through the piano keyboard before she ever opens her mouth. Her vocal, when it comes, is thick with the church, hovering across Carolyn Franklin’s melody with rich vibrato, yearning vocal stretches and deep blues inflections. The imagery of Franklin’s gospel song becomes increasingly extreme as Simone pledges fidelity to her beloved. Voice and piano grow in stridency and discordancy as the images unfold, until it’s unclear whether Simone is singing a love song or preaching the Revelation. Later, as she approaches the end of Randy Newman’s ‘I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today’, she wrings all the metaphorical potential of the coming tempest, raising her voice to a shout. A similar development is used on ‘Everyone’s Gone to the Moon’, a whimsical song by Jonathan King given an increasingly dramatic reading by Simone. The childlike tone of wonder she adopts when she starts to describe the abandoned Earth gives way to a desperate plea at the song’s close. Throughout the album, she mixes whispers, shouts and screams into more conventional singing, mapping these sonic extremes with keyboard dynamics that range from the barely-there to the apocalyptic and from supple sweetness to bitter dissonance. Her reading of Brel’s ‘The Desperate Ones’ closes the album with a series of whispers, piano trills, overdubbed vocables, gasps and death rattles until the song gives way to silence and the fateful, fatal limbo of the run-out groove/grave.

To hear Simone perform Hoagy Carmichael’s desperately beautiful ‘I Get Along Without You Very Well’ is to be initially stunned by her interpretation, but also to be reminded of Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra or many others singing the song, and to consider the particular grammars of longing and regret that these artists brought to their renditions, then to think again about what Simone brings to her version. In terms of style, genre and musical habitation, we might think of the songs on Piano! as portals to other worlds, other artists and other musical communities, and to the continuities and discontinuities foregrounded by musical comparison. To take another example, ‘Nobody’s Fault but Mine’ is an update of a song recorded by Blind Willie Johnson in 1927. Thinking about these artists together strengthens the case for Piano! as a concept album of sorts; religious redemption, refuge and revelation can be heard in Simone’s version through both musical style and posthumous connection to Johnson, a man who passed through the modern world just long enough to be fixed in the techno-memorial amber: one photograph, some family reminiscences passed on to eager blues scholars and thirty thrilling, terrifying, God-fearing gospel blues recordings.

In her later years, Simone was increasingly presented as a ‘difficult’ personality, a classic example of diva behaviour. In his brilliant and moving obituary for the singer in 2003, Ian Penman caricatured the way in which Simone was written about by journalists seemingly more drawn to the promotion of freakish spectacle than to empathetic understanding: ‘funny Nina, wonky Nina, obstreperous Nina, Nina with the outsize dreams’. As has often been noted, the word ‘diva’ does a lot of contradictory work and it’s worth digging for both positive and negative connotations. Although Simone had been quick to apply the term to herself from at least the late 1960s – part of her self-alignment with Maria Callas and no doubt also a pointed reminder to her critics of her abilities as a classical artist – the application of the word by others could be read in more negative ways. In recent years, however, the figure of the diva has been given new and more positive meanings, not least in queer identifications with performers such as Barbra Streisand, Cher, Shirley Bassey and Celine Dion. Simone can be placed amongst such performers not only by the way in which she exhibited ‘typical’ diva behaviour, but by her channelling of sentiment in her song interpretations. In my book on Simone, I wrote of the mourning and melancholy that characterised much of her work and that lay in tension with her angrier or more assertive songs of protest and black female pride. Here I want to highlight instead the dialectic of sentimentalism and subversion that finds its outlet as much on Piano! as on any of Simone’s subsequent works. Divas tend to model other ways in which sentimentalism itself can be seen and heard as subversive and the becoming-diva Simone of Piano! offers a fascinating study of this process.

In closing, I’ll touch on a provocation that I hope to expand on at another time: that Nina Simone be heard as an Afrofuturist. The provocation comes from the observation that theorists of Afrofuturism as it relates to music have tended to focus on male artists who have explicitly connected advances in music technology and style with science fiction narratives. Sun Ra, Lee Perry and George Clinton are the typically repeated holy trinity of such theories, but there have been other more recent examples: Goldie, Tricky and, in a rare opening up of the theory to female musicians, Grace Jones and Janelle Monáe. For all the fascinating insights that Afrofuturist theory has brought, one of its major problems is that it does not always allow for additional alternative ways of thinking about the future.  Having decided on a particular branch of vanguardist techno-musical innovations that it wishes to celebrate, it lumps other musical strategies in with the ‘natural’ and ‘traditional’ that Afronauts such as Ra, Perry and Clinton were understood to be navigating away from.

