Nina Simone was born February 21st, 1933. That’s 80 years ago. But what’s more notable to me is it’s one day after my birthday, the 20th. Though, granted, I wasn’t born in 1933!. I’d forgotten about this bond until I saw a photo array in Time celebrating Ms. Simone’s 80th. (She died in 2003…) . And I got to to thinking why I love her so. It’s not just because our birthdays are so close together…though that doesn’t hurt.
I first heard Nina Simone when I bought some discount cassette tape at an outlet mall and played it in my car on the way home. I had gotten it for some other song– it was one of those cheapo compilations one step up from bootleg– but I was immediately hooked on Nina’s jaunty version of “Trouble In Mind” — her gravelly voice and bouncy piano. Such a merry tune.
Later, I would hear her bluesy interpretation of it, complete with lyric about putting her distressed head on the rail road track – and admire the spectrum she covered. The bluer version seemed to ring more true, but I like how she could put on a happy face if she wanted to. She’s Nina Simone, she can do whatever she likes . It seems now almost subversive. Like as she was singing this happy song, she was actually planning rebellion or world takeover.
And from that song, I got hooked on others, read her autobiography, had my eyes opened to the breadth and depth of her career and her impact. The High Priestess of Soul. Haunted, haunting, undaunted, vulnerable, brilliant, tough, ethereal. She earned the title.
So, as a last ditch effort to commemorate Black History month and as a belated “Happy Birthday”, I present this list of ten reason why I love Nina Simone.
1. She owned whatever she played. Nina’s musical catalog is filled with covers of original songs, jazz , showtunes, pop songs - you name it. But with her distinctive arrangements, her voice and piano playing and with the weight of her personality behind each song- each is uniquely and unmistakably “by Nina Simone”. She leaves a distinct mark on anything she performs.
2. I love what I don’t even love. There are plenty of Simone songs I don’ exactly love. But they are so her that I still find them compelling. They seem all connected to her larger body of work and her forceful, confident (and then some) musical genius. There don’t seem to be any B-side throwaways. There’s something quirky (for lack of a better word) in everything she does.
3. She was uncompromising Nina Simone was a much loved artist – still is, obviously. But she was also somewhat feared. She would chastise her band in a live set (check out “I Shall Be Released”) , she would stop playing if the audience was being loud. She was a diva and a genius, and the two seemed to feed into each other. Her forcefulness let her stick to what her genius knew was the right way to play, and her genius made her so good who was going to tell her no? This toughness holds true for her life offstage, too. Fed up with American racism, she became an ex-patriot so she could live with the dignity she knew she deserved.
4. Her original works. Admittedly I don’t spend a lot of time listening to “Young, Gifted and Black” or “Mississippi Goddamn” – but these are works encompassing not only the composer Simone’s talents, but also, moments in history. And they tie into her role as a civil rights advocate and person of unrelenting insistence on being treated with respect. You don’t get that in music a lot these days.
5. Her piano playing. Nina Simone was a child prodigy in music. She dreamt of being a classical pianist. But things happened and put her on a different course. The classical training, though, is very evident in a lot of her songs. I point you in the direction of “Love Me Or Leave Me” , for one. I can’t really think of Nina Simone as just a vocalist. Her music, to me, is so tied to her piano playing. It’s like an extension of her.
6. Her Voice You hear Nina Simone for the first time, and you wonder “Who was that?”. Soulful, yes. Bluesy, yes? But a comparison between her and, say, Aretha Franklin or Ella Fitzgerald is moot– other than she, too, has a one-of-a-kind voice. Simone works her wonders with a distinct vibrato, a gravelly tone, amazing expressiveness, and versatility. She isn’t a power-belter, but she gets power across whenever she wants to – along with a hundred other things.
7. She defies categorizing The title High Priestess of Soul seems to work for Nina Simone, because she has that other worldliness about her. But it isn’t accurate to call her a soul singer, a jazz singer, a r&b singer, a pop singer, a caberet singer. She is all of those, and probably then some. Nina Simone didn’t seem to ever find a song she couldn’t tackle. Are all of them hits or even that pleasing to the ear? No. But there are few genres where you can’t find something she did and did well.
