ppp: the personal, the political and the piano

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.

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.

New essay on Robert Wyatt published

Wyatt_OldRottenhatMy essay ‘“Words Take the Place of Meaning”: Sound, Sense and Politics in the Music of Robert Wyatt’ has been published in The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place, edited by Isabelle Marc and Stuart Green (Routledge).

ABSTRACT: When we speak of singer-songwriters we tend to consider voice as both literary tool and musical instrument, and of the resulting persona(s) of an author and a vocalist. In the case of British musician Robert Wyatt, both writing style and vocal instrument are utterly distinctive and this combined ‘voice’ has served to mediate, and occasionally muddy, the already playful relationship between words and music in Wyatt’s work. Much of his own songwriting, with its predilections for nonsense and the absurd, is articulated via a childlike sense of wonder at the world and a desire to cling to domestic comforts. This is supplemented by a more explicitly political body of work, reflecting Wyatt’s engagement with left wing politics and an ever-increasing geo-political outlook. This political work takes the form of both self-written material and cover versions of work by international singer-songwriters, a process which contributes to a global network of committed music.

This chapter discusses songs from both these sides of Wyatt’s repertoire to explore the relationships between the cultural geographies of singer-songwriters and protest as articulated via words and sound. I begin by considering Wyatt in light of dominant definitions of the singer-songwriter, particularly those that seek some kind of transparent mediation between the artist’s life and their work. Wyatt challenges such notions through his use of word games, coded lyrics or languages that are foreign to him and which arguably lack the sense of authenticity required for the direct address of the confessional singer-songwriter or the protest singer. Furthermore, Wyatt’s art has been as much about sound in general as about music (and in ways that challenge rather than reinforce distinctions between these terms) and, to this end, I include a brief discussion of sound poetry as a way of considering the sometimes problematic relationship between sound and sense. I link this discussion to one of Wyatt’s political songs, ‘Gharbzadegi’, which takes its name from an Iranian term meaning ‘Westernitis’ or ‘infected by the West’ but which Wyatt’s non-Iranian listeners are unlikely to make sense of without additional guidance. I argue there is a tension between language terms and their meanings which is of interest to discussions of confessional or political singer-songwriters, where we would probably expect there to be a more transparent sense of meaning in the words being sung.

More information about the book: The Singer-Songwriter in Europe: Paradigms, Politics and Place.

Pete Seeger, un hombre sincero

A piece by I wrote for PopMatters a few years back on Pete Seeger, who died yesterday.

Pete_Seeger_1986

Pete Seeger is something of an enigma. On the one hand, he is a renowned veteran of the transnational folk music scene, a legendary figure who seems to have always been around. On the other, he remains somehow unknowable, indeterminate, difficult to define. As a folksinger, he falls somewhere between the happy-go-lucky nature of his onetime companion Woody Guthrie and the deadly earnestness of the post-War folk revivalists. As a performer, he veers between the crowd-pleasing antics of the entertainer and the seriousness of the pedagogue. As an educator, he has something of the paternalism of the early 20th century and yet something more of the inclusivity and political correctness of its later decades. Then there’s the way his “right-on-ness” as an activist mixes uneasily with the general un-hipness of his music.

The writer Harvey Pekar once put it this way: “The fact that Pete Seeger sings folk songs from around the world doesn’t make him a folk singer, especially since he uses the same style in which to sing them all. Regardless of his political courage, which causes him to be thought of as a man of the people, he’s a pop singer, not a folk singer”. It’s easy to see what Pekar is getting at. There is a sense that the world’s music suffers a quite extraordinary homogenization as it passes through Seeger and on to his audience. Yet he remains at one with that audience—“his” audience, just as he is “their” singer—and so, as Pekar observes, attains political credibility.

What kind of pop star has Pete Seeger been? Not the Bob Dylan kind, certainly. As Dylan moved swiftly away from the rather different shadows of Guthrie and Seeger in the 1960s, the trail that he blazed proved pop’s lasting value to be its ability to change, adapt, and morph into unknown new shapes. Seeger, by contrast, stood solid as a rock, the very definition of tradition, rootedness, and commitment. Nor was he the Bruce Springsteen type of pop star, the wide-eyed fan turned rock poet, seeking salvation from the darkness of anonymity. Springsteen’s concerts and album devoted to Seeger’s music may have come about through shared political convictions, but musically they were too far removed from the Boss’s classic aesthetic to sound truly convincing. A chasm seemed to yawn between the world of pop and the world of folk music, with Seeger once again representing the latter.

Seeger was, perhaps, a populist folk singer, a strangely tautological term for a man who made certain people’s folk music palatable to certain other people. Class, broadly understood as a way of identifying and categorizing oneself and others, is crucial here. Class brings with it certain imbalances, deprivations, and privileges. Seeger, a son of privilege, sought to translate the voices of the underprivileged to the bourgeois concert hall, to make his audience feel a little less comfortable with itself even as he encouraged its members to sing along. Not that he sang only to such audiences; he traveled widely and was as wont to perform in dangerous situations as in safe ones.