To a large extent, theoretical models suggest their own musical examples and vice versa. No doubt the types of music valorised by theorists of posthumanism and Afrofuturism respond to a common-sense association between technologically innovative art and technologically altered and/or virtualised physical and mental states. To attempt to exemplify such theories via reference to Nina Simone, who operated in the ‘traditional’ genres of jazz, blues, gospel and folk, or, conversely, to look to explain Simone’s art via reference to such technocentric conceptual models, might seem a step too far. And yet there is something in Simone’s work that calls out for a reading that goes beyond the ‘human’ and beyond the theological. For a start, her ‘traditional’ genres are hardly removed from the techno-virtual issues explored by posthumanism. A striking feature of gospel music, for example, has been the way in which it has consistently incorporated new technologies into its textual and performative arena. The gurus of Afrofuturism, meanwhile, are seen to be continuing a quest set in motion by early twentieth century bluesmen (though notably not blues women). More than this, however, Simone’s dismantling of generic and stylistic boundaries is a model of mutation, mutability and flow, all key tropes of posthumanist discourse.

Examples which link Simone to some of the key Afrofuturist case studies include her frequent allusions to Egyptian myth, her references to being a ‘robot’ and her mention of other planets, planes and spheres. But even without these parallels, I would argue that there is a sense of futurism, apocalypse and reterritorialisation prevalent throughout her mature work that is anything but ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’. In Simone’s hands and voice, the ‘black freighter’ of ‘Pirate Jenny’ is as much an Afrofuturist prediction as the liberatory ‘arks’ of Ra and Perry or Clinton’s ‘mothership’. Of course, it might be argued that, no matter what the lyrical content of her songs was, the music Simone was making was not as future-oriented as those other ‘Afronauts’. Against this, however, we could posit Simone’s famous defiance of categorisation as her particular future-directed impulse. Her black classical music articulated a space of hope and refusal just as her fellow blacks were hoping and being refused the possibility of equal treatment under the eyes of the law. And at the heart of this journey was the piano, her own black freighter, the vehicle for her lifelong dreams and ambitions and a musical technology whose complexity and versatility could straddle centuries.

My Father

Posted in Lateness with tags , , , on June 16, 2013 by Richard

judycollinswhoknowsJudy Collins’s ‘My Father’ first appeared on the artist’s 1968 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes. The song tells of the promises made by the narrator’s father, the most memorable of which involve living in France and “boating on the Seine”. The song operates as a kind of memoir, as the narrator recalls her childhood in Ohio, her father working in the mines and the dreams he would share with his daughters. A second verse adds mature experience, recording the disappearance of the narrator’s sisters to the distant cities of Denver and Cheyenne. Left behind, she witnesses the disappearance, too, of her father’s dreams, the colours of which “faded without a sound”. The third verse moves to the present, where we find the narrator living in France with her children and telling tales of her father’s life; perhaps her father is living with them, staying true to his promise, for the closing lines describe the narrator watching “the Paris sun / set in my father’s eyes again”.

Collins’s father was a blind singer and radio broadcaster who, by her own accounts, had a strong influence on his daughter’s life. He died in 1967 and there is little doubt that this song was inspired by his passing. That said, it is not “autobiographical” in the sense of being all about Collins or her father. He is not the miner mentioned in the first and third verses, the family did not live in Ohio and Collins did not have any older sisters. As for the role of Paris in the song, this seems to be entirely fictional, though we cannot be sure of the veracity of the father’s promise. Clearly, then, the song is a “fictional” narrative, written and sung by Collins as both author and vocal actor. Yet the sadness of the melody, the sense of loss evoked by the lyrics and the reference to the sun setting in “her” father’s (blind?) eyes cannot help but evoke the notion of a direct remembrance of Collins’s own late father.

