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Original ABWs:  Nina Simone

Original ABWs: Nina Simone

Note from nojojojo: One of the reasons I write for ABW is to get in touch with my inner angry black woman. This is because I’m not very angry outwardly — having grown up mostly in the South and being naturally mild-mannered, it takes a lot to flip my switches. I’m more inclined to do the Southern thing of smiling in the face of someone who’s pissed me off, and wish them a pleasant day even though I really mean, “Go to hell.” (There’s an art to this; I am still but a student.)

Still, anger can be healthy and effective, and I regard its other expressions as art too. So I’ve been studying other angry black women in history and the present, and the ways in which their anger has gotten things done. From time to time I’ll share my study of these Original ABWs — these sistas who’ve wielded their fury like a surgeon’s scalpel or swung it harder than John Henry’s hammer, and caused society to change as a result. So this is the first of a series.


I’m going to start with Nina Simone, one of my favorite jazz singers — not because she’s the angriest or most effective of the Original ABWs, but because I recently heard her song “Pirate Jenny” for the first time. Take a listen, if you haven’t heard it:

Pirate Jenny – Nina Simone

Still gives me chills. She means every word of it, too — you can hear that in her voice. The first time I listened to it, I thought, If I was white, I would sleep with one eye open. For the rest. Of. My. Life. Because it’s blatantly obvious from the barely-contained rage in this song that Simone is not singing about pirates, even though this song has relatively benign origins in the German musical The Threepenny Opera. Simone’s version has a whole other meaning when one considers the time in which she first sang it, as part of a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1964. The year before, activist Medgar Evers had been assassinated and four little black girls were murdered in a terrorist bombing. Nina, like most black people of the time, was pissed off. In this context the metaphors of the song become clear: the narrator is not merely a pirate spy; she’s a black Everywoman, oppressed and resentful and ready to strike back against her oppressors. “The black freighter” is the revolution to come — and the revolution Simone has in mind will not be a bloodless one, oh no. “I ain’t ’bout to be non-violent, honey!” she says in one recorded concert — and the whole audience laughs and claps with her.

This was not the first time Simone had sung “protest music”, note. She was well known as a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement; at concerts she did shout-outs to the Freedom Riders, and she hung out with fellow protest artists like Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright of “A Raisin in the Sun”. Her songs were part of the inspirational canon for the SNCC and other young activists of the time. Music was as much a part of the Civil Rights Movement as marches and sit-ins; this much everybody knows. But Simone’s music was a whole other thing from the vague goals of gospel hymns like “We Shall Overcome.” Her message was a much more specific one: we shall kick your ass. In the same year as “Pirate Jenny,” Simone debuted her other big protest song, “Mississippi Goddamn”, in response to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. “Mississippi Goddamn” is better known, in part because it got more attention — it was boycotted by radio stations all over the South ostensibly because of the profanity in its title, though the real reason was clear. In her autobiography Simone notes that one Southern dealer shipped back a whole crate of the singles with each copy snapped in half. (She thought this was hilarious.)

But what amazes me is that “Pirate Jenny”, a much more dangerous song, got no reaction. This woman is seriously advocating, albeit in metaphor, the wholesale slaughter of white people. That was the kind of thing that could get a black person lynched in those days — and yeah, black women got lynched too, usually with rape or some other form of sexual assault tossed in. The thing that saved her, I think, is that Simone didn’t perform the song often; she supposedly said that it took too much out of her, at one point joking that she had to recover for seven years after singing it. I know how hard it is to channel that much anger; I can totally imagine she might have needed some time afterwards to recharge. But I can’t help wondering if, in addition to recharge time, she was also motivated by a sense of self-preservation — if not her own, then fear for her daughter Lisa, a baby at the time.

Yet in this song Simone effectively captures the simmering rage of black America at that time, and she does it so powerfully that forty years later, we can understand what it was like to be there. We cannot help empathizing with the song’s narrator, nor sharing — maybe with a smidge of guilt, maybe not — her schadenfreude as the tables are turned on the oppressors. We, or at least I, hear this song and realize just how incredibly stupid it was for America to resist granting civil rights to blacks for as long as it did, because they were sitting on a fucking powder keg. It shifts my perspective on the events of the time from the benign, white-centered version taught to me in school; Kennedy was no visionary. He did nothing particularly brave. He was just yielding to the inevitable, hopefully before his country was torn to pieces by the kind of rage that Simone and millions of other blacks felt.

So I give props to you, Nina, for helping me understand.

14 comments to Original ABWs: Nina Simone

  • Hi,

    Wow. What a great performance.

    I had heard of Nina Simone via last.fm, of all things, but I didn’t know she did this song – or so hauntingly. I also took German and went to see ThreePenny Opera and the song is about a whole new thing for me now. thanks very much for this post, and I hope you meet success with your quest.

    Anna

  • thank you. anger can be very liberating. i was listening to sinead o’connor, but paused her anger to listen to nina simone’s. im glad i did.

  • Robin

    Thank you for this post – I didn’t know anything about Nina Simone (I’ve heard her name but that’s about all) so this was really interesting to me. I’m looking forward to the others in this series. :)

  • Wow thanks for this!! Nina Simone was the business! We need more people like her today.

