Nina Simone's raised voice
August 6, 2014 1:11 PM   Subscribe

“My skin is black,” the first woman’s story begins, “my arms are long.” And, to a slow and steady beat, “my hair is woolly, my back is strong.” Singing in a club in Holland, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called “four Negro women” to a young, homogeneously white, and transfixed crowd. “And one of the women’s hair,” she instructed, brushing her hand lightly across her own woolly Afro, “is like mine.”
posted by ChuraChura (23 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Shame that she didn't live to see President Obama.
posted by Renoroc at 1:44 PM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a great article - thanks for posting it. I had no idea Simone had (or, is suspected to have had) bipolar disorder, or that she was in an abusive relationship. Her output is phenomenal in light of these two issues.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 1:44 PM on August 6, 2014

"And then King was shot, on April 4, 1968. Sections of Washington, Chicago, Baltimore, and more than a hundred smaller cities went berserk. Despite her rhetoric, Simone was profoundly shaken, and her views of what might be accomplished in this country only grew more bleak. At an outdoor concert in Harlem, the following summer—it’s available on YouTube—she went for broke."
I'd seen Aint Got No from that festival, but never watched the whole thing and seen this part. Electrifying.
posted by cashman at 2:00 PM on August 6, 2014 [8 favorites]

I once destroyed a good ol' boy pub in Hillsborough, NC by playing Four Women on the jukebox. Friday night. I was feeling rebellious. I was complaining to my friend that people were shouting too much and that it was hurting my ears, so I thought, "I'll show them." what it was doing on the jukebox I don't know, but I felt like the place was ripe for it. when "my name is PEACHES" finished the tune, you could hear the drunk regulars at the bar sliding their mugs along the wood. my boyish joy bloomed when the song started, but along with everyone else, I grew more introspective as the song went on. at the conclusion, I didn't really feel that much joy, and was left to contemplate the real effect of what I'd done. I didn't have another drink. I just walked back to my friend's place, smoking cigarettes and looking at foliage on the way.
posted by oog at 2:44 PM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Last I'd heard about the film on her life, Mary J was still involved, which is obviously no longer the case. The article mentions the production photos of Saldana trying to be Simone, and uh, no.

This article really is fantastic.
posted by cashman at 3:09 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love "Pirate Jenny", from The Threepenny Opera, and the article lead me to Simone's version. Wow.
posted by benito.strauss at 3:13 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I love "Pirate Jenny"! It is seriously chilling. My other favorite is her version of Alone Again (Naturally).
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 3:40 PM on August 6, 2014

Four Women in ASL (with some discussion about Black Sign)
posted by divabat at 4:23 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Her versions of "Pirate Jenny" are the best ever. The live versions are even better than the recorded versions.

Simone is so under-rated/unknown an artist that it hurts. Her voice is endlessly adroit - she can elegantly sail across a standard as if being steered by a new, delightful wind, and then plumb the depths of emotion in a raw, rich, yet adept way. The woman was a true master. She can take a song sung by thousand other people (like "Pirate Jenny" or "I put a spell on you") and in her hands, it is entirely new and extraordinary. I find it hard to express how wonderful she truly is, but there truly is a song for every occasion and every mood, and in it she can crystallize that emotion within you.

I am worried about the movie because I think it would disappoint me regardless of the actress selected. I've found that when I know too much about the subject in a biographical film, it can really hurt the film for me, particularly if I disagree about what was included, left out, elided, or altered for dramatic purposes. So there are always lots of potholes.
posted by julen at 5:29 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

I first heard Simone when her version totally blew away one of my fave Bowie songs.

I dig the Bach riffing.
posted by ovvl at 6:50 PM on August 6, 2014

The Believer article mentioned in TFA is actually available online, here- I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free - it's a good if painful read in its own right, and it was the first place I'd ever heard about how hard her life actually was.

Because it hasn't been linked here yet, and now I'm thinking about it- Mississippi Goddamn, a less-than-furious but still-outraged version from 1965.

