“Feeling Good” (or How Black Lives Have Always Mattered)

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One of the single most powerful songs that one can have the pleasure of listening to is “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, released in 1965. Written by English composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (who also wrote Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” for the Bond film) for their musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd the previous year, the song became part of popular consciousness when Nina Simone recorded it for her I Put A Spell On You album.

There have been many versions of this song. What I would like to present here is that not only is Nina Simone’s version the definitive version, but that all other versions are trite at best and offensive at worst. What I hope to convey is that context matters more than intention, and feeling outweighs them all.

This essay will feature subjective views. Please feel free to disagree.

The mid 1960s was a turbulent era for American culture. Hollywood, still several years away from the introspective character-driven narratives that would shape a generation, was still churning out epic marvels of unparalleled scope and budget (1963’s Cleopatra saw the most lavish excess imaginable, with infighting between the production team and cast, as well as one scene costing in excess of $1,000,000 due to it needing a reshoot). Television was still relatively new, with comedic variety shows attracting most of the viewers.

The music industry was also in a state of flux. Since the 1920s, jazz had dominated the airwaves and sales, surviving the Great Depression of the 1930s, and becoming the driving force behind many American lives, irrespective of colour or creed. Ragtime had developed into Swing, which had morphed into a myriad of styles with the advent of the vinyl long playing record, allowing extended versions of songs originally crammed onto shellac 78rpm discs that could only play for 3 and a half minutes. Suddenly artists had up to forty-five minutes to play with. By the tail end of the 1950s, there was every kind of jazz open for enjoyment — the fast pace of bebop, the tightness and excitement of hard bop, the big bands of swing, the singers who would be superstars, and everything in between.

That was until the early morning of 7th February 1964, when a Pan Am 707 departed London Airport, destined for New York City. Aboard were four Liverpudlians who, likely from their own admission, were a far cry of the talent of the jazz musicians, but had a handful of catchy, hook-filled songs, charisma to match The Marx Brothers, and a determination to make themselves stars. They succeeded. And American popular culture changed forever. Jazz was out, pop combos were in. Teenagers were now leading the charge. The likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis never stood a chance.

The only jazz that survived in terms of commercial sustainability were the singer-led big bands, fronted by the likes of Frank Sinatra. The music industry was then, like it is today, a vast, money-making machine. So talent was drafted in that would sell units. And here enters Nina Simone.

Born in Tyron, North Carolina in 1933, Simone was a bright child who showed an aptitude to play the piano from a young age. But, perhaps more than this, she was shaped by the world around her. During her concert debut, playing a classical recital, she suffered the indignity of her parents being displaced and moved to the back of the hall to make way for white parents. Nina came from a comfortable background and was able to attend the prestigious Julliard Institute in New York City. Originally aspiring to become a conservatory concert pianist, Nina recorded her debut jazz release for Bethlehem Records in 1957. As she viewed this as nothing more than a paid job, she sold the rights for $3,000, something for which she was to suffer financially to the tune of well in excess of $1 million.

In 1964, Nina Simone released Nina Simone In Concert, her first album for Philips. Simone was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights movement, and was particularly affected by the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on 15th September 1963, which saw the Ku Klux Clan kill Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14) and Carol Denise McNair (11), and injure 22 others, and the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evans on 12th June 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi. Contained on the album was the song “Mississippi, Goddam”, which directly tackles both of these events. Nina Simone would be a voice of the movement, leading to admiration from black communities, but saw her mainstream success suffer.

1964 also saw the signing of the Civil Rights Act, which posed to end many of the Jim Crow laws that were still prevalent throughout the United States, particularly in the South. The act outlawed segregation, although this was met with stiff resistance from many whites. Things were certainly getting better, but it highlighted to many just how far things needed to go.

It is within this backdrop that Nina Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” was recorded and presented to the world.

The lyrics of the song are fundamentally straightforward, and almost cartoonish in their simplicity. Taken on the surface, they stand as a simple Disney-esque paen to the things in the world that make the narrator “feel good”. But, using drive, personality, and clever call-backs to her musical heritage, Nina transcends the composition and delivers something that is both a cry to the downtrodden and oppressed, and a symbol of the hope that comes from human spirit.

The song starts not with any kind of instrumentation, but with Nina’s voice alone, raw and unprocessed. Her metre and timbre do not follow the melody of the song, but serve the same structure as the songs sung by slaves on plantation cotton fields, or ditch diggers on prison chain gangs. There is less sweet tunefulness here as a chant of defiance of surroundings. The last two lines of the opening verse are repeated, more quietly, which suggest that Nina is not invested in what she is singing. When she states, “you know how I feel”, the answer that comes is a surprise, as all signs do not point to “feeling good”. Feeling good, in this song, is not something that Nina feels inside herself, but a state that she has been put into.

The arrangement starts, but is far from sweet, instead it is menacing and forceful, as if taunting Nina to toe the line rather than express her true feelings. In the second verse, you can hear Nina becomes more defiant, her voice rising in volume as if to challenge the music that is fighting against her. During the second chorus the music capitulates to Nina’s will, sweeping away with luscious strings, offering a sweet surrender.

Nina Simone’s version of “Feeling Good” is about anything other than feeling good. It’s about a struggle, a voice in the darkness, a helping hand to those that need it, and a stern “fuck you” to the white folk who perpetuate the years and generations of turmoil onto a race of people. It’s a startling, groundbreakingly subversive recording that deserves its place as one of the defining artistic moments of the 20th Century.

A shame then, that subsequent versions of this song either miss or ignore this entirely. Mary J Blige understood the context of the song for her version from 2005’s Breakthrough, but the distortion of Nina Simone’s original vocal is an artistic choice that I don’t enjoy, although I fully appreciate its validity.

I cannot, however, say the same for the version by English rock band, Muse, on their 2001 album, Origin of Symmetry. Although there are elements that the band do seem to grasp (the arrangement is replaced by big fat distorted guitar which, although rock music’s lazy way of generating emotion, does convey a rough facsimile of the Nina Simone version). But where the song completely falls apart is that Matt Bellamy uses it as nothing more than a vehicle for his reedy voice, full of pandering falsetto and cod operatic lilts that do nothing but remind the listener that he has never faced a day of hardship in his life. The song is misguided at best and insensitive at worst, serving as an example of White People Spoiling Black Things. It is preferable to the woeful Michael Bublé version, which is so poor that it does not deserve attention. Smug, condescending nonsense that should be snuffed from all memory.

There are some that feel that context does not belong to music, and that it speaks to the times and experiences of the listener, rather than the performer. And I think that this is a romantic view that I would love to share. It is a factor of any communication that there are two distinct parts, the intention of the broadcaster, and interpretation of the listener. Just because the listener associates a piece of music as a part of their life, they should not ignore the context of the performance of a song. I might be way off the mark with all of this. Nina Simone may have recorded the song because of studio pressure and not given it a second thought. But given what was happening around her at the time she recorded it, this is how I’m hearing it.

Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” is a remarkable song that is so well known that it has seeped into the collective consciousness normally reserved for mediocrity. Even if you are familiar with the song, I implore you to listen to it again and really listen.

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