  • I was introduced to Nina Simone as a (young) teenager and have never found another singer of her calibre. Pirate Jenny is frankly terrifying to listen to (indeed because of the righteous anger that is clearly directed at white people like me), and I only do so very infrequently.

    I also suggest her version of Strange Fruit (for more haunting, less rageful) a contemplation of the time period. Oh hell, just listen to everything she ever performed, she’s just so astounding.

  • nojojojo

    TheDeviantE,

    I agree with you on Pirate Jenny; I got chills the first time I heard it, and I’m not the target of her anger. And honestly, I would not be on board with the kind of revolution she was advocating. I think nonviolence is stupid when people are attacking you — if somebody hits me I hit back. But Nina took it a step further. There’s an amusing (?) anecdote in her autobiography about how when she heard about Medgar Evers, she went out to her shed and basically started trying to cobble together a gun out of spare parts. Her friends talked her down, and she laughed about it, and I laughed too. At first. But then I thought about it and was like, holy shit, she was about to go Columbine.

    Then again, I decided that was too extreme an interpretation. Hopefully it was more like a black woman taking off her earrings, the universal (well, for us) declaration of Time To Whoop Some Ass.

    Just, uh, with a gun. Huh. Well. Glad they talked her down.

    I’ve heard her version of Strange Fruit. I’ve heard most of her music, actually, which was why I was so shocked when I heard this rendition of Pirate Jenny; nearly all her other “protest songs” were passive resistance, with the exception of Mississippi Goddamn, and even its line (“you’re all gonna die and die like flies”) is passive — no statement of how this death would occur, or who might cause it. This was the first one where she straight-up said, let’s kill them all.

    I think this kind of anger has a useful purpose, though, even for white people, which is — it’s cathartic. A safety valve. Better, and healthier, for Nina to sing about killing white people than for her to actually get a gun and go do so. (AFAICT, the gun incident coincided with her writing “Mississippi Goddamn” and remixing “Pirate Jenny,” so she may very well have channeled her rage into this safer outlet.) Better for her audience to listen to this and vent some rage cheering, than vent it on real people. I also think it was crucial for white people of the time — remember, this was first sung at Carnegie Hall; I think the audience would’ve been mostly wealthy, white, and influential — to realize just how angry black people were. Just how ready to blow. I think that songs like this, and the warning implicit in it, helped to push Kennedy into signing the Civil Rights Act.

  • Damn. That is a powerful song and performance. The image of Nina Simone singing this at Carnegie Hall to that crowd of wealthy white people makes me feel deeply satisfied. This was a woman who knew how to use her anger and her searing talent as rocket fuel, propelling her into the future that we’re still trying to find.

    I can’t wait to read more of this new series. What a great idea!

  • I came to Nina in a similar way, in college. I’m from the West Coast, but was still raised to not be loud, not offend, be the “good negress” and prove my community’s worth. Working sound tech on a play, I heard some of her covers, but I wanted to hear more, so I ordered a basic Best Of CD and heard the rage, and the pain, was instantly in love. I LOVE NINA!

    Thank you.

  • PB

    thank you. anger can be very liberating. i was listening to sinead o’connor, but paused her anger to listen to nina simone’s. im glad i did.

  • Salistala

    TY for opening my eyes(ears)to an artist worth listening to, I’ve always been attracted to art that doesn’t sugar-coat the world we live in and this song is extraordinary in it’s raw emotion.

    I’m a First Nation/Indigenous/Canadian Indian male from the West Coast of Canada that also practiced self-control, respect and politeness in the face of disrespect and stupidity. Didn’t want to feed in on their persistent stereotypes.

    Living that way in a consistantly cruel world is stressful, so I decompressed listening to people that see the world the way I do. That felt the frustrations I did and expressed them in a form that stopped the blood from boiling for a while. I love and respect the courage these artists have in speaking truth to injustice.

    I grew up listening to Buffy St Marie, Public Enemy, Aretha, Robert Cray, Robert Johnson, Rage Against the Machine, Sinead O’Connor, Ani Di Franco, and many more. I’ve seen Nina Simone’s name before, but until today never heard her sing. What an experience. I want to listen to everything she recorded now.

    In looking for other info on the ‘net I found this at Dear Kitty:

    http://dearkitty.blogsome.com/2009/04/13/protest-songs-on-racism-in-north-america/

    Again thanks for the link to Ms Simone.

  • Anthony R Page

    hello Angry Black Woman,

    I am working with the Nina Simone Foundation on a project to honor her legacy, I would love to speak to you about it…please email directly and I will give you my direct number.

    Thanks again,

    Anthony R Page
    Nina Simone Foundation

    • Hello,
      It is indeed a pleasure to read all this. Obviously Nina is still with us… those of us who understand her. I’m drafting a postdoc project that focuses on on Nina Simone and another female artiste from Trinidad and Tobago, Ella Andall (very similar to Nina in many ways). I’m particularly interested in the African imperative in her music legacy and the degree to which this implicates her (their) popularity her in Black Popular culture.
      Thanks for this! A very fine sense of (Black) anger that is thought provoking and very useful.

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