“He…played for everybody”, Springsteen is quoted as saying on the sleeve of Live in ‘65. One of two new documents that transport listeners back to the heart of the civil rights era, this album consists of an entire concert recorded in February 1965 at the Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh. The other release is a DVD of Seeger’s trip to Australia in 1963. It consists of 105 minutes of footage from a concert in Melbourne, along with some fascinating bonus features.

In 1963 Columbia released We Shall Overcome, an album recorded during Seeger’s concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. The album helped to further establish Seeger’s place at the forefront of the folk revival and the civil rights movement, as well as promote the work of another Columbia artist, the young Bob Dylan. The liner notes announced the upcoming world tour but said nothing of the drama that lay behind it. For the previous decade Seeger had had his passport confiscated while he fought to overturn a conviction that would have seen him fined and sent to jail for refusing to cooperate with Joseph McCarthy’s witch-hunters. Live in Australia 1963 is an unusual and valuable document due to the fact that Seeger had been blacklisted from appearing on television in the USA for 17 years.

As Seeger’s biographer David Dunaway writes in the informative notes accompanying this DVD release, Seeger was a respected figure in Australia, though it is not clear to what extent the middle class audience present at the Melbourne concert knew what to expect: “Did they know that the fellow introducing Bob Dylan’s ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ was the most publicly feared American artist since actor-assassin John Wilkes Booth?”, asks Dunaway, “Did they know they were going to yodel?” What they got was a program of songs that included Seeger staples (“If I Had a Hammer”, “The Bells of Rhymney”, “Kum Ba Ya”), some international numbers (“Highland Laddie”, “Genbaku O Yurusumagi” “Freihait”, “Luar de Sertão”), songs from the new folk songwriters (Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan), the occasional novelty banjo piece (“Allegretto from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony”), a Woody Guthrie medley, and much more.

While in Australia, Seeger also presented a half-hour television program about the career and music of Lead Belly entitled “Two Links of a Chain” and was interviewed in television studios and on university campuses in Sydney. The Lead Belly profile is notable not only for the filmed footage of its subject, but also for the section where Seeger, wanting to illustrate the rhythm of a work song, starts hacking at a log while singing, sending wood chips flying into the audience with wonderful abandon. All this footage is included among the bonus features, along with a short film made by Seeger and his wife Toshi about Australian folksinger Duke Tritton. Ever the musical sponge, Seeger was collecting as many songs as he was performing on his trek around the globe. The compilation of all this Australian material, along with the well-produced booklet, make this an excellent DVD package and a worthy start to Reelin’ In The Years’ Folk Icons series.

The recording of the 1965 concert is newly discovered and is presented on two CDs. Seeger’s role as educator is represented throughout the program. As the liner notes (by Appleseed’s Jim Musselman) attest, Seeger’s concerts were “an early Internet”, bringing audiences a menu of old and new, local and global material as fast the singer learned it. Only two songs from the We Shall Overcome album are included, “Guantanamera” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”. Seeger includes some songs that have a local connection to the venue, such as “When I First Came to This Land”, “Step by Step”, and “He Lies in an American Land”, the latter a song learned from a Slovakian singer in Pittsburgh. Seeger adapted the verses into English and Springsteen later added more for his own version. In all, there are 31 songs, a lot of anecdotes, a few fluffed lines, and some attempts (successful, thankfully) to deal with a misbehaving banjo. This warts-and-all approach delivers a more faithful idea than the edited We Shall Overcome of what it was like to attend a Seeger concert. This seems only appropriate, given the centrality of honesty in the man’s work.

Listening across the years, one can’t help but notice a sense of coziness in the way the music sounds. Despite his recourse to the same old folk songs that would fascinate Harry Smith and later Greil Marcus, Seeger’s songs come across less as examples of the “old weird America” and more as lessons from old familiar America’s favorite uncle. He’s the family member who’s there as our moral compass, but whose endlessly repeated imperatives to be good we are happy to receive. Seeger has always been very much the family man, coming from an extended family of prominent musicians, singing songs for children (as Woody Guthrie had done), and often making reference to his wife and children. Toshi Ohta-Seeger and manager Harold Leventhal were responsible for organizing the world tour that followed the return of Seeger’s passport. Toshi and the children accompanied Seeger on the tour.

