The High Priestess of (the) Soul: I am not exactly sure what I am recommending here, but if I move my pick out to its largest point, I am simply recommending Nina Simone to those who are not familiar with her life and musical legacy.
Before you think you are unfamiliar with Nina Simone, pause to remember, for you may have already encountered her distinctive voice. Her music has been featured in various perfume commericals, Christian Dior was the latest to do this but Chanel did this before Dior. You have also heard Nina Simone if you have seen Richard Linklater’s film Before Sunset, which will be featured as its own pick at some point. In the film’s final scene, Jesse plays Simone’s version of Just in Time as Celine dances with reminiscence of Simone. Or, you may have heard Simone in any one of a number of Civil Right’s Movement films as she was a powerful and prolific voice of the movement. Within many of these films, you may have encountered the Civil Rights’ anthem–the song Young, Gifted, and Black. If you are already familiar with Nina Simone, then I am simply recommending the latest documentary about her life—What Happened, Miss Simone?
I have been a longtime admirer of Nina Simone, but my experience has been mostly of her music and less so of her life. This documentary filled in my sad lack of knowledge very nicely. It was particularly enlightening as it covered the influence of the European classical music tradition, specifically Bach, upon Simone, which in hindsight makes sense in my experience of listening to her music. The documentary also expands thoughtfully upon Simone’s years in Liberia of which I had only the most surface understanding before. It was amazing to learn more about this part of her life through her own words.
What Happened, Miss Simone? also thoughtfully covered the question of the impact upon Simone’s life and career when it came to her embrace of Black separatist sensibilities. A profound point I heard within the documentary is the question of how participation in the Movement exacted a powerful personal and professional toll upon those brave enough to stand up and speak out. These are the heavy steps the saint’s amongst us took and take. Along the same lines of consideration, the documentary additionally offers a fascinating gateway for understanding several of the names and connections that were key in the cultural outgrowth and response of the Civil Right’s Movement.
While I understood something of the political implications within the song Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, the documentary provided me with a whole new way of hearing this song. That said, the documentary did nothing for how uncertain I am when listening to Mississippi Goddam, but it gave me a deeper appreciation as this song may well be an example of the classical baroque contrapuntal technique Simone brought to her music. There is some evidence for this interpretation within the lyrics: “This is a showtune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” To my mind, this line juxtaposes the popular feel of the song with its political import. Perhaps, the documentary did answer my uncertainty about Mississippi Goddam after all.
I was very pleasantly surprised by footage of Simone singing For All We Know. I have long been familiar with Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday’s versions of this song and even of Beverly Kenney’s, but somehow, Simone’s cover had escaped my hearing. Her arrangement has already become my favorite version, and this song perhaps showcases what Simone did best–as she imbued the ephemeral with the ethereal. For those who are unfamiliar with Simone, this song is a soft ear way in to her songbook.
Whether a first comer or a longtime fan, the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? is well-worth watching. I envy the amazing cultural rabbit hole that awaits those unfamiliar with Nina Simone’s life and legacy—jump, rabbit, jump! It’s an awesomely impacting, beautiful and important world to explore. Apparently, there is a tribute album and two more films yet to be released this year.
As I type this post, I am listening to Simone’s album Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, and I am hearing it more clearly now than ever before. This is a great entry album to begin hearing Nina Simone.