Nina Simone, of course, approached the song as a cover version, a move we might assume would further remove the possibility of any authorial connection to a father that might be considered “hers”. Yet, in much the same way that Collins’s fictional song is still somehow about her and her father, so Simone’s reading removes the fiction dividing the song’s singer from its subject. A fragment of a recording session released in 1998 shows that the singer intended to cut the song in 1971. This suggests that she had been listening to Collins’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes, the title song of which she had recorded in late 1969. In this first recorded attempt, Simone changes the first line to “My father always promised me”, but then only gets through six lines of the first verse, stopping after “He worked in the mines” to declare to those assembled in the studio, “I don’t want to sing this song. It’s not [for?] me. [Pause] My father always promised me that we would be free but he did not promise me that we would live in France”. Simone then collapses into laughter. A male voice asks “How about Brooklyn?” to which Simone immediately responds, “No. My father knew nothing about New York at all. He promised me that we would live in peace. And that maybe I can still get”. She then removes the song from consideration in that session.

simone_baltimoreSimone did come back to the song later, including a version on Baltimore (1978), her first album of new recordings for many years.  She was later dismissive of the album, claiming she had had no control over the choice of material, but this seems doubtful in the case of ‘My Father’ given the attempt to record the song earlier in the decade. Simone presents the song as three verses, omitting Collins’s fourth verse. As in the earlier reading, she sings “My father always promised me”, singularizing the object pronoun. Other notable changes include her adjustment of the last line of each verse. In the first, she hovers on the final word “time”, letting it drift for six seconds (1:27 to 1:33) so that it becomes more of a hum or drone than a word, before resolving the melody with a repeat of the last two words, “in time”. In the second verse a similar expectation is set up in the second half by a slight vocal drone on “alone”. Simone then alters Collins’s words to sing the couplet “Hoping that my father’s dreams / would someday take me home”. “Home” features a vocal drone (2:50 to 2:53), aligning it with the end of the previous verse (“time”) and with “alone” from this verse. There is a slightly longer pause than in the previous verse and then a repetition of “take me home”. At the close of the third and final verse, Simone again alters the lyrics, seemingly due to a mistake: “And watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes … again”. At the place where the vocal drone had been in the earlier verses, she offers the word “eyes” (4:17 to 4:22), starting out on the same droning note as before but quickly moving into a soft melisma that lets the word float briefly before the resolution of “again”. Simone’s reading of the song, then, serves to emphasize crucial words to underline a narrative of loss and yearning. Meanwhile, this yearning is backed up by an “aching” string arrangement that builds gradually during the first verse and then soars at significant moments of the narrative in the second and third verses: “grown up dreams”, “danced alone”, “children dance and sing”, “I sail my memories of home”.

The words that Simone emphasizes – time, alone, home, eyes – may remind us of a relationship made by Walter Benjamin between gaze and familiarity:

Inherent in the gaze … is the expectation that it will be returned by that on which it is bestowed. Where this expectation is met (which, in the case of thought processes, can apply equally to an intentional gaze of awareness and to a glance pure and simple), there is an experience [Erfahrung] of the aura in all its fullness.

Following on from Benjamin, Eric Santner writes, “Home … is first and foremost that place … where one finds the aura constituted by eyes that return a gaze”. The narrator of ‘My Father’ seems to articulate the quest for such a place. Home is here a remembered past but one that is never stable in that it resides in a place of constant dreaming, of escape. It is mostly spoken from a place described by Benjamin as “an intentional gaze” – or from memory, which we could figure as a search for a past that looks back at the searcher – but the only explicit reference to eyes is that of the final line of the third verse. In Collins’s version, it is tempting to read into this lyric a reference to her father’s blindness, yet Simone’s handling of these lines is perhaps more fascinating. The curious slippage that leads to “watch my father’s eyes watch the setting sun / Set in my father’s eyes…again” compels us to dwell on the notion of the gaze. The sense of confusion here – who is watching what? – emphasizes gaze as process over any obvious sense of someone looking or someone or something being looked at. If we do pick apart the meaning, however, we seem to be left with this: where the “correct” version had a narrator watching the sun reflected in her father’s (possibly blind) eyes, this version emphasizes the father’s own watching, with the narrator’s watching now resigned to a secondary place, a watching of a watching.

