A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a journalist who had seen that I’d written a book about Nina Simone and wanted to get some thoughts from me about Simone’s October 1969 live recording of ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’, the one that ended up on the 1970 album Black Gold. I sent some thoughts, which were received warmly and which I assumed would be quoted, at least in part, in the published piece. In the end, none of my words were used, so I’m posting them here. In the absence of any explanation, I’m assuming that the piece took a different direction from the original plan, or that there was some kind of editorial intervention. Not wishing to waste the effort, I’ve pasted what I wrote below, along with a playlist.
For me, ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’ is about ownership and possession in two senses: the assertion of bodily presence and identity in the lyrics and Simone’s performance of other people’s material. The first type of ownership is laid out explicitly in the lyrics of the song through the first section detailing what the singer hasn’t got and the second section confidently and hopefully asserting what she has. That Simone conflates what were two songs in the musical Hair into essentially one song is evidence of the second type of ownership: she makes this combination hers. In doing so, she connects the ‘got no / I got’ lyrics to a long tradition of black American vernacular song, a lineage that can be traced back to the classic blues queens of the 1920s (especially Bessie Smith, one of Simone’s great influences) and forward to the body-conscious identity-affirming music of contemporary artists such as Solange Knowles.
Bessie Smith, ‘St Louis Blues’ (1929)
Solange, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (2016)
This story can be traced back further, of course, to spirituals and songs of slavery (songs about bodies whose ownership was in contest), but I generally hear Simone’s more physical songs (‘Be My Husband’, ‘Chauffeur’, ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl’, ‘Four Women’, ‘Backlash Blues’) as being part of a twentieth century tradition inaugurated by Bessie Smith and her contemporaries. Simone would complement the self-objectifying, explicitly physical lyrics of Smith and others with a performance style that emphasised physicality, often jumping up from the piano to dance, sway, clap, click fingers and shout. She would talk about how people in the black churches she attended as a child would get ‘possessed’ and ‘transported’ and this dynamic of being alternately in charge of and out of control of one’s body is manifested throughout Simone’s performing career. In capturing that essential dynamic in her captivating performance of a song written and performed by other people in another cultural context, Simone made ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’ an assertion of her philosophy of life and music.