People called her “the high priestess of the soul” or a jazz singer, but Nina Simone said her music contained more folk and blues than jazz. Dave Marsh, the music critic, suggested calling her a “freedom singer”. Bob Dylan said she was an artist he loved and admired, and the fact that she recorded his songs validated everything he did. Along with Dylan’s work, she performed songs by Animals, Leonard Cohen, and Jacque Brel. Kanye West sampled them in his songs. Barack Obama had her song “Sinnerman” on his workout playlist. The writers Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin and Langston Hughes were her close friends. She trained as a classical pianist and Bach was her favorite composer because of his technical perfection.
Raised in Tryon, North Carolina by a mother who was a Methodist preacher and a father who did everything he could get during the Depression, including a barber, handyman, and delivery driver, she had never been to a bar until she was playing at Midtown Bar & Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and when asked what she would like to drink, asked for a glass of milk. When Vernon Jordan, the leader of the Urban League, asked her why she wasn’t more active in the civil rights movement, she replied, “I’m civil rights, motherfucker.”
Simone (1933-2003) was uncategorizable and unique, making every song she sang her own. Born Eunice Waymon, she trained as a classical pianist and studied with Juilliard for a year, but was not accepted into the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia, a decision many attributed to racism. Simone was an activist during the civil rights movement and famously said that it is an artist’s duty to reflect on time. She left the United States and moved to Liberia, then Switzerland, before finally settling in southern France.
“Why? (The King of Love is dead)”
Nina Simone and her band played this song in Westbury Music Festival on Long Island, New York, 1968, three days after the death of Martin Luther King. They had just learned the song, which her bassist Gene Taylor wrote in response to King’s murder, and the song is angry, heartbreaking and catchy. Simone’s voice rings out as she sings: “Turn the other cheek he would plead / Love your neighbors was his creed / death in pain humiliation that he did not fear / With his Bible by his side / He did not hide from his enemies / It is hard to think this great man is dead. ‘The song appears on Simone’s 1968 live album’Said Nuff.
“To be young, talented and black”
Simone and her friend Lorraine Hansberry linked through civil rights and radical politics. Before she died of cancer at the age of 34, Hansberry was the author of A raisin in the sun, I spoke to a group of essay winners and said to them, “I wanted to come here and speak to you on this opportunity because you are young, gifted and black.”
Simone said the words were in her head and she was sitting at the piano writing the song she said felt like a gift from the playwright. Her band leader wrote the words and she told him to keep it simple, something that “will forever make black kids around the world feel good”. The song, which became something of a civil rights anthem, was released on the record in 1970 Black gold.
Simone wrote this song in response to the bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four girls“Alabama got me so angry / Tennessee made me lose my calm / And everyone knows about Mississippi Goddam.” in less than an hour and said it felt like firing bullets at the members of the Ku Klux Klan who planted the dynamite in the church. Dick Gregory commented, “We all wanted to say it. She said, it. Mississippi, god damn it. “The song with intense, pungent lyrics and an uptempo beat became a famous protest song that some radio stations sent back in two parts. It was released in 1964 on the album Nina Simone in Concert. the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. She reportedly sat down and wrote the song that opens
“I wish I knew what it would feel like to be free”
This song was an instrumental written by Jazz pianist Billy Taylor, with lyrics later added by Dick Dallas. Simone recorded it for her 1967 album Silk and Soul and with lyrics like I wish I knew how it would feel to be free / I wish I could break all the chains that hold me / I wish I could do it all say what to say and I wish you could know / what it means to be me / then you would see and agree / that every man should be free, along with Simone’s art, it became another song that was important for the civil rights movement is.
This song, featured on the 1967 album Nina Simone Sings the Blues, comes from a protest poem written by Simone’s friend Langston Hughes. The music she wrote is more straight forward than many of her songs, but the lyrics include, “You give me second class houses / And second class schools / Do you think all colored people / Are just second class fools?” are moving and politically focused like many of their other songs.
I have bewitched you: the autobiography of Nina Simone
In Simone’s 1991 autobiography, made with Stephen Cleary, she writes: “Everything that happened to me as a child has to do with music.” She began piano lessons in her small North Carolina town, walked two miles and crossed the railroad tracks to study with her first piano teacher, Muriel Massinovitch. On her first piano recital at age eleven, her parents were removed from their front row seats and she refused to play until they were back in those seats and could see her hands as she played.
What happened, Miss Simone?
Liz Garbus’ documentary, which opened at Sundance in 2015, shows some of the diverse forms of Simone’s life, from studying as a concert pianist to playing in bars to touring the world, working in the civil rights movement and moving to Liberia in Switzerland and South France. Her longtime guitarist Al Schackman is interviewed along with her daughter Lisa Simone Kelly, executive producer of the film, and Lisa’s father Andrew Stroud.
Simone’s archive footage is stunning and her struggles, especially in the latter part of her life, are touched, sometimes to the point that they overshadow her incredible contributions to music, but it made me think of something in Anna Malaika Tubbs’ most recent book . The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation.
In it, Tubbs writes about Malcolm X’s mother, Louise Little, who spent years in a mental hospital, and suggests part of the reason she was there because a black woman was trying to tell the truth. Attallah Shabbazz, daughter of Malcolm X and a friend of the family, says of Simone in the documentary: “She was not contradicting time, times were contradicting her.”