And because she could of course sing goddamned anything, my favorite of her 'pop' covers- Ooh Child.
posted by hap_hazard at 6:51 PM on August 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

I am confronted by a wealth of Simone albums. Help me out, which ones should I get?
posted by jadepearl at 7:35 PM on August 6, 2014

jadepearl, I went straight for Four Women: The Complete Nina Simone On Philips. A bit pricey, but worth every penny. I also have "Fodder on My Wings", which is just lovely.
posted by theBigRedKittyPurrs at 8:03 PM on August 6, 2014

For a kind of greatest hits, I'd recommend Feeling Good, which has everything from I Put A Spell On You to Strange Fruit to Love Me Or Leave Me; and The Very Best of Nina Simone, which has the Martin Luther King Suite, Backlash Blues, Turn Me On, I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl, and I Think It's Going To Rain Today. Very little overlap, and they're both amazing.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:05 PM on August 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

There's lots of compilations, and I'm not sure which of her live albums are best, but these are the original albums I play the most:

To Love Somebody - Wonderful covers of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and others. Her phrasing on both "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Suzanne" are unbelievable. Also has the brilliant "Revolution," an original which happens to share a refrain with The Beatles song of same name.

Nina Simone Sings the Blues - A nice mix of originals and covers from the sultry "I Want a Little Sugar In My Bowl" to the political, Langston Hughes penned "Backlash Blues".

Here Comes the Sun is also interesting, as it's with a full orchestra. Her cover of "My Way" is devastating.
posted by Lorin at 8:13 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm a stickler for the original albums, many of which have been re-released, because they seem very thoughtfully put together in terms of song selection and order.
posted by Lorin at 8:16 PM on August 6, 2014

Nina Simone Sings the Blues was made right after High Priestess of Soul, when she changed labels and modes. High Priestess is lusher and gorgeous; Sings the Blues is rawer and wonderful. If you lean more towards blues than jazz, I'd recommend Sings the Blues. (The albums Sings the Blues and The Blues share most, but not all the same songs; Sings the Blues contains "Whatever I Am (You Made Me)" which I particularly like, but The Blues is full of goodness, too. )

As for live albums, Nina Simone in Concert is excellent. I found it bundled with a studio album I Put A Spell On You in the 1990s, and that double album was borrowed by more people than any of my other Nina Simone albums.

If you are interested in song of protest, there's an album called Protest Anthology that intermixes interviews about the songs with the songs. I really like listening to artists talk about the music and what drives it, and so this really scratched my itch.
posted by julen at 8:32 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

yeah, that 'tom thumb's blues' is outta sight. i was just going to post a link to it.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:49 PM on August 6, 2014

Talib Kweli cover of "Four Women" (starts at 1m27-ish)
posted by lkc at 11:58 PM on August 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm an unlikely fan of Nina Simone, I guess, being from Norway, where she's not very well known, and being (very) white and all. I even discovered her in an unlikely way, when, being on a UN mission in Bosnia in the 90s, my squad leader had one of her albums in his CD collection. "What's this?", I asked. "American jazz singer", he answered, "give it a listen". "I don't know, man, I'm not much into jazz", but I tried anyway, and promptly fell in love.

In the years since, I've actually found that I'm a bit stupidly proud that she's not that well known. Back in the days when CD collections were on display in people's homes, and guest browsed them when visiting, I would give the same answer to inquiries - "American jazz singer, give it a listen."

I don't know if I've converted anyone over the years, but I hope so.
posted by Harald74 at 3:32 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

The first Nina Simone album I ever heard was Pastel Blues--I had gotten it out of the library. I knew so little about Nina that I remember telling someone "You have to check out Nina Simone, she's got a great voice and her pianist is amazing, too!"
posted by turaho at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love Nina ... after reading the article and this thread I can see there's a lot more great stuff to discover.

BTW, why is Blige no longer up for the role? It's mentioned a couple of times but no explanation.
posted by bunderful at 7:50 PM on August 7, 2014

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