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Sunday, August 9, 2015

Honoring Nina Simone

I remember the first time that I heard Nina Simone’s voice and piano. My older sister bought the Bethlehem 45 rpm recording of I Loves You, Porgy in 1958. I was fascinated with the B-side recording of Love Me or Leave Me because of the intriguing piano bridge resembling a Bach fugue—it was both strange, yet oddly appropriate. I still have the record over fifty years later—worn, but still very playable.

I recall, some years later, anxiously stripping away the cellophane from a new arrival from the Record Club of America, the latest LP from Nina Simone. If you wanted to hear interesting music in a small town in the Midwest in the 1960s, that would be the way to do it. I fit the disc carefully on the spindle of the console in our living room and cranked up the volume. The recording, Nina Simone in Concert proved to be a milestone in the journey of Nina Simone, the political commentator and agitator. The last cut begins with Nina Simone stating emphatically, “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam. And I mean every word of it....” My aunt, who was working in the kitchen and seldom listened to, and never commented on, my unconventional interests in music, drifted into the room and announced “she MEANS every word of it.”

That reflected the depth and intensity of Nina Simone's commitment to social justice. Mississippi Goddam rang with indignation, anger and righteousness. It made no accommodation to the audience’s delicate sensibilities or comfort. It shouted demands in a way that few artists' works before or since could match. And most importantly, it came at a time when the Civil Rights movement needed an anthem reaching beyond liberal pieties and calls for patience.

But my own favorite from the album was the brilliant adaptation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill collaboration, Pirate Jenny. Brecht typically imbued the song with a vengeful settling of accounts between the haughty elites and the common folk. But in Simone's interpretation, “Pirate Jenny” is transformed into an uncompromising act of anti-racism as well. Jenny is changed into a segregation-era Black cleaning woman fantasizing:
You people can watch while I'm scrubbing these floors
And I'm scrubbin' the floors while you're gawking
Maybe once ya tip me and it makes ya feel swell
In this crummy Southern town
In this crummy old hotel
But you'll never guess to who you're talkin'.
No. You couldn't ever guess to who you're talkin'.
Jenny's fantasy envisions a pirate ship invading the town and destroying all but the hotel. The survivors puzzle over why the hotel is spared. The pirates round up the citizenry and, to their surprise, Jenny steps forth:
And you see me stepping out in the morning
Looking nice with a ribbon in my hair...
And they're chainin' up people
And they're bringin' em to me
Askin' me,
"Kill them NOW, or LATER?"
Askin' ME!
"Kill them now, or later?"

Noon by the clock
And so still by the dock
You can hear a foghorn miles away
And in that quiet of death
I'll say, "Right now.
Right now!"

Then they'll pile up the bodies
And I'll say,
"That'll learn ya!"
Somehow Simone draws on a well of righteous anger exceeding even the bitter wrath of Brecht's lyrics. While it is unpopular to speak this way in an era of hypocritical civility, her version displays a purity of violence, a chillingly brutal exacting of justice. You can hear it here.

Surely, since her death in 2003, Nina Simone is deserving of an homage, a tribute to her intense musical commitment to social justice. Unfortunately, the recently released documentary on Netflix What Happened, Miss Simone? is not that tribute. Instead, it is a vehicle for placing Simone's activism in the midst of a troubled life, sandwiched between a conflicted childhood and a psychological breakdown. Apart from archival footage, the principle commentators on her life are her vulgar, materialistic, and artless ex-husband and an estranged daughter. They too easily dismiss her activism to fault her for their own unvarnished complaints. In an earlier documentary, Simone's brother, Sam Waymon, who often performed with her, uncharacteristically called the ex-husband “a sonofabitch.” Thus, the new documentary is tainted by post-mortem grievances, an all-too-common opportunity for settling scores or self-aggrandizement.

Also, the film maker, Liz Garbus, shows a shallow grasp of the historical moment and the political gravity of Simone's profound synthesis of commitment and music-- in her interpretation, it is simply a product of Simone's demons. She fails to explore the deep and indelible influences of her political mentors: Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, her neighbor, Malcolm X, and most of all the formidable Lorraine Hansberry. She described their discussions in her autobiography: “It was always Marx, Lenin and revolution—real girls’ talk.” Hansberry was the inspiration for To be Young, Gifted, and Black.

Yes, Nina Simone was a revolutionary. She described her years as a movement's musical conductor as the best years of her life. And she attributed her subsequent expatriation to the death, exile, and pacification of other leaders of that generation. Much of the psycho-therapeutic speculation obsessing current commentaries of Ms. Simone's life misses the point (or evades the point). Simone's depression and sometimes erratic behavior was an understandable reaction for a serious, passionate woman experiencing both defeat and betrayal. Those who have not made commitments and sacrifices will struggle to understand.

It is painful to see the trivialization and sensationalizing of Nina Simone's life that accompanies the current “revival” (A biopic, and another documentary are coming). As with Paul Robeson, ML King Jr, and so many others, there is a veritable industry of parasitic writers devoted-- borrowing from the spiritual popularized by Robeson-- to “scandalizing her name.” A recent Rolling Stone article by Christina Lee (10 Things We Learned From New Nina Simone Doc, 6-29-15) typifies the banalities served up as pertinent to the Simone revival. Out of the many important elements in Nina Simone's life, author Lee is drawn to her sexual appetite, her lonely childhood, her emotional issues, and other irrelevancies, including her once performing on a Playboy-mansion location television show. Ms. Simone did not suffer fools.

Nina Simone was a unique voice, a great artist, an artist who drew strength from the deepest emotions of love and hate: love for the people and hatred of bigotry and exploitation. She was a beacon in her time, a messenger of revolutionary sentiment.

Those unfamiliar with her work and life might watch the earlier documentary, Nina Simone, The Legend, a competent European production from 1992. Also, there are numerous performances on YouTube, including this mix. And certainly the Netflix documentary is worth a look despite its flaws. One can only hope that the forthcoming documentary, The Amazing Nina Simone, created with the assistance of Simone's brother, Sam Waymon, will better represent her enduring legacy.

Zoltan Zigedy

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