NINA SIMONE / “Isn’t It A Pity”
These two songs are long-form Nina taken from Emergency Ward / It Is Finished / Black Gold a 2-CD collection of Nina’s last three LPs on the RCA label. Both selections, each over ten minutes long, are stellar examples of sustained intense expression done as only Nina can. Like church service, Nina throws her all in the pot as she conjures up a process that transform the physical into the spiritual. Although this style of singing has sometimes been described as letting it all hang out or letting one’s self go, there is a huge amount of discipline and artistry required to successfully execute these kinds of performances where the artist clearly becomes a vessel ridden by some invisible force. Over forty years ago, my younger brother Kenneth and I were in Choir #3, the young people’s ensemble of my grandfather’s Greater Liberty Baptist church located at 1230 Desire Street in New Orleans. This particular time was not a Sunday service, but rather a week night gathering. It may have been a Bible study session or it may have been a reception for out of town visitors, or perhaps a preacher passing through. In any case, whatever the specific occasion, we were singing. Ms. Cherie, the choir-master and master organist, had us rocking. It got good. Church good. Now when it gets church good, everybody knows—at least everybody in that world knows—people be falling out. Literally rolling on the floor, flailing about screaming and shouting. As youngsters we used to think some, if not all, of it was show, was people putting on or at least acting out. In fact, we would secretly mimic and make fun of some of the parishioners who were known for what was called “catching the spirit.” It was as if “the spirit” was some invisible force flying around the church and these people could throw up their hands and ensnare God’s spirit, snatch it clean out the air and infuse it into their bosoms, and once they did, like grabbing a live wire of electricity, these spirit catchers would jerk uncontrollably, their whole bodies simultaneously going stiff as a corpse on a cooling board and writhing like a snake whose head has just been cut off. We’d seen it so often, we could almost predict who was going to go off. But it was never us. And because we never were the ones thrashing about on the floor, we used that lack of experience to suggest to us that there was something artificial about other people shouting. So we were up there rocking. I don’t remember the song. I just remember the feeling. How time has no dominion when it gets church good. How sight no longer becomes reliable. How clearly in that moment, you hear the music and only the music. That moment when it seems no one else exists, nothing else matters. And like the excruciating pleasure of biblical knowing, this feeling hurts so good, you want the feeling to keep on, never to end. You want to hold it in at the same time you need to let it out. And when both feelings gets so strong that it's no longer possible to maintain both a holding on and a letting go, that’s when you scream. Oh my God. I believe Audrey was her name. She lived across the street from the church. She was a tall teenager, five-foot six or seven. Slender as a bean stalk. A regular girl. No pretenses about her. Kenneth and I were on the third row, she was in front of us. She sang alto. We sang whatever no-singing young Negro males sing. Suddenly it was like Jesus called her number and, bingo, her lights went out. Like struck by lightening, she collapsed to the floor. I don’t remember her foaming at the mouth or anything like that. But I do remember that neither Kenneth nor I, nor for that matter both of us together, could hold her down. Between us, we probably outweighed her three times over but we couldn’t hold her down. I believe I was trying to hold her arms and Kenneth had her legs, or maybe it was the other way around. Neither one of us was able to achieve our aim. We were futilely attempting to hang on to Audrey as if we were trying to keep her from slipping off into some invisible abyss. Meanwhile, the choir was steady rocking. The music was rolling on. I remember looking up at Kenneth. Neither of us could believe we couldn't hold down Audrey. That was the moment we knew the spirit was real. Had to be. Had to be something greater than Audrey cause we knew we could handle Audrey. But whatever this was, it was something greater than us, greater than lightweight Audrey, greater than husky Kenneth and husky me. Afterwards I don’t think we talked about it, but we knew. We knew the spirit was real. In these performances you can feel Nina roaming through the spirit world, her song a night-black-mare of emotions galloping full out, powerful and fleet, but also immense and deliberate. If you’ve never had the experience of catching the Holy Spirit, this is some of what it feels like. The first selection improbably merges “My Sweet Lord,” a song by George Harrison of the Beetles and “Today Is A Killer,” a poem by Gylan Kain of the Original Last Poets, except this gospel arrangements sounds nothing like the Beetles and Nina’s reading of the poem sounds more like an improvised statement of determination rather than a reciting of poetry. Not just anybody can do this, can go on for nearly twenty minutes of singing and shouting, holding notes impossibly long, stuttering and twisting syllables into abstract symbols communicating both resignation and relief, uttering both shouts and sighs. Oh my God. “Isn’t It A Pity” is more like a prayer, a plea when everything seems hopeless. A heartfelt laying down of burdens at the feet of the Lord. Clearly this is a song that is sung when conditions come forth that are beyond our abilities of comprehension. So we fling our incomprehension out into the universe and hope we hear back a communication from God, a sacred word or feeling that will let us know that what seems so hopeless is not totally lost cause. All of the above and much more is what these examples of Nina’s song makes me feel. She reaches into the depths of me, stirs up memories decades old, describes deliberations I made yesterday looking upon the disaster that is post-Katrina New Orleans. How could she have been there in another century when I was teenager in a little church in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward and yet be so right-on here and now in my senior years dealing with the aftermath of the drowning of a metropolis? I don’t know if I’ve helped you, dear reader, understand Nina Simone (or understand me) but hopefully, like the realness of another world that Kenneth and I recognized in Audrey writhing uncontrollably on the church floor, hopefully, you recognize there is another world and hopefully, as it does for me, hopefully for you this music is the vehicle for an all too brief visit (or at least fleeting sighting/sounding) into the emotional depths of the spirit world. —Kalamu ya Salaam A category of one If you let me use both hands, I can count for you the number of times I've set foot in a church, mosque or synagogue. It's just not my thing. That said, I know a little bit about the spirit Kalamu is describing. If you listen to much black music, you can't help but hear it. (Aretha Franklin's mighty, mighty sixteen-minute performance of "Amazing Grace" comes to mind right away, but there are countless other examples.) On a different note, given that Nina Simone is the most frequently posted artist here at Breath of Life, it should be obvious that both Kalamu and I are completely taken by her work. This time around, I want to comment on one specific aspect of Nina's style, and that is her spontaneity. Or maybe I should say, "her apparent spontaneity," because there is nothing I know of that proves that the spontaneity of hers wasn't planned. I'm referring to the way Nina tends to deviate from the literal text of the song. Sometimes it's an ad-lib, adding something that isn't 'supposed' to be there. ("We've been programmed that way!" - Around 9:15 of "Isn't It A Pity.") Sometimes, it's unexpected silences. (They're all over the place. Just listen.) Sometimes, it's the odd way Nina holds or bends a note or word. ("Everything is plas...tic...kuh." Right near the end of "Pity.") Most amazing about Nina's deviations is that she does it all while sounding completely natural and self-assured. It never sounds gimmicky or forced. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear that both of these recordings were made in Nina's living room with her holding court at her piano, cigarette and drink within reach, her only audience a small group of close friends and associates. It's both curious and oxymoronic that Nina often sounds so casual and unstudied. The extraordinary ease with which she performs belies a highly dedicated and very, very intense performer. If you've ever read or heard an interview of Nina's, you know that she takes both herself and her music very seriously. Almost to a fault, I'd say. The woman never suffered a fool, gladly or otherwise. It wasn't uncommon for her to interrupt an interview to inform an ignorant interviewer as to the exact breadth and depth of his or her ignorance. Thinking about it now, we might say that Nina's well-practiced unaffectedness is 'Ali-esque' in both its impudence and effectiveness. Whether in the studio or on stage, the woman is honestly in a category of one: the greatest. —Mtume ya Salaam
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