In its third wave of DVDs Jazz Icons presents Nina Simone from two different European television performances. The Holland 1965 session runs about 40 minutes and the England 1968 session runs about 23. In both she delivers personal, powerful performances that made her such a unique performer.
The Holland session opens with Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Brown Baby.” Simone is at the piano and Lisle Atkinson accompanies on bass. He plays so subtly underneath it is barely detectable. The lyrics reveal a mother’s wishes for her a little girl, “you’re gonna have things that I never had.” It’s especially poignant coming from an African American woman in 1965 as civil rights were still being fought for back home in the United States. The anguish on Nina’s face punctuates the song.
Simone’s “Four Women” has four different African-American women, each a different color, briefly tell their story. Aunt Sarah is black and has suffered long from racism, a pain that’s “been inflicted again and again and again.” Saffronia is yellow due to being biracial; her conception is marked by racism as she reveals “My father was rich and white/ He forced my mother late one night.” Sweet Thing, not likely her name, is tan and works as a prostitute. On the bridge, Simone strikes the keys harder and continues into the next verse, singing in a rougher voice. Peaches is brown and “awfully bitter these days/ because my parents were slaves.” Her rage against what she and her people have suffered is understandable and tragic if the previous women are all the archetypes she has. No wonder she’ll “kill the first mother I see.”
Simone covers Bob Dylan’s “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” She changes the order of the lyrics of a brutal story about a man who suffers so much ill fortune that the only solution he sees for himself and his family is “the shotgun/ That's hangin’ on the wall.” Nina moves around on the piano bench like she’s riding horseback, sharing this tale of woe across the countryside.
Another highlight from Holland is “Mississippi Goddamn,” her response to events in the Civil Rights movement like the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama where four black children were killed. She rejects the notion of having to go slow to gain acceptance and “equality/ for my sister my brother my people and me” from whites, and who could argue. The music is played like an upbeat jazzy show tune in contrast to the subject matter, but the juxtaposition doesn’t offset the emotion or power.
The England 1968 session for or Granada TV runs about 24 minutes. Simone opens with Morris Bailey’s “Go To Hell,” but the effect of her warning is blunted by how glorious she makes the song sound. “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” is from the Broadway musical “Hair.” She details what she doesn’t have but then joyfully affirms what is important in life with her list of what she has got. Simone wrote “Backlash Blues” with Langston Hughes and plays it with a slow, funky rhythm as she calls out Mr. Backlash for thinking “that alla colored people/ Are just second class fools” and don’t understand they are being given “second-class houses/ And second class schools.”
Simone changes into an African dress and headscarf. She plays two abridged covers, coming in under two minutes. First, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” and then Tin Pan Alley writer Bennie Benjamin’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.” Simone mentions that The Animals had a hit with the latter, which came out a year after she recorded it. Her version is soft and subdued. She closes out the set with the gut-wrenching “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” written by her bassist Gene Taylor after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The music plays like a gospel number as she wonders whether King died for something or in vein. In 1968 that had to be a question not only every African American pondered, but every decent person.
Nina Simone – Live in ’65 & ’68 is a great showcase of her talents because her songs and performances tell a greater story about the African-American experience, yet she makes it accessible to anyone willing to listen. Simone has that special gift to make music transcendent. This DVD is well worth checking out.