Some favorite Nina Simone songs: “Love Me Or Leave Me”, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”, “Like A Woman”, “Trouble In Mind” (several versions), “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, “My Way”, “I Shall Be Released”, “Work Song”; “Children, Go Where I Send You”, “Forbidden Fruit,” “Strange Fruit,” “Ooh, Child”, “Little Girl Blue”…..
So, it is 2013. I find it’s tragedy that inspires me to come here and put up the first entry.
Hadiya Pendleton was murdered in the last week of the first month of the new year by a man with a gun in the city of Chicago. She died in a park that Google Maps tells me is less than 35 minutes from the town where my sister and her family live. Hadiya was three years older than my niece.
Hadiya’s death made national headlines because earlier in January, the high school drum majorette had been on top of the world, appearing in front of the most powerful man on earth as part of the inaugural parade. And now, she’s gone just like that, for good. Forever.
A lot of questions get asked in when we hear about a tragedy like this. We ask “Who is to blame?”
And the answers come: criminals with guns, people who facilitate criminals’ getting those guns, parents of those kids who use guns, the insane, the misguided, the evil, the individual, society, gun makers, gun lobbyists, guns….There’s no shortage of answers to the question of “Who is to blame?”
And then the question comes: “When will this carnage stop? When will we say enough?” And then, the related question follows: “How do we stop this?”. And then, we get the well-worn answers: more guns, less guns, different guns, different bullets, interventions, regulations. There is no shortage of answers to the question “How do we stop this?”
I think, though, as the death count rises in this brand new year, as the gun debate rages, as laws are drafted as stories like this infuriating tragedy of Hayida Pendleton get told and re-told and told again with different names and ages and places, the question must change.
It’s not “Who is to blame?” ….It’s not “When will this carnage stop?” ….It’s a recombination of these questions.
WHO is going to stop this carnage?
And the answer comes, I think, when every person —every person from ever strata of society, who says she or he wants to stop the senseless violence and the murders and the mourning— every one of us looks in the mirror and answers “Who is going to stop this carnage?” with “I am.”
Not everyone knows how to be part of a national solution to violence, but anyone with a mouth or an email account can ask a question of someone who DOES know. Anyone can get informed and let herself be put to work. It’s time to get informed. It’s time to get involved. It’s time to get to work.
Because this has to stop. This just plain has to stop.
I am dedicating the focus of my blogging exploration in 2013 to this endeavor: to asking questions, to getting involved, to learning, to working, to straying from my comfort zone, and to answering “Who is going to stop this?’ with “I am.”
Because I am horrified. I am ashamed. I am angry. And I want that to start counting for something.
And because that girl didn’t deserve to die with her whole life in front of her.
Feel free this year to be a guide, a companion, or a little of each. “I am” is always better when it leads to “We are.””
Thanks for reading,
I always sleep on planes. Or, if I don’t sleep, I fake-sleep because I don’t feel like talking to my seatmates. Why is that? I don’t know. But today was a little something different. I was happy to get an aisle seat and passed a quick smile with the lady sitting in the middle. She said “Hi.” Uh-oh, I thought, woman looking for travel chat. I noticed out of the corner of my eye she had a kid with her, but I didn’t see the child’s face or pay either of them much mind.
As I closed my eyes to try to drift off, I heard the mom talking to the child. She was saying the kid had to keep something on until they got to the car when we landed. I was wondering what the heck sweater does this kid need to keep for a two hour flight, and why?
They start talking about other things: if the kid had fun (I couldn’t tell if it was a boy or a girl yet) in Chicago, and if they liked this or that hospital better. Two weeks away, now it was going to be “back to business.” I thought, hm, vacation is over, and then, hm, mom must be a nurse and they are planning to maybe relocate. I don’t know where I get these ideas about people.
