Nina Simone: So Transported

In 2013 I published a book about Nina Simone for Equinox’s Icons of Pop Music series. When I started researching Nina Simone as part of my PhD work in 2003, I was surprised to find that there was so little scholarship about her. I had assumed that she would feature in many studies dedicated to the various music genres she performed, and that she would be the subject of articles and books. In fact, there was very little academic work available then. There were a few biographies and a handful of articles about her most famous songs and her connection to the Civil Rights Movement. There were a few very good documentaries. And there was her moving and informative autobiography, written in collaboration with Stephen Cleary.

In more recent years, there has been a growth in scholarship about Nina Simone, to the extent that Claudia Roth Pierpont—in a lengthy feature on Simone in The New Yorker in 2014—was able to identify ‘a burgeoning field of what may be called Simone studies’. I’m happy to have contributed to that field and continue to enjoy the new articles, books and films about Nina, even if I sometimes find myself wishing they (we) could engage with each other a bit more. By way of encouraging this to happen, and as a learning tool for my students (many of whom are drawn to writing about Nina Simone), I’m collating a list of ‘Simone studies’ resources elsewhere on this site.

In addition to my 2013 book, I have published and given presentations on other aspects of Nina Simone’s work. I wrote about her version of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ for an edited collection on music, sound and affect and contributed an essay on Simone, Sandy Denny and Judy Collins to the edited collection Gender, Age and Musical Creativity. I’ve given conference papers on various aspects of Simone’s work at academic conferences and research forums. In 2017, I contributed to an edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme Soul Music and spoke about Simone’s version of Sandy Denny’s ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes?’. More information about these and other related projects can be found below.

More about the book

Nina Simone (Sheffield: Equinox, June 2013)

Since her death in 2003, Nina Simone has continued to be revered as a cultural icon and role model for scores of fans and fellow musicians. Much of her fame derives from her association with the civil rights movement, for which she wrote such classic songs as ‘Mississippi Goddam’, ‘Four Women’ and ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. The defiance and affirmation of such anthems was accompanied by an equal dedication to songs of melancholy, yearning and spiritual questing.

Placing Simone and her music firmly within the socio-historical context of the 1960s, this book also argues for the importance of considering the artist’s entire career and for paying greater attention to her music than is often the case in biographical accounts. Simone defied musical categories even as she fought against social ones and the result is a body of work that draws upon classical and jazz music, country blues, French chanson, gospel, protest songs, pop and rock tunes, turning genres and styles inside out in pursuit of what Simone called ‘black classical music’.

The book begins with a focus on the early part of Simone’s career and a discussion of genre and style. Connecting its analysis to a discussion of social categorization (with particular regard to race), it argues that Simone’s defiance of stylistic boundaries can be seen as a political act. From here, the focus shifts to Simone’s self-written protest material, connecting it to her increasing involvement in the struggle for civil rights. The book also provides an in-depth account of Simone’s ‘possession’ of material by writers such as Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Sandy Denny and Judy Collins, while exploring the relationship between the personal and the political. In considering material from the Simone’s lesser-known work from the 1970s to the 1990s, the study proposes a theory of the ‘late voice’ in which issues of age, experience and memory are emphasised. The book concludes with a discussion of Simone’s ongoing legacy.

Nina Simone, a twentieth-century musical giant, has been astonishingly neglected – by listeners, critics and scholars. Richard Elliott explains why, but his wonderful book does far more: with enviable depth of analysis and breadth of cultural reference, he summons Simone’s music to a rendezvous with history that its significance, power and beauty always promised. An event, in every sense.

Richard Middleton, Emeritus Professor of Music, Newcastle University

Contents

  • Introduction
  • Categories
  • Politics
  • Possession
  • Lateness
  • Legacy
  • Conclusion

So Transported

Then someone would start to testify, shouting and tearing up, speaking in tongues, with those fans going crazy all around and people running up and down the aisle – just running back and forth with other people shouting, praising the Lord and the preacher gathering up all that spiritual energy and throwing it back out on the people. Women would have to go to hospital sometimes, they got so transported.

Nina Simone, in Simone and Cleary, I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone (1991), 18.

When I published my book on Simone in 2013, I set up a blog called So Transported: Listening to Nina Simone. It features extracts from the book along with additional material and is mostly organisied around specific songs. I was only able to run the blog for a short while due to other commitments but it continues to get a decent number of views so I have decided to leave it in place. Longer term, the plan is to import the material from that site to this one; for now it can be found here.

‘So Transported’ is also the title of an essay I wrote for the collection Sound, Music, Affect: Theorizing Sonic Experience, edited by Marie Thompson and Ian Biddle (New York: Bloomsbury, 2013). The full title of the text is ‘So Transported: Nina Simone, “My Sweet Lord” and the (Un)folding of Affect’. The essay is an attempt to grapple with affect theory (my first such attempt) from my perspective as a listener to Simone who is navigating the already-known (all the contexttual stuff I’d gathered in in my head about Simone as a fan and scholar of her work) and the to-be-discovered. The idea of music as journey might be clichéd, but it’s resonant, recurrent and (for me) inescapable, the kind of ‘thought fiction’ that—as Joanna Demers argues—is not only hard to shake off, but might also lead to useful insights.

The text is written in a more experimental and ‘unfinished’ style than I normally use for academic publications. This was a deliberate attempt to try and get at the complex and shifting feelings I had when listening to Simone’s astounding performance of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’; also, to try and map and partly emulate the strangeness that lurks within some of the literature on affect (Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual most obviously, but also the ‘everyday weird’ that comes through Kathleen Stewart’s beautiful book Ordinary Affects). I don’t think these attempts were completely successful but, even at my most self-critical, I find the comment (by an ‘external critical friend’ during a research assessment exercise: don’t ask) that my essay was not really about affect absurd. It is about affect.

I’m mostly happy with how it turned out, although I haven’t published anything in this vein since. My current work on music and objects is moving me partly back to these topics and this style, but until my extensive notes for that project get written up into submittable prose, I won’t know for sure what form they’d like to assume.

Abstract

This chapter is based around an analysis of Nina Simone’s recorded performance of George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’. The initial analysis develops into an exploration of the recorded ‘representations’ of Nina Simone’s performances, the gap between affect and representation, and the ways in which representations produce their own affects. It draws from theories of the evental, the transformative and the affective as outlined by Alain Badiou, J. L. Austin and Brian Massumi. It also makes reference to what Kathleen Stewart calls ‘ordinary affects’ in order to highlight the formative strategies of religious and/or ritualistic affect that can be found in Simone’s work. The first half is written from a series of fixed perspectives, while the second is crafted to reflect the themes under discussion, in particular the notions of folding, unfolding and refolding. Where scholarly analysis typically refolds the unfolding it has undertaken in order to present its findings as a coherent whole, something always already known, the purpose here is to leave part of the story unfolded as both provocation and exposition of the layers at work when analysing affect.

More information about the book here.