Nina Simone: An American Griot

Nina Simone

1.

In the liner notes to the Nonesuch DVD Live in ’65 & ’68 concerts, Nina Simone’s daughter, Lisa, says her mother was nicknamed “The High Priestess of Soul” because “she could weave a spell so seductive and hypnotic [that] the listener lost track of time and space as they became engrossed in the moment.” She says that her mother considered herself a "Griot," the name given certain West African musicians, poets and writers who are viewed as storytellers whose work embodies the greater historical narrative of their people.

By anyone’s definition, Simone was, in her passionate musical voice and in her activist political life, a true Griot. Throughout the 1960s, she was at the ramparts of social change, her voice in song and speech infusing the fight for racial justice with a throbbing undercurrent. Not content to confine her talent to popular and standard songs (however unique her interpretations), she responded to the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers and the killings of four girls in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church with her own angry anthem. The song, “Mississippi Goddam,” set the course of her life for the next decade. She wrote many other “engaged” songs, including “Four Women,” a study of female identity through shades of skin color.

Her outspokenness in public, her association with Black Panthers, her bi-polarism, her cocaine and pharmaceutical addiction, and the tax troubles that led to her expatriation in later years all seem to have a certain inevitability when you consider her life as a keystone in the arch of desperation lived by many African Americans in those tumultuous years — and the toll it took on them. Looking over her shoulder, it is a long view back to Simone’s childhood and the very different path her life once seemed to promise.

Born Eunice Waymon on Feb. 21, 1933, in Tryon, N.C., she began playing the family pedal organ at age 3, when she was barely able to reach the keyboard. Her mother was a traveling minister, and Eunice’s talent for playing hymns amazed her mother’s congregations. At 6 she became the regular pianist at her community church, and at 8 she gave her first recital. Several patrons helped fund Eunice’s music lessons with her white teacher, Muriel Massinovitch, with the stipulation that Eunice would perform periodic recitals. When she was 11, the path of her future life emerged when her parents were forced to give up their front-row seats at her recital to a white family who had come to hear her play. Simone describes the incident in her 1991 autobiography, I Put a Spell on You.

Nobody else said anything, but I wasn’t going to see them treated like that and stood up in my starched dress and said if anyone expected to hear me play, then they’d better make sure that my family was sitting right there in the front row where I could see them … All of a sudden it seemed like a different world, and nothing was easy any more … prejudice had been made real for me and it was like switching on a light. The day after the recital, I walked around feeling as if I had been flayed and every slight, real or imagined, cut me raw. But the skin grew back again a little tougher, a little less innocent, and a little more black.

The family and community dream was that little Eunice would become the first female Black classical pianist of national repute. Her early grounding and love of the music and harmonic intricacies of J.S. Bach led her to study at Juilliard in preparation for an audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where she played Czerny, Rachmaninoff, Liszt and, of course, her beloved Bach. The Curtis Institute rejected her. Years later she reflected, “You feel the shame, the humiliation, anger at just being another victim of prejudice and at the same time, there’s the staggering worry that maybe … you’re just no good.” Eunice eventually transitioned to playing jazz piano and then singing at the Midtown Bar in Atlantic City, where, in order to hide her work from her mother, she adopted the professional name Nina Simone from the Spanish Niña and the French actress Simone Signoret. In one of those too-true-to-believe ironies, several days before Simone died on April 21, 2003, the Curtis Institute awarded her an honorary degree; this came after she’d received many international honors, including degrees from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Malcolm X College-Chicago.

Last year Netflix released the feature documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? It features a major contribution from Lisa Simone, who helps anchor the near mythic dimensions of her mother’s life in several on-camera interviews. Directed by Liz Garbus, the film received an Oscar nomination, but Amy won the gold trophy. I wonder whether the same alleged narrow perspective among some Academy voters that spawned #OscarsSoWhite might have seeped into the Documentary Feature category as well. Here is a trailer for the film:

Simone’s classical training is particularly apparent in the live concerts she recorded with her trio, which featured Simone at piano, Rudy Stevenson or (more often) Al Schackman on guitar, Lisle Atkinson on bass and Bobby Hamilton on drums. Although What Happened, Miss Simone? features a broad array of performances and ensembles, it is the Nonesuch DVD of two intimate club concerts that present Simone in the full flowering of her live cabaret-like range. A Christmas club date in Holland captures her at such powerful intensity as to assure her reputation as one of the most riveting musical artists of all time.

2.

My personal love of Simone as activist and singer goes back to those mid-1960s years of the civil-rights struggle. Shortly after finishing graduate studies at USC Cinema in the spring of 1967, I enrolled in Peace Corps training for a program that was destined for Gabon, West Africa. We trainees were stationed outside of Beaufort, S.C., in the small town of Frogmore, on the road out toward Hilton Head. The site was Penn Center, one of the country’s first post-Civil War schools for freed slaves. In the early 1960s, it was a training center for voter-rights activists.