Then I looked over, barely opening my eyes and got my first glimpse of the child at the window. And I saw what the kid was being told to keep on previously: a surgical mask. Protection from all our germs. The child was thin, too. The child was sick. But, I could see he or she had short dark hair, so it couldn’t be any kind of cancer, right? What then? I heard them keep talking. About how the kid hadn’t been to school for two years and was always with the mom. It had to be something. But it wasn’t cancer, I thought. And for some reason, I felt relieved. Because what do I say to a mom, let alone a kid, with cancer?
So I fake-sleep a little more, then I decide, all right this woman has been making enough statements out loud that I think maybe she is looking to converse. As soon as I get my notebook out, sure enough, she asks what I’m writing. I tell her I’m revising a play. We talk about our mutual love of writing. I mention she sounded so much like someone I know from the area, same regional accent. I asked whereabout she lived. Surely local. But as it turned out, she said she wasn’t actually from around here. She then proceeded to tell me the story of the journey she and her daughter had been on. (I’m leaving out names for privacy.) I had been wrong about another thing, too, in my hypothesizing. Her child, a girl, 7, did in fact have cancer.
The whole story was quite something. Diagnosis,chemo, remission and then relapse, surgeries, organ removal, blood transfusions, missed school, separation from family, financial struggle, and all manner of emotional ups and downs. Very harrowing. The kind of thing you hear that leaves you wanting to hug every kid you know and never complain about anything ever again. And she told me with a solidness that said this was the story she and her child lived through. They owned it. They earned it. And she wasn’t going to be afraid of it. She was massively impressive and at the same time completely down to earth.
And all the while as the mom, a woman five or six years younger than I am, is telling the tale, her daughter is sitting like any kid, fidgeting, flopping around, drinking her coke, taking things out of her bag and only paying us sporadic attention but at the same time, staying totally tuned in. And every now and again, Id see she’d be looking over to me with eyes that indicated both curiosity and impishness. What a cute kid. Tiny, shy, but, wow, what she’d gotten through. I imagine she’s made of steel.
We interacted some. The girl reached over and tapped my hand as a handshake. She showed me with her fingers how old she was. She laughed when I asked if she was in seventh grade or sixteen. How could I have possible been afraid of talking to this kid?
I didn’t just see the version of this child from today. There were photos. Her mom had taken thousands on her cellphone over the course of the last years. She wanted her daughter to have a record of what she’d survived. So, I saw before and after shots of the girl. In some she had long dark hair, then no hair, and now, hair about the length of a boy’s, but growing back and fast. Beautiful kid in each picture. She also apparently had two wigs. Today she was sporting a ribbon headband so no one would mistake her for a boy. I hesitated to admit I’d done just that earlier.
The mom said her daughter is a poster child for a cancer charity back where they’re from. She showed me some pictures of events where the girl had been an honored guest. The mom said putting her daughter’s picture out there might elicit emotional responses from people who will then donate to families of sick kids who need help. She mentioned the charity they’re connected with, the Jessica June Cancer Foundation.
Looking to give the girl something out of my purse (the auntly instinct), I gave her my business card. She seemed a bit interested (even though it was a lame thing) and thanked me in the prefunctory sing-song way kids do. Her mom put the card in the kid-purse that kind of looked like a camera case and had some plastic toys in it, the kind kids always have. And I realized I’d wanted the mom to know who I was, maybe in case there was any random thing I could do, maybe because I’d be carrying their story around with me, so they should know my name, a person they had affected for the good.
Truly, they made me braver just by talking to me. Would I have passed by that aisle seat if I’d seen the girl there to begin with? Have I been I afraid to talk to sick kids? Probably a little. I remember passing Children’s Hospital on the way to do the stem cell donation back last year and all but physically shuddering. “There but for the grace of God” go the kids I love. It’s frightening. And there is that unimaginable thought of “I am talking to a beautiful little kid here who may not make it.” (Her mom showed me pictures of kids who’d been in the hospital with them for whom that was true…). Yes, I stay away from that kind of thing. Yeah, this little girl and her mom left me braver today, more sensitive and better prepared–o at least wanting to be more of all those things, realizing my weaknesses. I wonder if they know they did all that.
