[16 October 2008]
An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.
Five years have passed since Nina Simone transitioned from living legend to deified ancestor, but her boundless talent, relentless audacity, and unparalleled forthrightness still serves us well. Fiercely defiant in her commitment to exhausting her creative powers as a politically engaged artist, Simone assailed the arrogance of white privilege, shunned the politics of apathy, and constantly reminded her listeners of the transformative power of self-love and respect. Vibrating truths that transcended racial, gender, and national boundaries, she provided a soundtrack to a global, Pan-African movement for social justice that galvanized folks from the rural dirt roads of Ruleville, Mississippi, to the impoverished streets of Soweto.
Years before Audre Lorde declared that silence will not save us, Simone’s music verbalized pains and longings frequently relegated to the private realm. One reckons her outspokenness had a great deal to do with her southern background. Nurtured and loved in North Carolina, the state that gave us Monk and Trane and Robert Williams and Ella Jo Baker, Nina Simone carried within her spirits not only the racial pains of the South, but the cultural confidence that even the most perfidious forms of white supremacy proved unable to eviscerate. Only a firmly rooted artist with a deep love of self and community would dare buck the system by saying “no” to a money-making industry in which the powers-that-be frequently admonished folks of darker hue to leave politics alone.
Until the industry found a way to capitalize off black protest and black rage, plenty of artists wore the mask of merriment and contentment, but not Saint Nina. To borrow a phrase from our brother, Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone—born Eunice Kathleen Waymon—was never blank to the world. The idea of suppressing her rage and pain repulsed her. Live and direct at all times, she delivered a black eye to white supremacy in classics like “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Old Jim Crow”, commiserated with her suffering sisters in “Four Women” and “My Man’s Gone Now”, and reminded us that transcendence was always a reality in “Trouble in Mind” and “Feeling Good”.
So amazing and expansive was Simone’s work that it is constantly being remixed, reimagined, repackaged and reconsidered. Since her return to the welcoming embrace of the ancestors, the marketplace has been flooded with no fewer than a dozen reissues and anthologies of Simone’s art. Because of the abundance of Nina Simone collections and retrospectives, I initially had doubts about Legacy’s most recent collection, To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story. Is another career retrospective really needed given the existence of Anthology: The Colpix Years, The Essential Nina Simone, and the comprehensive boxset, Four Women: The Complete Nina Simone on Philips Recordings? Does To Be Free really have something new to offer? Or is this latest release just another way to dig into the pockets of those Simone diehards anxious to scrape up any unheard gems the capitalist gods may have previously overlooked?
To the second question, the answer is an unqualified yes. If comprehensiveness and the right balance of bonafide hits, b-side classics, and unreleased live performances are the criteria for a first-rate boxset, then the compilers and producers of To Be Free performed their job masterfully. Spanning the years between 1957 and 1993, the four-disc compilation covers Simone’s years with Bethlehem, Colpix, Philips, RCA, and Columbia Records. Included are nearly all the classics you’d play for some who has never heard of Simone, as well as unreleased material not even in bootleg circulation. By far the most exciting thing about the anthology is the DVD, an Emmy-nominated 1970 documentary enlivened by rare performances and interviews. Engrossing from start to finish, the video gives you a sense of Nina Simone as both an artist and a fearless bandleader. To those of us not fortunate enough to have caught her when she was among the living, the concert footage is a special treat. Especially intriguing are those moments when Simone, to use the parlance of the church, “gets happy.” A strong spiritual impulse runs throughout Simone’s performances, giving the viewer a sense of how much the musician’s religiosity informed her art.
