Sunday Singalong: Nina Simone

I grew up listening to Nina Simone and I love her music. Whenever I talk about Nina Simone I am obliged to tell you my anecdote because it is the coolest moment of my life and it happened when I was a child. I peaked early.

I not only saw Nina Simone perform live in a French nightclub as a child but I got to sit on her lap. Nina Simone was very shy and during her set break she vanished off the stage and went to her dressing room. For some reason my brother and I took it upon ourselves to approach her bodyguard and ask to be taken to see her. He consulted with Nina Simone and came back to get us. We went to her dressing room and chatted with her and she put us on her lap. She was lovely. She spoke to us in a quiet, husky voice and she was very gentle. Then after a while we came back out of the dressing room and Nina Simone went back on stage to play the last half of her show and we slumped down next to our parents and grew tired. It was after midnight before she finished. Our parents had my baby sister asleep in their arms throughout.

You have to watch this video clip. She’s stunning in this long, clingy, black dress with her short, chic hair and this incredible poise – she was not called the High Priestess of Soul for nothing. The song, “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free”  is an improbably bouncy track as a studio recording – it’s that jazzy and resilient. But live in this performance, ten years after she first recorded it, you feel the full weight of the word ‘free’ and its meaning for African-American people.

I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free

By a minute or so into the clip you know this song is designed to shake you awake because it is intended to hold a white audience to account. Nina Simone became a civil rights activist and it heavily influenced her music. Among her most famous political songs was this one, and “Mississippi Goddam”, “Four Women” (a song about four different stereotypes of African-American women), and “To Be Young Black And Gifted”.

In this version of the song Nina Simone alters the lyrics ever so slightly and sings: “I wish I could break all chains still binding me. I wish I could say all the things that I can say when I’m relaxed”. And then she strikes down hard on the piano and sucks in her cheeks. You can enjoy the song, sure, but you have to stew on that; do you know what it feels like to have your guard up all the time? You take so much for granted. It’s a powerful moment in a truly beautiful song.

Also, if you don’t yet think of Nina Simone as a pianist then check out those lovely long fingers of hers and her command of volume and pace when she plays. One of her greatest influences was Bach. Nina Simone originally wanted to be a concert pianist but she was rejected for a scholarship at the Curtis Institute of Music despite a great audition, apparently because she was black.

Finally, watch the way she comes off the stool at the end to acknowledge the audience – that is some punk rock attitude.

I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holding me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say ’em loud say ’em clear
For the whole round world to hear
I wish I could share
All the love that’s in my heart
Remove all the bars
That keep us apart
I wish you could know
What it means to be me
Then you’d see and agree
That every man should be free

I wish I could give
All I’m longin’ to give
I wish I could live
Like I’m longin’ to live
I wish I could do
All the things that I can do
And though I’m way over due
I’d be starting a new

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun
And look down at the sea
Than I’d sing cos I know – yea
Then I’d sing cos I know – yea
Then I’d sing cos I know
I’d know how it feels
Oh I know how it feels to be free
Yea Yea! Oh, I know how it feels
Yes I know
Oh, I know
How it feels
How it feels
To be free



Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism, law & order, Politics, social justice, Sociology

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2 replies

  1. Is that the secret to your awesomeness?

  2. ”But live in this performance, ten years after she first recorded it, you feel the full weight of the word ‘free’ and its meaning for African-American people.”
    Similar effect in a Langston Hughes poem – one so striking and simple that after reading it twice over, has stuck with me ever since:
    There are words like freedom
    Sweet and wonderful to say
    On my heart strings freedom sings
    All day every day.
    There are words like liberty
    That almost make me cry –
    If you could know what I know
    You would know why.
    (All right, to be completely truthful I had to double check the fourth line on google.)

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