Issue March 7, 2006

The Long Review – Nina Simone

Where does one discover the meaning of life? Is it just a collection of observations and experiences that wind you up in a spot where the water seems a little less murky than that other spot down the block? Or do people, through their talents or gifts or artistic capabilities, speak prophecies and truths that, to the keen and listening ear, aren’t a simple collection of words to be dismissed as just lyrics, but tales of a certain place in life, a certain place in time and the journey that reflects those times and says the things that so need to be said?

Thanks to that bar owner in Atlantic City who told Nina in 1954 that she would have to sing along with the piano to keep a job in his place. A simple requirement: sing and you shall work. And sing she did. And boy, did it work. Sort of makes me think of the fellow who created the first drink umbrella. Did either one of these guys have any idea what they started?

Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit carries the listener deep into Nina’s soul, where the experiences that comprised her existence as an artist, though initially clouded and impassable, become clarified and convictive. She is a self-ordained minister for the Cause. Her chosen causes run the range from segregation and racial prejudice — “Mississippi Goddam” — to recovery from mismatched love in “It Be’s That Way Sometimes.”

She uses her voice for equal parts exclamation and gentle non-servitude, always with range and inflection, from raw and coarse to a whispering sexy sweetness, manipulating both the listener and the music itself. Silence is elementary as much as an accompaniment. It is as if the music is created to connect and complete the lyrics, and serve as not just an instrument in the physical sense but truly as a second voice.

I keep going back to one song on the re-release of Silk and Soul called “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” The gentle ease of the piano intro makes me snap my fingers well before the song does the same itself. I dare not say that she has summed up the entirety of her emotions in this one expression, but it would have to be damn close. And, the fact that she delivers with such pride and strength and power and belief makes this work real. It makes me want to know how any one individual can get so deep into another’s core and shake them so.

I didn’t exactly listen to all of the discs in the designated order, so I save for last Nina Simone Sings the Blues. I grew up in a blues-based environment where Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and Elvis were just a few of the common denominators of my musical beginnings. There is brazen honesty and purity in this woman crooning the blues, and whether the beat makes you get up and move or simply sway and listen, you fall further into the depth of Nina’s spell, into her meaning of life.