Sunday, December 5, 2010

Nina Simone

 I rented "Jazz Icons: Nina Simone: Live in '65 & '68" from Netflix, and got around to watching the DVD last night, after the Ole Ball Coach went down so far with that Hail Mary halftime play that there was obviously no coming back for the Cocks (which is an absolutely prescient nickname for the public university of South Carolina, although the team seemed earnest and made a valiant effort against the Auburn juggernaut).  The first time I heard Nina Simone was on a juke box at Harry's, in Chapel Hill, sometime before 1963.  She was singing some sort of R&B style song.  The next time I heard her was on television, singing "Four Women."  That was probably about 1967 or so.  It's a remarkable song, featuring four black women who each "stand for" a way of being.  The first is an old "aunt" who has worked her life in the field.  The last is a very angry woman who will kill you if you look at her wrong, and song ends with her almost screaming, "Call me Peaches."  It's just reporting, something Ms Simone did, over and over again, all through her wonderful, brave career.  Nina Simone never looked away.  Although the view was so painful that she did move away, to Europe.

So, at the end of this fine documentary of two or three of her European performances, in the '60s, she sings "Why? (The King of Love is Dead)."  It's not long after Martin Luther King was assassinated, and how she gets through the song I just don't know.  The audience is crying, and the song even has a line: "cry, cry, your tears don't mean a thing."  But her sorrow is far beyond tears.  I couldn't help crying, over 40 years later.  There are some versions of her singing "Why?" on youtube, but I couldn't find this one in a cursory search.  All the more reason for you to rent the DVD.  Musically, her phrasing and delivery is just remarkable--the simple poem of the song barely conveys what she puts into it, which is of course true of many songs and one of the wonderful things about the art of singing.  Ms Simone was as good as anyone singing in the second half of the 20th Century.  But she refused to look away. 

Meanwhile, all the people who found Martin Luther King an inconvenience, all the people who today actually presume to deny that there is racism, toiled mightily first to resist all efforts at combatting racism, then, finally, grudgingly created a holiday for the good Doctor which, just like Christmas, is anything but about what he was about.  Not that there's any big surprise here.  After the conclusion of the American Civil War it only took a few years for things to get back to "normal" sans explicit slavery, and many supposedly serious historians still argue about whether the Civil War was "about" slavery at all. 

Lincoln, on the other hand, would seem to have "gotten it."  From his Second Inaugural Address, spoken scarcely a month before he was murdered:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether".

"Why?" raises such profound questions as well, particularly in the nuance of Ms Simone's rendering.  Although the country has worked mightily to obscure the truth of King's murder, with endless gossipy irrelevances concerning his life and work, the song has it right.  And speaking as one who was marginally "there," in the sense that I did attend the March on Washington in 1963, and also participated to a very small degree in the efforts to integrate Chapel Hill that same summer (which was by no means as fearful a project as standing against the deadly violence further to the south--spoken to in another of Ms Simone's wonderful songs, "Mississippi Goddam), I still view the murder of Dr. King as the most profound historical turning point in the second half of 20th Century America, the boulevard not taken, the opportunity lost, possibly forever. 

King represented a moment of deep change for America.  He spoke again and again to America's heart.  Instead, even from a President who did succeed in getting very significant legislative advances in the Civil Rights cause, we got Vietnam.  And perhaps from the utter cynicism which grounds Vietnam, much which seemed fundamental has been lost.  The new Senator from Kentucky, after all, holds the view that "private" racial segregation, such as that maintained by all facilities open to the public south of the "Mason-Dixon Line" up until the passage of the Civil Rights laws in 1964 and '65, should still be the order of the land. 

Big historical "events" frequently do not happen in an instant.  I couldn't help thinking that Ms Simone was still exactly right: we're all still "heading for the brink."  I'll paste the words to "Why?" below, but they are only the shell.  Ms Simone fills them with the tragic life they deserve.  They really ought to sing this one in church once in a while. 

Why? (The King of Love Is Dead) 
© Calvin Eugene Taylor and Nina Simone   1968

Once upon this planet Earth lived a man of noble birth
Preaching love and freedom for his fellow man.
He was dreaming of the day, peace would come on Earth to stay,
And he spread the message all across the land.

Turn the other cheek, he'd plead, love thy neighbor was his creed,
Pain, humiliation, death, he did not dread.
Yes with his bible by his side, from his foe he would not hide,
It's hard to think, this great man is dead.

[chorus]:  He had see the mountain top, and he knew he could not stop,
Always living through threat of death ahead.
Tell your parents they'd better stop and think,
Cause we're heading for the brink,
What's gonna happen, now that the king of love is dead?

Will the murders never cease, are they men or are they beasts,
But the people, what do they think they have to gain?
Well will your nation stand or fall, is it too late for us all?
And did Martin Luther King just die in vain?

You know he was for equality for all, for you and me,
Full of love and good will, hate was not his way,
He was not a violent man, so tell me honey, if you can,
Why was he shot down the other day?

It was prejudice, it was hate, bigotry sealed his fate,
Go on cry cry, your tears won't change a thing.
Will my country ever learn, must we kill at every turn?
We've got to know by now what the consequences will bring.

[chorus]: He had seen the mountain top, and he knew he could not stop,
Always living through threat of death ahead.
Tell your parents they'd better stop and think,
Cause we're heading for the brink.
What's gonna happen, now that the king of love is dead?

I don't know about you, but I can't find any lies in that song.  

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