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I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free: Nina Simone and the Redefining of the Freedom Song of the 1960s

Abstract

This article explores the work of pianist/vocalist Nina Simone as the catalyst for a new type of freedom song in the black freedom movement during the 1960s. It examines the lyrical content and structure of Simone’s music, which reflects the rhetorical and geographical shift of the transition from King’s nonviolent, southern-based civil rights movement of the late 1950s to the mid-1960s to the militant black power nationalist movement of the late 1960s. Curtis Mayfield’s Chicago soul style is also referenced as marking an important shift in mid-1960s R&B, which had largely avoided overt political statements.

"I wish I knew how it would feel to be free. I wish I could break all the chains holding me. I wish I could say all the things that I should say. Say ’em loud say ’em clear for the whole wide world to hear."
—Nina Simone

Over the past thirty years, numerous scholars have written extensively about and established the importance of the freedom song to the black freedom movement of the 1960s.2 Although this vast body of literature is sound in its articulation of the function, scope, and structure of the freedom song of the early 1960s, little attention has been given to the second generation of freedom songs that emerged in the mid-1960s and reflected the rhetorical and eventual philosophical transition of the movement from the nonviolent, interracial, church-based activism of Martin Luther King Jr. to the black nationalist, black power rhetoric of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers, and similar organizations. One is left with the impression that the articulation of black political rhetoric is defined solely in the freedom songs of the early 1960s and the nationalistic recordings of the late 1960s and early 1970s (i.e., James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” the Isley Brothers’ “Fight the Power, Part 1”). But in the interim years of the ideological shift from nonviolence to self-defense, from a southern, rural-based movement to an urban northern one, music played less of a role in the coordination of movement activities, yet it did not lose its importance in articulating the feelings and circumstances that motivated activists. By 1964 a new body of freedom or protest songs (the terms are used interchangeably) written by artists such as Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, James Collier, and others came to reflect these shifts, serving as documentation of the evolving political identity of young black America. It is through works such as “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Keep on Pushing,” and “Burn, Baby, Burn” that one can chronicle the growing anger that exploded in 1964 and ’65, with rioting in major cities across the country, and in ’66 with Stokely Carmichael’s shouts of “Black Power.” Through analysis of these compositions, this article will survey the development of the freedom song from its beginnings as revamped spiritual and gospel song performed in call-and-response format to a secular individually performed song that reflected the feelings and aspirations of the larger community. I will also indicate how the early freedom or protest songs of Simone became the blueprint for subsequent soul and jazz-based civil rights music, thus bridging two of the most highly identified periods of black protest music.

Tammy L. Kernodle
432K GSRs

Nina Simone's Triple Play

Listen to the opening notes of Nina Simone’s remarkable 1957 debut album Little Girl Blue and one hears a performer asserting her intentions, throwing down the glove: the exuberant “motor running-running” (Dobie 232) trademark vocals, the playfully virtuosic dance of a pianist’s velocity that turns the tempo of a Duke Ellington classic inside out and breaks open the melody to mine the ironically pulsating energy, the propulsive beat of non-stop “indigo” heartbreak. As jazz critic Scott Yanow states in the liner notes to the album, Simone’s take on Ellington was one of many “unexpected” and “memorable” twists that introduced the artist to the world. “[R]ather than begin the [recording] with one of her more accessible vocals,” says Yanow, “Simone starts out with a surprisingly up tempo and abstract piano exploration of ‘Mood Indigo’ before her vocal makes the song a bit more recognizable” (Yanow). It remains the first (public) record(ing) of Nina Simone’s counterintuitive brilliance as an artist who defied the center, ran circles in the margins, and wove together “highbrow” and “lowbrow” forms to create an off-beat repertoire that was, some might argue, “emo” before “emo,” Afropunk, folk eclectic, jazz torch song magic.