It is tempting to read this secondary watching as a kind of determination, such as that settled on by Simone after what she felt was her father’s betrayal of her trust. Overhearing him lie to one of her brothers about the importance of his role in the family – a role reduced in reality due to ill health – Simone was shocked and found herself making a vow not to see him again, a promise she kept even as he lay dying. Hers was a refusal of familiarity and home, a refusal to go back to a place that would return her gaze. The secondary watching described in the last line of ‘My Father’ can be read as the passive awareness of a daughter waiting for her father to die: “I knew I was hurting Daddy and myself more,” she wrote in her autobiography, “but there was nothing I could do: I was helpless because of the vow I had made, the vow I had to obey”.

This hurt was one that would continue to grow in Simone in later years, leading to regret that she had not reconciled herself with her father. It is perhaps the replacement of that earlier refusal of the gaze with a subsequent longing for it that explains Simone’s return to ‘My Father’.  This certainly seems to be the case in the film La Légende, where the song is played over footage of Simone visiting her father’s grave in Tryon, her home town (from 5:04 in the clip above). The father represents the lure of the promised land (“freedom”, “peace”, “France”) which he cannot deliver, leaving the daughter to seek it out herself (“maybe that I can still find”) even as she fears utopia may be not be a place that lies ahead but one she has abandoned long ago, leading to what Santner calls a “utopian libido … a yearning for a space of specular mutuality”. Furthermore, “The absence of a space where eyes return a gaze initiates … all those quests for and conquests of new territories of auratic experience, new searches for the gaze that would finally authenticate one’s worth and reality”. In this context it is worth repeating Simone’s view of this search: “Sometimes I think the whole of my life has been a search to find the one place I truly belong”.

Who Knows Where The Time Goes

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

Simone_-_Black_GoldNina Simone’s haunting reading of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ was released on Black Gold (1970), a live album recorded during a New York concert in October 1969. Simone was only 36 when she recorded the song but she manages to pour a lifetime’s experience into her rendition. What is perhaps more remarkable is the sense of experience already extant in the original version of the song by the young Sandy Denny (b. 1947). Denny first recorded the song with the Strawbs in 1967, when she was twenty, and again two years later with Fairport Convention (on the album Unhalfbricking). It’s worth dwelling on Fairport’s version before turning to Simone’s.

The recording opens with the narrator gazing “across the evening sky” at the birds departing for the winter and wondering how they know “it’s time for them to go”.  Having set a pastoral scene of herself dreaming before the winter fire, Denny moves into the song’s meditative refrain, the repeated line “Who knows where the time goes?” She lingers on the second “goes”, running it over several resolution bars and musically connecting with bandmate Richard Thompson’s bubbling guitar. As Thompson takes the baton, Denny’s voice fades with her dwindling breath, a reminder of time’s inexorable march. A second verse likens the departure of “fickle friends” to the birds in the first verse. Again, the singer remains rooted to the spot, with “no thought of leaving” and no fear in the passing of time and companionship; again, the refrain sings otherwise, its unanswerable question swept downstream by the music’s relentless current. The third and final verse suggests the singer has a lover near and that it is their presence which banishes the fear of time, along with the knowledge that the birds will return in Spring. In each verse, a claim is made (“I have no thought of time”, “I do not count the time”, “I do not fear the time”) which seems to be disputed by the refrain.

Should we hear the song as one of innocence or experience? Perhaps it is both. On the one hand, it is a song of youthful wonder; experience may not only be unnecessary but it may be the very lack of experience that can command such wonder. The question posed by the young Sandy Denny is a more sophisticated version of the child’s endless “Why…?”, of a seemingly infinite fascination with the world. On the other hand, the sense of childhood’s end, of being abandoned by “fickle friends” and loss of what was taken for granted is palpable. Experience hardens the dreamer and warns that, as the cycle of the seasons turns, so loss will be recurrent on the journey through life. One thus steels oneself against inevitable loss: “I have no fear of time” builds a façade of confidence that the subsequent music cannot support. But just as importantly, the words are timeless and this no doubt accounts for the number of cover versions of the song and of its ability to mean different things at different stages of its performers’ and audiences’ lives.

