DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!

nina simone

Dec 17 2012

Playlist Against Darkness

by Jnai W

As one may have gathered from any number of my blog posts on DCPLive, music is food for my soul, more than anything else. If I’m honest with myself music ministers more to me than an encouraging word, a psalm or even a hug from a loved one. I’m not exactly sure why that is.  Maybe listening to a song that someone else wrote is a filter through which I can pour my own emotions and connect to the world around me, if that makes sense. Wow, Sarah McLachlan must have been feeling how I’m feeling now when she wrote “Witness”. Maybe I’m not alone here.

I’ve got a list of songs that I come back to from time to time when I need comfort or space–away from the 24-hour news cycle, away from water cooler debates or living room repasts–to sort through my whirling emotions.  I’ve got a list of songs that carry me through dark times and speak to my heart in one way or another.  This list of songs is exhaustive so I’ve narrowed down to 3 of the top songs on my Playlist Against Darkness:

“Beware of Darkness” by George Harrison:  There is no shortage of brilliant and  timeless songs on the Quiet Beatles 1970 album All Things Must Pass.”My Sweet Lord”, a plaintive but hopeful cry for enlightenment from On High, was undeniably my favorite song on the album…until I heard “Beware of Darkness”. The lyrics warn of the pitfalls of bitterness, negativity and sadness (“it can hit you/ it can hurt you) . What I like about this song is that the lyrics which could have easily been admonishing and perhaps even trite, in the hands of a less-skilled writer and musician, are affirming and uplifting here. Sadness, when nursed and dwelt upon, can “make you sore/ and what is more/ that is not what you are here for”.

“All is Full of Love” by Bjork:  I’m a huge fan of the Icelandic idiosyncrasy named Bjork Gudmundsdottir. Her lyrics are honest, earnest and often sound as though they’ve been directly translated to English from her native tongue, adding a slight bit of quirkiness. Her voice is crystalline and magnificent. She wears swan-shaped dresses to the self-satisfied Academy Awards.  She’s also written this simple, elegant and brilliant song about opening one’s heart to love and light. “All is Full of Love” assures its listener that “you’ll be given love/ you’ll be taken care of/… you just have to trust it”.  Perhaps, dear Listener, you’ve shut the door or taken the phone off the hook too soon but love is out there and it’s everywhere. It’s a heartening message coming from a delightful source. If you’re not familiar with her work, treat yourself and check out her music from the Library.

I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” as sung by Nina Simone: I’ve written at length in previous blog posts about my devotion to Nina Simone. There are a few works of hers that would fit nicely into any Playlist Against Darkness such as “Feelin’ Good”, “My Baby Just Cares For Me” and “To Be Young Gifted and Black”. But I happen to love Nina Simone’s version of this song, written by Billy Taylor and Dick Dallas. The lyrics are strong, challenging yet optimistic on their own but when combined with Simone’s passionate vocals and gospel piano, this song becomes an anthem for civil rights and for love in general. “I wish you could know/ how it feels to be me/ then you’d see and agree/ that every man should be free” appeals to its listener’s empathy and humanity, encouraging each and everyone to become a champion for equality and peace. It’s as timely a message now as it was during the era in which it was born.

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Sep 10 2012

On Nina Simone

by Jnai W

Of late, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast for jazz, particularly for jazz vocalists. Not an aficionado yet but someone who appreciates the beauty, the verve and the mastery required of the jazz greats. Lately I’ve been reading fascinating biographies of some of my favorite performers.

One of these singers is jazz great Nina Simone though, in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You, she denounces the designation of “jazz singer”, feeling that such a label didn’t fully describe her music. The late Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was possessed of prodigious piano talent from a very young age and classically trained ever after, aspiring to a career as a concert pianist. Not to disparage the genre of jazz, she viewed herself as a classical musician who, if anything else had more in common with the folk and blues musicians coming up alongside her during the 50s and 60s. In listening to her song choices, as diverse as show tunes like “I Loves You Porgy”, blues such as “Trouble In Mind” and art songs like “Pirate Jenny”, one can see that her repertoire boasts many different musical influences besides jazz.

But still a great case is made for her classification as a jazz musician in the way she describes how she arrived at her distinctive musical style. In I Put A Spell On You she describes the song-craft of her earliest musical performances.

“I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived [at a gig] prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune.”

While Nina Simone bristled a bit at being clumped casually by music critics into the same box as other great though quite different performers as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan, there is no doubt in my mind that her musical style was (is) the epitome of incredible jazz.

I Put A Spell On You offers incredible insight into the life and talents of Nina Simone. Written with Stephen Cleary, Simone describes in plain-spoken detail her advent from concert-hall bound, Julliard-trained prodigy to international music sensation and all the trials and triumphs along the way. I found quite interesting the fact that she fell into pop music stardom almost by accident. She played dive bars and supper clubs by night while teaching piano by day all in an effort to earn money for continued study at Julliard (she even aspired to return to Julliard well into a successful pop career).

She was an incredibly gifted though complex woman, it would seem. Simone was confident in her craft but racked with severe stage fright. She was a woman with a disdain for pop music (and for the pop-listening public at times) but who, through pop music success, found a platform for joining the Civil Rights Movement and addressing social inequality. She loved her family, financially supporting her mother throughout her career, but a devastating falling-out with her beloved father hardened her against visiting him on her death.  Her music was her battle-cry, her comfort and her gift to the world.

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Jul 29 2009

National Black Arts Festival!

by Jnai W

With just a smidgeon of summer remaining, there is still plenty of fun to be had.  One event on the horizon is the 20th Annual National Black Arts Festival that begins today, July 29 through August 2. Among the notable performers, speakers and guests on the roster are actor/filmmaker/producer Robert Townsend (check out his independent film classic Hollywood Shuffle),author Nelson George and a tribute to one of my favorite singers Nina Simone by great vocalists such as Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright. This promises to be a truly special event in celebration of African cultural heritage in through film, theatre, dance, literature, music and art. Check out the festival’s website for more information . Don’t you wanna go?

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