Friday, August 5, 2011

Nina Simone: Powerful Blues Singer and Civil Rights Advocate

Music and activism have always gone together. And the Civil Rights era is a perfect example of this. Sometimes I get into a particular musician or song and highlight it and its political context...Woodie Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Israel 'IZ' Kamakawiwo'ole are among my previous musicians to focus on. All of them activists and progressives in their own ways.

Perhaps surprisingly I had never heard of Nina Simone until I hung out for awhile in a rather odd wine bar near the downtown NYU campus called the Bourgeois Pig where I found some good wine and music that included a fair amount of one of my favorites--Tom Waits. But there was also a powerful woman singer that was also featured on their musical tracks...someone I discovered was Nina Simone. I used to hang out there reading scientific papers over some wine and enjoying the music in the background. The sound of her voice was powerful, almost overwhelming. And the pairing with Tom Waits as the main background music for the place was amazing.

Nina Simone, born in 1933, wanted to be the first black woman concert pianist. THAT was the level of her ambition. Needless to say, back in the first 2/3 of the 20th century the chances of that were about nil. America in those days couldn't recognize a black woman as even remotely fitting the image of a concert pianist. But of course America was willing to recognize a black woman as a blues or jazz singer. So that is the path Nina Simone took. One of her early successes was "I Love you Porgy" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess:

Young and with a voice that blows you away, she was perfect for this kind of song (not my favorite style but I like it when delivered so well...similar with Janis Joplin's version of Summertime). She could have followed a massively successful career as a black singer following this style of music, but she was to strong for that. She saw what was going on around her in America and she could not silence her voice calling for change.

The murder of Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi and the white supremacist terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on 15 September 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama got Nina Simone pissed off, and she turned her powerful voice towards civil rights. In response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the Baptist church she brought out the very harsh song "Mississippi Goddamn". Here is an early version of it:

A somewhat later version which I like because you can really see her emotions:

She regretted this song later in life because it hurt her career, but at the time, it was a raw emotional reaction to the violent attack at the time to the demand of blacks to be equal. I find it sad that she regretted it. It was important that strong voices like hers challenged the KKK killings that were all too common at the time, and it is BECAUSE people like her publicly challenged them that things started to change.

Nina Simone sang in many Civil Rights era events, perhaps a more sophisticated version of Woodie Guthrie's role in the early union movement.

"How it Feels to be Free":

Here she is singing an older song about lynchings in the South called "Strange Fruit": (warning: video includes disturbing pictures of lynchings)

A disturbing reminder of what America has represented. We have gotten beyond this in many ways, but we cannot deny its disgusting place in our history. And we cannot forget that this kind of violence, whether perpetrated against blacks, illegal aliens, or gays, still continues in America. I remember in my college days in San Diego, CA, that there were beheadings of illegal aliens by the local KKK...the images and the idea is disturbing, but we cannot forget them because they are not so far from us.

Here's an interesting (and in my mind slightly incongruous) version of Nina Simone singing "Don't Let me be Misunderstood" in the context of key images from the Civil Rights movement:

And here is Nina Simone singing "Young Gifted and Black," a song which which Aretha Franklin popularized:

She has a song that reaches deep into the psyche of black women, a song called "Four Women" which describes four stereotypes of black women:

And let me just say, almost as an aside, that this is quite a turn around on the "House of the Rising Sun":

Nina Simone left the US because of the hostile environment (settling in Barbados where, in keeping with her strong and interesting personality, she had a lengthy affair with the Prime Minister!). It seems later in life she became disillusioned both with activism and with the United States. I wish I could have the video, but all I can do is link to it here, where she discusses, with some cynicism, her career and the state of the American Civil Rights movement in 1985:

Eventually she settled in France, where she died of breast cancer in 2003...about 2 years before I discovered her music.

And let me end with a song that, by the end of her life, she may not have believed in, but I do..."The Times They Are A'Changing". To me, with all my study of history, I believe that change is often very, very slow, but it is still happening, moving, progressing. And you and I are a part of it.

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