No one critical apparatus can sustain a sufficient reading of Nina Simone, an artist celebrated in part for having stylized a heterogeneous musical repertory of songs for nearly four decades. A classically-trained pianist who shifted into jazz, pop, cabaret, and folk performing in the mid 1950s as a way to support her education and subsequently to shore up her income, Simone gained notoriety for having moved fluidly from playing the music hall chanteuse by covering Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” (inspired by Billie Holiday’s interpretation) and the Norwegian folk lilt of “Black is the Color of My True Lover’s Hair” to “Duke Ellington compositions, Israeli folk songs, and songs by the Bee Gees” (Bernstein B6). She was the ultimate queen of popular music “crossover” in the most exhilarating and unconventional sense of the word, and she deftly and consistently called upon this ability to mix and match musical forms as a way to break free of the racial and gender circumscriptions placed upon her in popular music culture. Simone frequently commented on the significance of her generic moves, boldly proclaiming that “’It’s always been my aim to stay outside any category’. ‘That’s my freedom,’” she insisted to one reporter. But it was a “freedom” that, according to biographer David Nathan, “drove industry pundits and the music press crazy as they tried to categorize her” (Nathan 232). -

“There Must Be Some Kind of a Way Out of This Place”: Nina Simone’s Musical Maroonage

In many ways, Nina Simone would shape the bulk of her career in response to an aesthetic conundrum: what should a black female artist sound like? Some of Simone’s most famous song titles summed up this query. Through her music she sought to make her listeners grasp how “it would feel to be free” and to be “young, gifted, and black,” as well as female. Her songs thus served as sonic struggles in and of themselves, as embattled efforts to elude generic categorizations as a black female performer. These points would likewise resonate throughout much of Simone’s intense and absorbing memoir, I Put a Spell On You, a text in which the artist assails the cultural myopia of critics too obtuse to read the aesthetic range and complexities of her material. “[S]aying what sort of music I played,” Simone observes, “gave the critics problems because there was something from everything in there” (Simone and Cleary 68–69). For Simone, the constant (and, in her mind, completely erroneous) comparisons to Billie Holiday were signs of the music press’s inability to read the depth of diversity in black female musical expression. People, she argues, “couldn’t get past the fact we were both black. . . . Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn’t fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be” (Simone and Cleary 68–69). As a response to these narrow definitions of black sound, Simone turned other corners and crossed over and out of constricting musical divides, challenging her audiences to consider and perhaps more importantly to listen for the meaning of liberation in black female performance. In this way, to rock critic Dave Marsh, she was the consummate “Freedom Singer,” someone who “lived and sang like a person who not only counted on the promise but lived in the actuality of the American Dream” (Marsh v).

No doubt, she lived that “Dream” of aesthetic entitlement with tenacity in the Jim Crow south while being raised as a child prodigy whose virtuosic capabilities would realize the perfectionist strivings of middle-class parents. Born Eunice Waymon in 1933 to a family headed by a father who was a business entrepreneur and a mother who was an ordained Methodist minister in Tryon, North Carolina, Simone began playing piano when she was three years old and went on to perform hymns and gospel music at her mother’s church. By the age of five and with the help of local community fundraising, she was studying classical music. But according to Simone (who adopted her stage name, in part, from her favorite French film actress Simone Signoret), it was her musical genius that also set her apart from her family as well as her peers. “I knew,” she observes, “I wasn’t like everybody else, I wasn’t like them anymore” (Simone and Cleary 25). “No one in the family,” she continues, “knew how isolated my music made me” (Simone and Cleary 30).

The I Put A Spell On You memoir in fact frames this social and cultural isolation as a factor that fostered and nurtured in Simone her experimental wanderlust as a musician, as well as a kind of fearless, non-conformist streak. Simone recalls how, from the earliest age forward, she “had no preference for any individual style. In fact, I liked to play as many different styles as possible” (Simone and Cleary 17). Obsessed with aesthetic excellence and performative virtuosity instilled in her in part by her beloved English piano instructor “Miss Mazzy,” Simone argues that she was less interested in defining the terms of “what” she played as she was invested in playing whatever she tackled very well. Although her initial intent was to pursue a career as a classical pianist, financial woes forced her to take work as a nightclub performer. As if to underscore her fundamental resistance to fitting neatly into the conventional role of the black female chanteuse, Simone, for economic reasons, ultimately embraced her role as a vocalist and committed herself to performing “a diversity of material” that, in turn, became her trademark and signature appeal to such an extent that, as music critic Adam Bernstein sees it, she cultivated and perfected a “love for contrasting sounds and defying predictability. Her version of the pop staple ‘Love Me or Leave Me,’” for instance, “plays a dazzling classical run with a throaty jazz vocal” (Bernstein).3 As historian Ruth Feldstein has noted in her work on the artist’s socio-political activism, on albums such as the 1964 landmark In Concert album, Nina Simone “rejected any singular definition of African American womanhood” and this effort “remained central to Simone’s participation in black activism” beyond the album itself (Feldstein 1353,1358). What I would add here is that we also consider how Simone’s social activism was not only overtly incorporated into the content of her material, but, just as well, that it permeated the form of her musical heterogeneity that worked to free African Americans from cultural and representational stasis.