It is perhaps no surprise, then, when Seeger dedicates the Melbourne concert to children everywhere. But when he adds an additional dedication to the four black girls murdered the previous day in the Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, we are reminded that Seeger’s situation was far from cozy, that he was fighting for his and others’ freedom on a constant basis. If anything, it was Bob Dylan who was moving further into the sphere of the comfortable as he embraced rock stardom. It’s just that, when he sang, Dylan sounded—and still sounds, listening back—as though he was fighting for his life, whereas Seeger didn’t. If recordings are quotations from particular eras, bounded fragments removed from their original context, we can only approach them later according to how they sound. In this sense, at least, Seeger sounds tame. We can, and should, listen beyond the sonic text to the social text from which it came, but it may still be hard to hear the danger.

Other issues arise as the songs and anecdotes roll on. To what extent, one wonders, was Seeger preaching to the converted? When not doing so, to what extent did his message get through? Listening now, it seems as though the audience, particularly on the 1965 recording, are laughing at the wrong moments. What no doubt passed for lighthearted multicultural inclusivity then sometimes sounds like laughing at the funny ways of foreigners now. The language of tolerance, it seems, dates more swiftly than its opposite. One is reminded of the way in which the audience is heard laughing during the first part of Nina Simone’s classic recording of “Mississippi Goddam” (written as a response to that same Birmingham atrocity), or of how, as related in David Margolick’s book Strange Fruit, Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song was heard in some quarters as light entertainment.

Seeger and Simone faced the same problem in the 1960s: how to smuggle subversion into the entertainment program expected by the supper club set, how to get at the truth while keeping things hummable. Simone, at least, would often veer away from this type of truth-work and opt for a truth of artistic expression and aesthetics that would lead her increasingly away from the inclusivity Seeger sought. Her journey from Martin Luther King through Malcolm X and on to Stokely Carmichael could even be heard in the musical and lyrical progression of one single song. “Mississippi Goddam” may start with a plea for tolerance but it ends in apocalypse and threat: “you’re all gonna die and die like flies”.

One sometimes wishes that Seeger could be as cruel to his audience as Simone was to hers. Notwithstanding the occasional torrent of hazardous flying wood chips, his is a different strategy. If anything, it is one more closely aligned to folksinging traditions outside the Anglo-American world. In styles associated with Ireland, Mexico, Portugal or Chile, for example, there exists a different register of authenticity to that found in the Anglo-American mainstream, marked as the latter is by deconstructive strategies that are often knowingly ironic or strategically moronic. While pop may be on a mission to remain younger than yesterday, other traditions are less worried about the cool factor. To listen to a Silvio Rodríguez or a Christy Moore is to be made aware of this difference. To hear the ominously beautiful and deadly serious sonorities of the late Mercedes Sosa echoed in a younger singer like Lila Downs is to be made aware of the tradition’s ongoing relevance for millions of people.

To hear Pete Seeger, as we do on Live in ‘65, sing “Guantanamera”—with its telling line taken from José Martí, “yo soy un hombre sincero”—is to hear his connection to an internationalized network of awareness and resistance, a truly global music of conscience that transcends the limitations of its local translations. Ultimately, we shouldn’t judge Seeger too harshly on the datedness of his delivery, but rather focus on the remarkable persistence of the man himself. He is Pete Seeger, after all: the ultimate hombre sincero.

Originally published 17 June 2010 at http://www.popmatters.com/feature/125957-pete-seeger-live-in-65-and-pete-seeger-live-in-australia-1963/

Fado article

An article by Naresh Fernandes on fado for Live Mint. Naresh interviewd me for the piece, during which process I was happy to discover his previous writing. Naresh is a journalist and author of the book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story of Bombay’s Jazz Age. There’s a great blog to accompany that book, which also has links to some of the other texts Naresh has written.

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.

Víctor Jara: 40 years

It’s forty years since the events that led to the murder of the Chilean singer, songwriter, theatre director and activist Víctor Jara (1932-1073). Here is a PDF of an article I wrote about Jara (and the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez) while researching my doctoral thesis. I was, and remain, as interested in Jara’s posthumous career as in the wonderful work he did during his life. In the years following Jara’s murder at the hands of the Chilean military – years which also witnessed the death and disappearance of thousands of civilians in Latin America’s southern cone – he became a powerful symbol of resistance against the continent’s military dictatorships. In my thesis I wrote about Jara’s ‘posthumous Che Guevara-like career as an icon on posters, T-shirts and murals’ and also discussed cover versions and other references to his work by other popular musicians within and beyond Latin America. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Jara remained a constant point of reference for Latin American musicians attempting to respond to the brutality of military regimes; examples include nueva canción (‘new song’) acts Quilapayún and Inti-Illimani, progressive rock band Los Jaivas and DJ Ricardo Villalobos, while other Latin American music cultures are represented by Silvio Rodríguez and the Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa. Fuirthermore, artists from outside of Latin America – including Joan Baez, The Clash, Robert Wyatt and U2 – helped to constitute an international network or resistance and remembrance for Chile’s recent history via references to Jara and his work.