Nina Simone was unknown to me until she was the featured artist of the week on a recent episode of BBC 6 Music’s Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, where he played her 1965 recording of “I Put a Spell on You.” I’d likely heard other music of hers before, just didn’t know who she was. I’ve read a little about her and still don’t feel I know much, as the various accounts I found focused on different aspects of her life and career and provided differing viewpoints so, in many ways, I was none the wiser on some parts of her story.
As the late singer’s website states, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times…” And explaining her initial reluctance to use her music to address civil rights, Simone’s autobiography states, “Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning. And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like [Civil Rights activist] Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
As much as there is conflict about the legitimacy and usefulness of protest, there can also be conflict within a person as to how they can address injustices they witness in life, as Simone seems to me to have felt earlier on, until she decided to add her voice to the call for equal rights. Maybe that can also be a reminder for all of us to be open to dialogue instead of dismissing those with viewpoints that don’t match ours. Over the past few days, I’ve been in a conversation with a dear friend over issues we don’t agree on, though it has been a respectful discussion amid the sharing of our diverging opinions. And, there is some common ground, too.
Simone felt her function as an artist was to “… make people feel on a deep level.” For me, that’s a lot of what music is about, regardless of the subject of a piece of music. Music affects people in different ways, and songwriters bring their lives — deepened and complicated by the privileges, disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses that surround them, the times they live and work in, and the world events that shape their views — into their creations. All are worth hearing, whether we agree with them or not. It’s not about having a “spell put upon us” but, rather, accepting that there are different viewpoints in the world. They needn’t all be seen just in terms of right and wrong, but heard and honoured. Likewise, when injustice is felt, it must be examined in a way that makes the aggrieved person or community feel heard. Then, when it is clear a problem exists, it is up to our elected leaders to acknowledge and resolve the issue, to help maintain a civil society.
As for today’s song, I knew it before, but in a version released in 1993 by Bryan Ferry on his album, Taxi. I’m not sure if I assumed it was his composition, though I do like his version quite a lot. (Having had a look at it today, turns out nine of the ten songs on the album are covers!)
Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today. Thanks for joining me here, and please enjoy.
Here’s the audio for the song from the official Nina Simone YouTube channel: