Nina Simone’s tribute to Martin Luther King – fifty years ago today

Martin Luther King Fifty years ago today, Nina Simone and her band performed at Westbury Music Fair in New York. Three days had passed since the murder of Martin Luther King and Simone used her concert to stage an act of collective mourning and outrage. Below is a re-post of a 2013 entry from my blog So Transported: Listening to Nina Simone, in which I reflect on three of the songs performed that day.

‘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.

Nina Simone’s ‘Ain’t Got No / I Got Life’

Simone_Black-Gold_cover_FA 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.

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

I have contributed to a programme on the song ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’, part of Radio 4’s series Soul Music. The programme airs at 9:00am on Wednesday 14 June, then again at 9:30pm the same evening; it will also be available to download on the Radio 4 website.

The song was written by Sandy Denny, who recorded it with The Strawbs, Fairport Convention and as a solo artist. It was made famous by Judy Collins’s 1968 cover and has been covered by scores of artists since. I first attempted to write about it when researching the music of Nina Simone, who recorded a haunting version in 1969. Hearing Simone’s rendition helped formulate my thoughts about the representation of time, age and experience. I included a comparison of the Fairport and Simone versions in my book Nina Simone. I then ended up writing about ‘Who Knows Where The Time Goes’ again as an essay for Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton’s collection Gender, Age and Musical Creativity, this time taking a slightly different perspective and also including discussion of Judy Collins’s version. Later, the song became the starting point for The Late Voice, my longest attempt to deal with the time/age/experience nexus.

It’s one of my favourite songs and I think about it differently each time I take the time to reflect on it again. So it was when I sat down in Newcastle’s BBC Studio to record my contribition to Soul Music, where I found myself emphasising aspects of the sound I’d never really tried to articulate before, such as the absolute vitality of Richard Thompson’s guitar in the Fairport version on Unhalfbricking, which I always heard as important but now hear as being an equal lead voice to Denny’s on that timeless recording. Now, as I write these words and think again about the song, I dwell on the way that the song itself models the passing of time (which admittedly, I’ve written quite extensively on before) and how that is best exemplfied in the way that the refrain’s most obvious rhyming words (‘knows’ and ‘goes’) are preceded by one and three words respectively, making an uneven and therefore memorable rhythm.

Perhaps finding something different to think about each time I reflect on the song maps onto the experience of time more generally: the recurrence of the familiar enhanced by the emergence of the hitherto unknown, or at least unformulated.

Upcoming presentation: ‘All You See Is Glory’: The Burden of Stardom and the Tragedy of Nina Simone

I will be presenting a paper at the IASPM Australia New Zealand Branch Conference at the Australian National University, Canberra, on 5 December. My paper is entitled ‘”All You See Is Glory”: The Burden of Stardom and the Tragedy of Nina Simone’ and the abstract is below.

Although most often remembered as an icon of the civil rights era, Nina Simone enjoyed (and occasionally endured) a long career during which the bulk of the songs she performed dealt with the politics, pains and precariousness of the self. Her work—always suffused with longing, sensuality and the passion of being—took on, in her later career, what might be termed a ‘defiant melancholy’ as she used her songs and live performances to navigate the burden of her past. As much as she had been a movement intellectual in the 1960s, Simone had been a star and the sense of loss of both political possibility (signalled by the ‘failure’ of the civil rights movement in the USA) and stardom (signalled by the decline in her popularity) flavoured much of the material she produced from the mid-1970s onwards.

In this paper, I explore Simone’s extraordinary performance at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival, and in particular her rendition of Janis Ian’s song ‘Stars’. I begin by reflecting on Ian’s own experience of celebrity and the way she articulated it in ‘Stars’, then I move on to compare Simone’s version, analysing it in the context of the festival appearance in which it appeared and in the longer text of Simone’s life as an artist and celebrity. Drawing on scholarship connected to celebrity, authorship and liveness, I read the song as exemplifying and challenging narratives of fame and artistic biography. I also reflect on cover versions as modes of authorship, authentication and experience and as live performance as an interface for stars and their audiences.

New publication: “Across the Evening Sky”: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone

My essay ‘Across the Evening Sky: The Late Voices of Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone’ has been published in the book Gender, Age and Musical Creativity, edited by Catherine Haworth and Lisa Colton (Ashgate, 2015). GenderAgeMusicalCreativity

ABSTRACT: This chapter explores the work of three female musicians – Sandy Denny, Judy Collins and Nina Simone – who offer valuable insights into the interplay of history, biography and memory. It focuses specifically on the representation of innocence and experience via the “late voice”. “Lateness”, a concept exemplified by these artists but which extends to a broad range of modern (post mid-twentieth century) popular musics, refers to five primary issues: chronology (the stage in an artist’s career); the vocal act (the ability to convincingly portray experience); afterlife (posthumous careers made possible by phonography); retrospection (how voices “look back” or anticipate looking back); and the writing of age, experience, lateness and loss into song texts. The main case study of the chapter is the song ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’, written by Denny and later performed by Collins and Simone. The song is analysed in terms of its representation of time and experience and in relation to the lives and works of its interpreters.

More information about the book here.

Upcoming talk: A Dream Deferred

‘A Dream Deferred: Nina Simone and the Work of Mourning’

Tuesday, 19 November 2013, 16:15, Arts A155, University of Sussex

I’ll be giving a talk hosted by the Centre for American Studies, University of Sussex.
nina
This talk presents work from my recent book about the late singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist Nina Simone. It focuses on Simone’s reaction to what she saw as the failure of the civil rights movement and how that reaction was played out in her work from the end of the 1960s onwards, blending into a personal but still critical nostalgia in her late work. The talk also makes reference to the recent commemoration of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Nina Simone’s response to King’s murder. It also acts as a commemoration of Simone and her legacy, with 2013 marking 80 years since her birth and 10 since her death.

Upcoming talk: Across the Evening Sky

I’ll be presenting my paper ‘Across the Evening Sky: Real and Anticipated Experience in Nina Simone’s Late Voice’ at the School of Media, Film and Music Research in Progress seminar, University of Sussex, on 13 February at 4pm. I gave a previous version of this paper at the University of Huddersfield’s ‘Gender, Musical Creativity and Age’ conference in October 2012.

Nina_Simone_-_Black_Gold

Abstract

Popular music artists, as performers in the public eye, offer a privileged site for the witnessing and analysis of ageing and its mediation. Musical analysis allows us to posit the concept of “sounded experience”, a term intended to describe how music reflects upon and helps to mediate life experience over extended periods of time (indeed, over lifetimes). Connected to this is the supposition that phonography, understood as the after-effects of the revolution in experience initiated by the advent of sound recording, provides a rich site for exploring issues of memory, time, lateness and afterlife.

This paper discusses these issues via an analysis of the work of Nina Simone, an artist whose mid-late career offers valuable insights into the interplay of history, biography and memory. The paper will focus specifically on the representation of innocence and experience via what I term the “late voice”. “Lateness”, a concept exemplified by Simone’s work but which extends to a broad range of modern (post mid-twentieth century) popular musics, refers to five primary issues: chronology (the stage in an artist’s career); the vocal act (the ability to convincingly portray experience); afterlife (posthumous careers made possible by phonography); retrospection (how voices “look back” or anticipate looking back); and the writing of age, experience, lateness and loss into song texts.