At the time, Beaufort was not the upscale, more enlightened place that I encountered when I returned there to film The Big Chill in 1982. We Peace Corps volunteers were advised not to go into town unaccompanied, as many considered us northern carpetbaggers — or, worse, “race agitators.” Even so, one night a wooden cross was set on fire on the lawn in front of our residence hall.

In 1962, Phillips introduced the compact audiocassette, and most of us had battery-operated shoulder-slung players. (The iconic Walkman wasn’t introduced until 1979.) My roommate had a cassette of Simone’s cover of Bob Dylan’s protest song from Freewheeling, “Ballad of Hollis Brown.” We played the Simone version over and over. Though it told the story of an indigent, white South Dakota farmer’s tragic end, Simone infused it with the anger of racial exploitation. She had this uncanny ability to turn almost any song into a protest, a lament, or a reflection on desperate and thwarted lives. It was only after I saw What Happened, Miss Simone? that I searched for Simone’s “Hollis Brown.” The live performance in Holland exceeds in intensity the almost up-tempo one from her 1965 album, Let It All Out. At the beginning of this live version, Simone asks her trio to let her have a few verses of solo piano. As the percussion and guitar float quietly in against her insistent chordal crescendo, Simone disappears inside the music with a bobbing, motoric insistence; she’s not just a singer covering Dylan, but a Griot, her trance-like narration sweeping you into its dark tragedy.

In her intro to “Hollis Brown,” Simone says she’ll follow the Dylan song with one of Charles Aznavour’s signature songs, “Tomorrow Is My Turn” (“L’amour c’est comme un jour”), a classic French love ballad complete with plaintive strings. First, here is Aznavour:

Now listen to what Aznavour’s hit becomes for Simone: a quiet yet emphatic personal anthem way beyond anything envisioned by the great French singer, and compelling evidence of the transformative power of every song Simone undertook:

When Aznavour was asked about Simone’s interpretation, he said simply, “Pure genius.”

The panning shot after the song ends reveals an almost entirely white audience — Europeans at that. (Simone spent the last several decades of her life as a de facto expatriate, living mainly in France.) Nothing replaces the passionate commitment of her music, not even the brief moment in Garbus’ documentary when Simone expresses regret at the passing of the Civil Rights era.

3.

So, we are left to speculate about how Simone’s music and life might have evolved had her psychic demons not so consumed her. One can’t help but wonder, too, whether the anger that helped create gangsta rap, with its nastier elements of misogyny, could have been tempered if Simone’s voice had sustained its strength in Black culture. We Americans have stumbled in our march toward social and racial equality, and an ostrich-like complacency has helped create a fertile soil for the weed-ridden rhetoric of this election year, with dark threat of “riots” if a hectoring yahoo with a comb-over fails to control his party’s sandbox.

The catalog of CDs and DVDs of Simone’s work is breathtaking; the scope of her performance styles and her ever-evolving interpretations of signature songs can keep a scholar occupied. I was eager to find a song where she might unleash those early-career J. S. Bach hounds, a solo that would reveal just how ingrained her love of classical keyboard technique was. One example is “Love Me Or Leave Me” from the 1958 album Little Girl Blue. Starting at the 60-second mark, for the next two minutes you hear a virtuosic display of her jazz-infused classical training:

Another Tin Pan Alley song, her cover of the Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn tune sung by Eddie Cantor in the early musical film Whoopee, is a mother lode of Simone’s piano style. (I embedded a scene from this film in my recent post about Busby Berkeley.)

The song is “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” A deep irony here is that Cantor sings it in blackface in the film. You can find it on YouTube, but I’ll refrain from embedding it here.

But I want to close with a truly wondrous mashup of the song with stop-motion animation, featuring Nina Simone as a cat, in a short from Aardman directed by Peter Lord. It begins with an almost “Heart and Soul” riff and morphs into an interlude full of Bach-like classical technique (with live-action inserts of piano keys and hammers), but grounded in the cabaret style that was Simone’s milieu.

An unlikely grace note is that Simone’s cover of “My Baby Cares Just for Me” became a British pop hit in 1987, after it was used in an ad for Chanel No. 5.

Even in death, Simone attracts controversy. The recently released and long-delayed feature film Nina, directed by Cynthia Mort and starring Zoe Saldana as the singer, has sparked sometimes vitriolic online commentaries that range from complaints about Mort’s race (she is white) to truly disturbing comments about Saldana’s “white-acceptable” skin tone and facial features. Between the racially coded rhetoric that passes as contemporary political debate, and the lack of “diversity” in the film industry, Simone’s message seems more of the moment than ever.

And so it goes.

NEXT: Films on Film at the Academy

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