Special praise should also be given to the three audio discs, which capture Simone’s musical story rather than simply regurgitate the hits. Starting in the 1950s, the first disc opens up with selections from her spectacular debut album, Little Girl Blue. Only twenty-four upon the release of the 1957 classic, Simone betrayed a depth and maturity that belied her age. Three signature tunes from that recording find their way on To be Free: “Mood Indigo”, “I Loves You, Porgy”, and “My Baby Just Cares for Me”. On the thrilling opener, “Mood Indigo”, Simone not only pays homage to Duke Ellington, but provides a blueprint for future soul sisters (Aretha Franklin, Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark, and Geri Allen to name drop a few) who would rely on their voices and the keys to express human joy and sorrow. Quite evident, when listening to these early tunes, is the fact that Simone had already defined and distilled her artistic aesthetic, best understood as a disciplined fusion of the improvisational spirit of jazz, the naked truthfulness of the blues impulse, and the transcendental ethos and promise of African American gospel music. Consider the complex emotional and artistic negotiations going on in “You Can Have Him”, from her 1959 release, Nina Simone at Town Hall. She heroically attempts to embrace the promise of tomorrow, but her memory and recounting of past acts of sacrifice renders her courageous efforts to sing away the blues futile.
Full of cultural confidence, Simone arrived on the musical scene in the 1950s with a bang, but it wasn’t until the next decade that her legend would be solidified. Much of this had to do with her artistic and political identification with those brave women and men seeking to dismantle America’s brutal system of white supremacy by marching against power and privilege, demanding their rights, turning prisons into the sanctuaries of the righteous, and putting their bodies on the line for a cause bigger than themselves. Small surprise given the importance of Simone’s voice to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, To Be Free devotes a significant amount of attention to the political material from her classic records with the Philips and RCA. To listen to songs like “Mississippi Goddam”, “See Line Woman”, “To Be Young Gifted and Black” is to come face to face with America’s brutal history, to traverse the blood trenched grounds of the South. Not simply telling stories, Simone’s throaty contralto conjured up the spirits of the movement’s known and unknown victims: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, and the list goes on. Her voice seemed to grow more inflammatory as the freedom train roared and sometimes derailed through the various depots of America’s racial wilderness. An effortless master of what Houston Baker defines as “the poetry of impulse,” Simone represented “black articulateness and lyricism in the very face of violence, catastrophe, rejection, and exploitation.”
A perfect case of her perfection of this “poetry of impulse” is her 1968 version of “Mississippi Goddamn”, also included on the collection. Clearly shaken by Dr. King’s assassination, she begins her live performance on a blue note and initially struggles to build momentum. Amazingly, however, she gathers her bearings and challenges the audience to move beyond their grief. Sorrowful mourning suddenly morphs into a call for action. “If you have been moved at all,” she exclaims to the audience, “and you know my songs at al, for God sakes, join me! Don’t sit back there! The time is too late now, Good God!” Continuously repeating that “The King of Love is Dead”, she entreats her audience to begin the complicated and scary process of continuing on with the revolution.
That audacious spirit Simone displayed in the wake of Dr. King’s murder and the riotous aftermath was a constant throughout her career. Unafraid to face the fact that life frequently presents us with some excruciatingly difficult circumstances, she exposed the painful truths some of us prefer to bury in a sea of excuses, arrogant indifference, and misdirected rage. Very much like all the great artists she admired and befriended, most notably Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and the amazing Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone was transparently human, free of pretense and facades. And what makes To Be Free such a great collection is that it gives ample attention to her human side, her vulnerable spirit. Undoubtedly, the strong independent woman railing against George Wallace and other Southern segregationists contributed immensely to Simone’s appeal, but that was only one aspect of her genius. To many listeners enduring the anguish and loneliness that comes with failed friendships, doomed relationships, and unexpected betrayal, Simone songs like “The Other Woman”, “My Man Is Gone Now”, and “A Single Woman” were as necessary and liberating as the politically explicit tunes.
To its producers’ credit, To Be Free delivers the goods by embracing Simone’s complexity and eclecticism. Taken from studio and live performances, the 54 songs included here effectively demonstrate the ease at which Simone slipped into various genres and styles. There’s no denying that some moments are more stellar than others, but at the end of the day, every piece of this Nina Simone story, from the photographs to the film footage, puts an exciting twist on one amazing career.