NINA SIMONE / “Pirate Jenny”
Everybody knows about Mississippi, but “Pirate Jenny,” goddamn. When I first heard Nina sing this incendiary song, I wondered how in the world did they let her record that one. I mean, of course, she was known for doing political stuff, and this concert recording of “Pirate Jenny” was on the same album with “Mississippi Goddamn,” but still, it seemed to me that “Pirate Jenny” went far, far beyond a civil rights call for racial equality or even abstract calls for “Revolution.” No, “Pirate Jenny” unflinchingly advocated killing rich people, the murder of the bourgeoisie, and I had not yet arrived at such a position. If I was shocked, and I was, I could hardly imagine how bankers and record company executives felt about this one.
As I remember it, I was in high school when this was released, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, I admired Nina to the highest, although in the back of my mind I feared for her, I feared 'they' would kill her. Her she was singing about murdering white men! Goddamn.
I played the Nina In Concert album over and over. What a hell of a concert that was. And of course, I looked at the fine print, which is when I saw the composers of “Pirate Jenny” were Brecht and Weill. I had never heard of them. At that time I was not yet active in the theatre, although a decade later, critics would write that my plays were Brechtian because of some of the techniques we employed.
One time in particular, I remember we were doing a play at the University of New Orleans, and this play started with some of the cast members being in the audience and doing their parts in such a way that you could not tell if they were reacting spontaneously or if they were part of the play. At a certain point in the play, a recorded voice says, “And now ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem.” We played the Jimi Hendrix version—all of it—and on that night, just as Jimi was firing it up, a sister walks in with a striped red, white and blue blouse on, complete with white stars. Afterwards, people told us they thought she was in the play. She was, but she just wasn’t one of the cast.
All of which is to say, even though I was disposed by my conditions and aspirations to respond to class warfare, because I was partially blinded by the myopia of reacting to racism with a rejection of everything white, at that time I still had not consciously embraced the idea of class struggle. Some years later I learned who the German duo of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill were and I gained a fuller understanding of “Pirate Jenny” that extended far, far beyond simple black and white.
Imagine my surprise when I found out the popular song, “Mack, The Knife,” which so many people sung, including Louis Armstrong’s famous version, was taken from the same source as “Pirate Jenny”: The Threepenny Opera written in 1928. I had already peeped that Nina’s dramatic version was theatrical, it was just that when I first heard it I didn’t know it was literally a classic theater piece.
Which brings me to why I consider this a classic, and why I include three other songs as examples of classic Nina. When it came to interpreting music in a personal way, no one could match Nina’s intensity. To go from “Pirate Jenny” to “You Can Have Him,”—from a political call-to-arms to an achingly subtle, bittersweet love song sung not to the lover, but to the person who has taken one’s lover, well, anyone who can make all of that believable when you listen to the music back-to-back, well, that person has to be someone special. I always liked the note of laughter at he end “You Can Have Him,” the self-acknowledgement that she nailed that one. The joy of an overwhelming accomplishment.
But there is more. Third is “Who Am I,” a song about reincarnation and questioning one’s identity. A deeply philosophical song, taken from Nina and Piano, a deeply philosophical album which is a true solo triumph. Nina is the only singer and the only musician on the album—it's just Nina and her piano playing. Although not as popular as some of her other albums, Nina and Piano is one of the highest peaks in a recording career of Olympian heights.
The last piece, which was originally issued on an RCA album called Black Gold, is another concert recording, but this time it is the spoken introduction setting up the number that launches a hefty investigation of mortality by questioning “what is time”?
Is there any other vocalist of consummate artistry who has amassed a comparable body of deeply diverse, profoundly personal, socially conscious recordings? I don’t believe so. I don’t believe there is any match for Nina Simone in terms of interpreting music in the social context of her time, for she was not just entertaining us, she was educating us, and inspiring us to challenge ourselves and the era we lived in. She was doing what all great art does: while speaking directly to the deeptitude inside each of us, the art encourages each of us to rise up from solely contemplating the personal and be about the business of socially interacting with the world around us. In other words, great art personally moves us to move beyond our personal selves. Her unequalled ability to touch all of us so intimately, while addressing issues that effect us both personally and collectively, is Nina’s ultimate gift to each of us.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
One of the books I've been reading lately is Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. For the last few chapters, Zinn has been recounting the class-based riots of the late 18th and early 19th century. "Pirate Jenny" sounds like a soundtrack to Zinn's writing.
Zinn recounts how masses of poor people almost randomly join together in acts of violence against the rich. Othertimes, the uprisings or rebellions would be much more organized, in the form of a work stoppage or planned act of insurrection. It would overstate things to call either the random or planned acts attempts at revolution. It was more like what happened in South Central following the Rodney King acquittals. A (relatively) minor event would occur and for whatever reason it would resonate with enough people to coalesce them into a single, like-minded, very angry and very violent body. Zinn tells stories about mobs of young men marching to mansions and tearing them down to the ground.
Eventually, Zinn notes, the rich realized that they couldn't keep ALL of the wealth to themselves. They decided it was necessary to create an educated, civilized and semi-monied middle-class that would serve as a buffer against the masses of the poor. You know the old saying: a man who has nothing, has nothing left to lose. Therefore, threats of joblessness, or jail, or even death, are insufficient to keep him in his place. When you have an socio-economic system that, by definition, creates massive amounts of extreme poverty, the ruling class of said system have only two choices: employ a standing army to protect themselves, or, has eventually happened in America, tweak the system.
According to Zinn, these intermittent riots/uprisings/strikes continued for well over 100 years. He spends several chapters telling the stories of some of the specific events. Strangely enough, you can read entire histories of the U.S.A. and never hear a word about this extremely turbulent and violent time period. Curious, right?
Anyhow, I just found it interesting that "Pirate Jenny" documents this largely-forgotten time in the history of our country.
—Mtume ya Salaam
This entry was posted on Sunday, November 6th, 2005 at 4:30 am and is filed under Classic. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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