Where there is a will there is a way

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Nina Simone: I put a spell on you

"Whatever it was that happened out there under the lights, it mostly came from God, and I was just a place along the line He was moving on." -Nina Simone

Nina Simone was an unstoppable force against racism. She sang and played with soul, but also with the great classical technique of European composers such as Bach. As such, her message could not be denied. I believe the world needed her at that time, and she was carried along in that wave, but with great sacrifice of her personal life.

I just read Nina Simone's autobiography, I put a spell on you. I have always loved her music since I stumbled across it in my teenage years, who knows how, for its great emotion, starting off with Wild is the Wind. I still find her music a constant source of inspiration, and listen to it often, especially to her Live Euro Concerts recordings. There has been so much I've picked up over the years about her life - even just to clear up the confusion of looking through her discography, all the albums she has recorded at various times - I just really wanted to know all about her actual life.

She wrote her autobiography with honesty, and also with her great control and artistry in telling her story. I have really gained an understanding. I found it fascinating how she grew up, that she was a child prodigy, playing for church revivals from the age of six, and how her community supported her. America was divided into black and white at that time. Her destiny was influenced by that fact. Instead of becoming America's first black concert pianist, as her mother wanted, although she did train classically and have that dream, she ended up becoming a voice of change, with a gift and classical background that was impossible to deny. Although she had prodigious talent, the musical institute had never had a black student, let alone a black female student. She was turned down for full scholarship (necessary since she did not have wealth). She ended up singing in a club for money, although her minister mother would never have approved. She was a classical pianist (who had played gospel and church songs growing up) who ended up singing to support herself, and after gaining fame, turned her talent into a weapon to fight for civil rights. I'll post a video of Mississippi Goddam, a song I enjoyed for a long time just for its energy before actually understanding what it was about. It was the first song she wrote for civil rights, which she wrote in a flood of emotion after hearing of black children being blown up in a church in Alabama, and a few other similar events that tipped her over.

I would like to post an excerpt that I find personally fascinating from her autobiography. From I put a spell on you, by Nina Simone (with Stephen Cleary), Ebury Press: 1991, page 91-94:

"After the murder of Medgar Evers, the Alabama bombing and 'Mississippi Goddam' the entire direction of my life shifted, and for the next seven years I was driven by civil rights and the hope of black revolution. I was proud of what I was doing and proud to be part of a movement that was changing history. It made what I did for a living something much more worthwhile. I had started singing because it was a way of earning more money; then fame came along and I began to enjoy the trappings of success, but after a while even they weren't enough, and I got my fulfillment outside of music - from my husband, my daughter, my home. That changed when I started singing for the movement because I justified what I was doing to myself and to the world outside, I could finally answer Momma's great unasked question, 'Why do you sing out in the world when you could be praising God?'

"I needed to be able to answer that question because, although being a performing artist sounded like something grand and wonderful, up to then it felt like just another job. I didn't feel like an 'artist' because the music I played, to which I dedicated my artistry, was so inferior. That was why I put as much of my classical background as I could into the songs I performed and the music I recorded, to give it at least some depth and quality. The world of popular music was nothing compared to the classical world: you didn't have to work as hard, the audiences were too easily pleased, and all they were interested in was the delivery of the lyrics. It seemed like a nothing world to me, and I didn't have much respect for popular audiences because they were so musically ignorant.

"As I became more involved in the movement this attitude I had towards my audiences changed, because I admired what they were achieving for my people so much that the level of their musical education didn't come into it anymore. They gave me respect too, not only for my music - which they loved - but because they understood the stand I was making. They knew I was making sacrifices and running risks just like they were, and we were all in it together. Being a part of this struggle made me feel so good. My music was dedicated to a purpose more important than classical music's pursuit of excellence; it was dedicated to the fight for freedom and the historical destiny of my people. I felt a fierce pride when I thought about what we were all doing together. So if the movement gave me nothing else, it gave me self-respect.

"It was at this time, in the mid-sixties, that I first began to feel the power and spirituality I could connect with when I played in front of an audience. I'd been performing for ten years, but it was only at this time that I felt a kind of state of grace come upon me on those occasions when everything fell into place. At such times I would give a concert that everyone who witnessed it would remember for years, and they would go home afterwards knowing that something very special had happened.

"Those moments are very difficult for a performer to explain. It's like being transported in church; something descends upon you and you are gone, taken away by a spirit that is outside of you. I can only think of one comparison: I went to a bullfight in Barcelona once, not knowing what to expect. I sat in the sun drinking vodka waiting for it to begin and when they got the bull out and killed him I threw up from the mixture of alcohol and shock. It was a Sunday afternoon blood-letting, a real blood-letting. Back in Tryon at revival time people would 'come through' and shout, carry on and foam at the mouth. We'd call it 'blood-letting' but it wasn't - not real blood-letting like it was that Sunday afternoon. I realized then that Spanish people were not much different from black people in America in the Holy Roller Church, and the songs performed by the flamenco musicians were similar to those performed by my people in churches in the black south - all rhythm and emotion. The only difference was they actually killed the bull in Spain, whereas in America they had revival meetings where the death and sacrifice were only symbolic. But it was the same thing, the same sense of being transformed, of celebrating something deep, something very deep. That's what I learned about performing - that it was real, and I had the ability to make people feel on a deep level. It's difficult to describe because it's not something you can analyze; to get near what it's about you have to play it.

