NINA SIMONE WAS a remarkable woman. This is demonstrably true but the language feels paltry. She was heroic. You don’t need me to tell you that. Who am I? But the woman took more shit than you or I ever will and she held her head up high and proud and made gorgeous music out of it. What have you done? What will I ever do?
Consider a moment the courage it took to sing her own composition, “Mississippi Goddam” to a room full of the New York establishment, Carnegie Hall, 1964. She’d been there before, had in fact already released her At Carnegie Hall LP in ‘63. That was a success, so they had her back again. Spring of 1964 and her name is once more on the playbill. The place fills up, and you can bet most of the people in that room — white people — came wanting the Nina Simone they’d heard on the radio. That Nina Simone shuffled obligingly to a walking bass and wore a nice dress and lamented “I Loves You Porgy.”
But the type of singer Nina Simone really was they still don’t have a word for, and they sure as hell didn’t know what to call it in 1964. “Classical pianist and standards-pop-jazz-ballad-blues-showtune-work song-gospel-R&B-folk-protest song-funk-soul singer” might just about cover it. Might.
But there she is, early ‘64, soft new buds on the trees in Central Park, she’s on stage at venerable Carnegie Hall before the impeccably turned-out Manhattan audience, the season ticket holders, the moneyed, the polite and the clean. She says to them, “This is a showtune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” They laugh, the audience does. Ha!
It isn’t long before this uptown audience realizes that what they’re hearing is far from a happy showtune, something cheery, like Harold Arlen might have written for them, or cheeky, like Cole Porter did, or even maudlin, like something out of the Kander and Ebb songbook. No, it’s a moment or two before these fine New Yorkers get wise to the fact that what they’re being given is a genuine Civil Rights protest song, a song about the death of Medgar Evers and the killing of those four schoolgirls in a Birmingham church blown to Kingdom Come by four murderous bastards in September of 1963.
And! AND! She’s using this, this stage, this moment, to say “We won’t be told to go slow,” the we being (the idea forms in their educated minds all at once, fizzily, like the effervescence in their crystal intermission flutes) the Civil Rights people. A political song? Here! It is as though she thinks she is one Mr. Harry Belafonte, or something equally outrageous.
The applause, when the number is finally over, is polite maybe, but far from rapturous.
Later: who knows what her commercial prospects might have been if she’d just smiled and sung material they could sell in Des Moines as well as Montgomery. Instead she wrote “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” and did songs by Dylan and the brothers Gibb. She marched. She thought. She spoke. She was a strong, proud, determined, principled, creative woman who wasn’t interested in wearing bustieres or batting her eyelashes. They didn’t know how to sell that. They still don’t.
Originally published at thisisourmusic.ca on April 16, 2012.