It is possible that Nina Simone heard ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ on Judy Collins‘s album of the same name (1968), given that she attempted to record Collins’s song ‘My Father’ (from the same album) not long after recording Denny’s song. Collins was the first artist to release a recording of the song, having initially placed it on the b-side of her single relaase of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ (also released prior to its writer’s own version). Like Collins, Simone changes the first line to “Across the morning sky”, thus suggesting a paradox: if Denny’s version was a song of innocence, why did it start in the evening? Surely this “morning sky” version gets closer to the wide-eyed wonder of the innocent? However, Simone offers a preamble to the song that emphasizes its reflective aspect and makes it clear that she reads the song as one of experience:

Let’s see what we can do with this lovely, lovely thing that goes past all racial conflict and all kinds of conflict. It is a reflective tune and some time in your life you will have occasion to say “What is this thing called time? You know, what is that?” … [T]ime is a dictator, as we know it: where does it go? What does it do? Most of all, is it alive? Is it a thing that we cannot touch and is it alive? And then one day you look in the mirror – how old – and you say, “Where did the time go?” We leave you with that one.

Where Denny’s version of the song with Fairport Convention drew much of its affect from its stately pace, Simone’s derives its power from its use of silence, beginning with the introduction. She speaks very softly, creating an intimacy that invites her audience to start to think about time. Such intimacy can cause an awareness of time’s passing that, contrary to the assertion in Denny’s lyric, brings about fear. Eva Hoffman, describing the “chronophobia” she experienced as a child, recalls reading in the silence of her room and “listening to the clock … aware that each tick-tock was irreversible, and that the stealing of time, second by second, would never stop”. On the other hand, an imposed silence can encourage us to turn to our memory in order to negotiate sensory confusion. As Pierre Nora writes in regard to official silences, “the observance of a commemorative minute of silence, which might seem to be a strictly symbolic act, disrupts time, thus concentrating memory”. As both Nora and Hoffman observe, it is time that allows us to think about time: “the need for reflection, for making sense of our transient condition, is time’s paradoxical gift to us, and possibly the best consolation for its ultimate power” (Hoffman).

Although ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ engages with chronophobia, it is arguably more concerned with reflection. This is true for the versions by Denny, Collins and Simone; what Simone’s version may be said to add is a sense of “dislocation” that “exacerbates the consciousness of time” (to use Hoffman’s words). This results from the silence and stillness at the heart of Simone’s rendition, a silence which seems to be, paradoxically, even louder on record because of the listener’s knowledge that they are listening to a live recording. The “silence” of the concert hall is not really that silent, as John Cage and others proved long ago, and the addition of audience, equipment and other background noise adds layers of sound against which the fragility of Simone’s stark performance is forced to compete. Initially backed only by a gently strummed acoustic guitar, she slowly sings the first two verses and refrains before taking a brief yet quietly virtuosic piano solo. The sense of reverie is enhanced when, in the first verse, she stretches the word “dreaming” (3:02-3:09) and uses melisma to make the word flutter slightly above the melody, as if relocating the song itself to a space of dreaming and contemplation. During the second verse soft percussion enters (4:15 onwards), a single, steady beat that, at 60 bpm, echoes the ticking of a clock and serves as a reminder of the passing of time. For the third verse the piano is silent again and Weldon Irvine’s organ shimmers ghostlike in the background. The overall impression is one of peaceful, thoughtful reflection and a yearning devoid of any bitterness (it “goes past … all kinds of conflict”). This makes what happens next all the more surprising. Before the final “goes” has disappeared the band comes crashing in, organ, electric guitar and percussion providing what is presumably a climax to the show (“we leave you with that one”). It is a shocking moment, jolting us from our reverie. Time seemed to have stood still, we let it go by, not knowing where it went, unworried until the band returned like a superego telling us to move on from our fantasy. It is both part of the masquerade – the abrupt climax to the show – and brutally honest, suggesting that experience can be a shattering process as much as the gradual one Simone narrates in her introduction. It might also be likened to an alarm clock recalling dreamers to the demands of the day.

Interestingly, when including ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ on the box set To Be Free, the producers chose to remove both Simone’s introduction and the band’s conclusion, allowing it to retain its sense of reverie and to be considered as a song outside the context of the concert, while also making it more directly comparable to versions by Denny and Collins. Mike Butler’s description of the performance (in the CD liner notes to Black Gold) as “a dream encounter between Nina and Sandy Denny” seems entirely apt, even if it is not clear whose dream Butler is referring to. “Dream” captures something of the ethereal, uncanny otherness of this magisterial performance, while “meeting” recognizes that Simone’s version does not replace, better or reinvent Denny’s, but rather encounters it in a timeless and liminal space. Rarely has the fragility of time, space and existence been caught so effectively on tape.