"And when you've caught it, when you've got the audience hooked, you always know because it's like electricity hanging in the air. I began to feel it happening and it seemed to me like mass hypnosis - like I was hypnotizing an entire audience to feel a certain way. I was the toreador mesmerizing this bull and I could turn around and walk away, turning my back on this huge animal which I knew would do nothing because I had it under my complete control. And like they did with the toreadors, people came to see me because they knew I was playing close to the edge and one day I might fail. This was how I got my reputation as a live performer, because I went out from the mid-sixties onwards determined to get every audience to enjoy my concerts the way I wanted to, and if they resisted at first I had all the tricks to bewitch them with.

"I know it all sounds a little Californian and wired, but it wasn't like that at all: I had technique, and I used it. To cast the spell over an audience I would start with a song to create a certain mood which I carried into the next song and then on through into the third, until I created a certain climax of feeling and by then they would be hypnotized. To check, I'd stop and do nothing for a moment and I'd hear absolute silence: I'd got them. It was always an uncanny moment. It was as if there was a power source somewhere that we all plugged into, and the bigger the audience the easier it was - as if each person supplied a certain amount of the power. As I moved on from clubs into bigger halls I learned to prepare myself thoroughly: I'd go to the empty hall in the afternoon and walk around to see where the people were sitting, how close they'd be to me at the front and how far away at the back, whether the seats got closer together or further apart, how big the stage was, how the lights were positioned, where the microphones were going to hit - everything. I was especially careful of microphones, taking the trouble to find one that worked for me and throwing away those that didn't. So by the time I got on stage I knew exactly what I was doing.

"Before important concerts I would practise alone for hours at a time, so long sometimes that my arms would seize up completely. There was one period when I was so dissatisfied with drummers that I decided not to use them anymore. So I sat down for days and trained my left hand like a drum; just as I mastered it my arm went paralyzed from all the work it had done. Other times I'd fall asleep at the piano and Andy would have to come and put me to bed. I made sure the musicians in my bands understood the way I was likely to go on stage. My ideal musician was Al Schackman, but there were others who were almost as wonderful - and those that weren't got fired from day one. My bands knew the repertoire of songs I would choose from, but I never gave them a set list until the very last minute - sometimes as we walked out on stage - because the songs I played each night depended on the mood I caught from the audience, the hall and my preparations through the day. When I walked out to play I was super-sensitive and, whilst aware of the crowd, tried to play for myself, have a good time and hope the audience would get pulled into that, as if - like my musicians - they were an extension of me for the time the concert lasted.

"The saddest part of performing was - and still is - that it didn't mean anything once you were off stage. I never felt proud of being a performer or got vain about it, because it mostly came naturally and I didn't feel I completely understood or controlled what happened on stage anyhow. I did my preparations as carefully as possible in order to set the scene, but having done that the rest was difficult to predict. I knew which songs to play, and in what order, but the difference between a good professional show and a great show, one where I would get lost in the music, was impossible to know. It just happened. Whatever it was that happened out there under the lights, it mostly came from God, and I was just a place along the line He was moving on. [my bolding] With civil rights I played on stage for a reason, and when I walked off stage those reasons still existed - they didn't fade away with the applause; and there were always new ideas to discuss, articles to read, speakers to listen to and songs to write. For the first time performing made sense as a part of my life - it was no longer that strange and wonderful two hours out front which only depressed you more when you got back to the dressing room and stared at the paint peeling off the walls and wondered if you'd get any sleep that night."

Look her up on iTunes! Don't miss:

Four Women (Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings)
To be Young, Gifted and Black (The Very Best of Nina Simone)
Mississippi Goddam (Four Women: The Nina Simone Philips Recordings)
Medley: Moon of Alabama / In Childhood's Bright Endeavour (Live Euro Concerts)
Ain't Got No / I got Life (Live Euro Concerts)
My Baby Just Cares for Me (Live Euro Concerts)
Revolution (Live Euro Concerts)
Who Am I (Live Euro Concerts)
Compensation (Live Euro Concerts)
Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood (Live Euro Concerts)

Just get Live Euro Concerts!!


Martin Alexander said...

I am reading the same passage and, wanting to copy it, I found your blog. Thanks! My wife and I are working, with NS's daughter and others, on the musical of Nina Simone's life. It's good to see people sharing the same passion!

Nonavee Dale said...

Oh, the musical! I was thinking you meant "music". Yes, I read her autobiography, and feel like I really channelled her. Being an artist myself (though no prodigy), I think I could understand her, and am annoyed when she is misunderstood. I felt that that happened when I looked her up on Wikipedia, and someone had written "despite having bipolar disorder" she went on to accomplish etc. I did the best I could to represent her better and rewrote the intro to her entry. Somehow I knew she wouldn't have wanted to be remembered that way. Anyone experiencing the intensity of life the way she was is allowed to have some weak moments - I so don't believe she was the least bit ill. Her music says alot.

Nonavee Dale said...

Good on you, show the world who she was! Sometimes difficult for people understand her as she is orginal and doesn't fit into any box they are familiar with. It helps to understand where she came from - her background. Thanks, good luck.