Simone was as equally invested in social activism as she was in musical experimentation and pushing herself artistically. As she demonstrates in her effortless (generic) movements between mid-1960s agitprop folk and cabaret spectacle and as she maintains in her autobiography, her “music was dedicated to a purpose more important than classical music’s pursuit of excellence; it was dedicated to the fight for freedom and [what she referred to as] the historical destiny” of African Americans (Simone and Cleary 91). Liberation is thus derived, in part, not only from her more overt protest songs but also from the sheer ideological and generic mobility manifested in her material. Repeatedly, Nina Simone staged a kind of performative sit-in that yielded what we might think of as a kind of socio-politicized musical crossover—one that was less about achieving conventional success on the pop charts and more concerned with barreling into putatively forbidden representational territories. In turn she worked to generate a kind of aesthetic “protest music” of a different order from that traditionally associated with black (female) musicians of the 1960s.

Daphne A. Brooks
4.4M GSRs

The Unfinished Dialogue of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X

Almost four decades after Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X offered sharply contrasting ideas regarding the future direction of black politics, they still symbolize opposing positions that divide African Americans. Their sometimes rancorous debate, carried on mainly through public statements rather than direct dialogue, set the tone for the disruptive, even deadly ideological and tactical conflicts within Black communities in the years since their deaths. Contemporary Black young people seeking social justice are still torn between racial integration and racial separation, between Martin’s call for nonviolent resistance and Malcolm’s insistence on “any means necessary.”

But was the split between them inevitable? Were their ideas actually incompatible? Or were they in some ways complimentary? Must African Americans choose between their ideological legacies? Would Martin and Malcolm have resolved some of their differences, if they had not been assassinated? Was their inability to achieve such a resolution a missed opportunity that has hobbled subsequent African-American politics? Why, now, years after their deaths, are these questions relevant?

Martin and Malcolm have become the two most recognizable African-American icons of the twentieth century, but popular understanding of the two men rarely extends beyond caricatures and sound bites. Martin has been honored with a national holiday that typically focuses on the “I have a dream” passage concluding his address at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Yet few Americans have listened to his entire speech at the march, and still fewer have heard his other remarkable speeches and sermons. Malcolm’s image has appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, and his life has been chronicled in Alex Haley’s best-selling Autobiography of Malcolm X and portrayed by Denzel Washington in Spike Lee’s epic motion picture. Yet Malcolm’s political evolution during his final years remains little understood—a source of unwanted human complexity for those who prefer simplistic heroes or villains.

Scholars have subjected Martin’s life to meticulous, critical examination based on a wealth of archival materials, but writings on Malcolm have been hampered by over reliance on his own autobiographical statements and a tendency in biographical works toward hagiography rather than serious analysis. Martin and Malcolm crafted public personae that obscured aspects of their past even while revealing some of their flaws.

Clayborne Carson
174K GSRs

Nina Simone: Music, Identity, Activism, & The Civil Rights Movement


Activism & Identity

Stage name - Nina Simone was created through the combination of an old nickname from a previous partner “niña” and inspiration from the famous french actress Simone Signoret.

Simone’s music began to shift toward issues within the civil rights movement as she became intertwined with its’ efforts.

Her identity & her music were inextricably connected and it was clear to listeners everywhere that she was expressing a clear political message.

Music & Civil Rights

Simone’s music became drastically geared toward the fight for Civil Rights, especially after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the murders of the four African American girls in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963.

What had previously been love songs and upbeat ballads was swiftly shifting to protest songs, and activism centered tunes.

A few being, Mississippi Goddam, her cover of Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday, Old Jim Crow, Why (The King of Love is Dead) etc.

Music was a powerful protest tool and her tunes carried tremendous political weight.

Lauren Bulla
1.24M GSRs

Hendrix