Archive for yearning

The Other Woman

Posted in Possession with tags , , , on July 14, 2013 by Richard

Simone-let-it-all-outIn many of her performances, Nina Simone communicated a fascinating mixture of agency and passivity, ownership and submission. A related dynamic can be found in ‘The Other Woman’, a song Simone performed throughout her career and which brings together aspects of physicality with the deceptive passivity of the torch song.  In fact, the song is only superficially torch-like. The first verses compare the physical attributes of “the other woman”, the narrator’s rival who “finds time to manicure her nails”, who “is perfect where her rival fails” and who, it initially appears, is the one favoured by the man in the song. A triangle is set up of a desirable, cheating husband, a faithful but unglamorous wife and mother painfully aware of her husband’s infidelity, and the “perfect” lover.

This scenario of an abandoned woman comparing herself to a rival and staying faithful to her man despite his betrayal would not be out of place in a torch song. The sadness of Simone’s tone and the “pathetic” piano accompaniment appear to underline an interpretation of the song as one of passivity and submission. However, there are clues, even before the song enters its second phase, that the glamorous lover, described at one point as a “lonesome queen”, does not necessarily hold the upper hand; we are told, for example, that her time with the husband is “a change from old routine”. This aspect then becomes the focus of the song as it hinges on the crucial word “but” (which Simone stretches to several beat-less seconds on most recorded performances). “Bu-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-ut”, we are told, “the other woman / will always cry herself to sleep” and “will never have his love to keep”. Her ultimate destiny is to spend her life “alone”, a word given extra emphasis on the version heard on Let It All Out by being preceded with one of Simone’s (at that time) trademark “scats” and underlined by a variation of the “Wenceslas” theme that Simone regularly wove into ‘Little Girl Blue‘.

The relish given to this finale suggests a kind of revenge enacted by the song’s narrator. She may not be the “winner” (if anyone is, it is surely the husband, who escapes the song unscathed and still desired), but the element of justice and/or revenge connects the song to a tradition that has more in common with the sometimes ambiguous feminism of country music than with the submissive stance of the torch song (interestingly, country star Loretta Lynn recorded a (different) song called ‘The Other Woman‘). Common to both traditions, however, is a sense of transition from suffering, subjected lover to singing subject in control of the situation and its narrativization. If history is written by the victors, the narrative signals some sort of victory over fate, the singing of it even more so.

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

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.

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.

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.