That’s the power of stories and human connection. Strength and insight. Inspiration and hope. These are the gifts we get from listening, for allowing ourselves to be vulnerable instead of trying to protect ourselves from the bad things and sad stories of other people. Strength and insight. Inspiration and hope. These are the gifts we get for staying awake.
The Jessica June Cancer Foundation. Help individual families facing financial hardship due to childhood-cancer related medical expenses. Quite amazing.
The Jimmy Fund. You know them.
Thanks for reading as always, and hug those kids, people,
So, we’ve all watched a lot of horrible storm footage lately on the news. Pictures and video put the destruction of the mid-Atlantic right in our living rooms, wherever we lived. In the midst of this coverage and the aid efforts, the story of what Sandy did before it hit the U.S sort of got lost.
Today, I got the following letter from Little Brothers of the Good Shepherd, the religious order which runs Sheepfold of The Good Shepherd School & Orphanage. It explains this part of the story:
“Within three months, two storms have caused severe damage in Haiti, Hurricanes Isaac and Sandy. Brother Luc say that whatever was left following Isaac has been destroyed by Sandy and the farm in Leogane *) looks like a desert. Crops everywhere have been destroyed and everyone in Haiti is now forced to purchase food at the market which is very difficult to come by and extremely expensive. The hurricanes have left even more people homeless and as a result more neighborhood people are being fed daily at the orphanage. Thankfully, everyone at the orphanage survived the storms, although many are sick with cholera.”
You can read more about the situation in Haiti here.
This has been a season of great destruction. When there’s need close to home, sometimes among people you personally know, it’s tough to go further afield with your generosity.
But this is also a season of extra gratitude and extra giving. And if you have it in your means to give a little to Sheepfold School, you can do so with a click of the mouse through their website and paypal. Make a notation “Haiti mission” on the paypal donor form under “purpose” to assure your funding will go to the school/orphanage and all the people being served there.
You really will be helping people get a meal and giving Fr Luc and his school a chance to keep pace with the needs there in a very difficult time.
There are many good causes out there. This is only one, I realize. [To help domestically: American Red Cross ]
So, as always, drop your drop in the bucket as you see fit.
Thanks for reading, and again, Happy Thanksgiving,
So, in two days I make a trip to Chicago, or more specifically, South Holland, where I will partake of the best kind of Thanksgiving dinner: the one someone else cooks! In tribute to the season, here is an alphabetical list of 26 things for which I am thankful:
Becca’s Facebook friends. Whenever this blog spikes in readers, it’s because my sister Becca has shared a post on Facebook and her friends, many of whom don’t even know me, take time to read it. Thanks to her and to them.
Captain America. Obviously.
Donors. Thanks to all my friends who are on the National Bone Marrow Donor registry!
Enough of everything I need to have a good life, and then some.
Fr. Luc Joliecoer who runs Sheepfold School in Haiti
Guidance from friends and family who share their insights into social issues and life issues.
Health Insurance. So glad I have it. Let’s everyone have that.
Ivanek, Zeljko. Actor Zeljko Ivanek, for stopping for a photo and autograph at Lincoln Center. Made my month!
Jimmy’s Pizzeria, East Walpole. Best pizza, best price.
Kids who behave.
Loyal readers. The core of friends and family who read this blog every entry and often comment. Thank you so much for making me feel heard and appreciated!
Mom & Dad
Options, so lucky to have so many
People who work for little money, without fame, in dangerous places, to help others
Quiet. We all need it and can’t always find it, so I appreciate it when I have it.
Real Hope For Haiti Rescue Center and Clinic. They’re amazing!
Social workers who help other people’s kids and are awesome parents to their own
Teachers who help other people’s kids and are awesome parents to their own
Uncensored press and speech
X-Ray Vision. I have it. It’s awesome!
Yard. Good pumpkins this year, people.
Zoloft (see previous post lol)
Happy Thanksgiving everyone and thanks so much for reading!