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.

This entry posted in Syndicated feeds. Bookmark the permalink. 

16 Responses to Original ABWs: Nina Simone

  1. 1
    Myca says:

    Probably some of the difference in the reaction to Pirate Jenny and Mississippi Goddamn is because the Divine Ms. Simone didn’t write Pirate Jenny, so white people could pretend it wasn’t about what it was so clearly about. But yes, I’d agree, it deserves more attention.

    Also, I love that ‘Pirate Jenny’ was originally about class struggle, and her interpretation made it about the race revolution, and it just makes me reflect on how fucking awesome some of the commonalities of universal struggle are.

    One of the things I really like about Mississippi Goddamn is how slow-starting it is, how at first, it seems like kind of a jaunty show tune (which she mentions, of course), so that everyone’s nice and comfortable, but then her anger builds and builds and builds until eventually, “Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You’re all gonna die and die like flies/I don’t trust you any more.”

    It’s her saying, “Fuck you. Just kidding. But not really. Seriously, fuck you. I hope you all die, you fucking liars. Just kidding! Not really. I’m totally serious. Fuck you.”

    It’s her saying, “I don’t have to take this shit anymore, and you can’t make me pretend, and I won’t for one minute act like this is okay.”

    It makes me want to cheer every goddamn time I listen to it.

    —Myca

  2. 2
    Josh says:

    Wow, Nina. Thanks for this tribute to her, NJ. Too much commentary on Nina subsequent to her death has focused on her eccentricities and emotional ailments: it’s important to recover her greatness. I remember having heard that, at the height of her career, she would say to an audience of thousands before singing “Young, Gifted, and Black” that “this song is for all the Black people in the audience. To all the white people: we don’t mean by that to insult you. We just mean to ignore you for a while.”* The most cutting thing you can say, really, to entitled white egos.

    I think I disagree with your claim that “Pirate Jenny” in its original Commie setting was in any way “benign”–but time and popularity and bowdlerization had really defanged Brecht’s message by the Sixties, & it took Nina to do what you and Myca rightly credit her with doing to that song.

    *I heard this anecdote from novelist Don Belton, who gave a talk on Nina and Brecht on a Modern Language Association panel a few years ago.

  3. 3
    chingona says:

    I have nothing smart to add. Just wanted to say this was a good post, and thanks for the song. It was new to me.

  4. 4
    nojojojo says:

    Whoa, just noticed the imeem embed didn’t work. That’s the second time I’ve embedded an object that didn’t show up when it echoed here at Alas. Amp or Mandolin, am I doing something wrong in the coding?

  5. 5
    nojojojo says:

    Myca,

    I dunno… I think it would take some high-test controlled substances to be able to delude yourself into thinking “Pirate Jenny” is about anything but violent revolution. But I guess a lot of racism in those days was about self-delusion, so it would have been easy.

    Didn’t know about the original “Pirate Jenny” — I haven’t seen the “Threepenny Opera” or heard the original version of this. That is interesting, re the parallel/intersecting oppressions angle.

    It’s her saying, “Fuck you. Just kidding. But not really. Seriously, fuck you. I hope you all die, you fucking liars. Just kidding! Not really. I’m totally serious. Fuck you.”

    Inorite?? Magnificent. =)

  6. 6
    nojojojo says:

    Josh,

    I think I disagree with your claim that “Pirate Jenny” in its original Commie setting was in any way “benign”–but time and popularity and bowdlerization had really defanged Brecht’s message by the Sixties, & it took Nina to do what you and Myca rightly credit her with doing to that song.

    Well, relatively benign. Though you’re right, I hadn’t considered the context in which the original was presented. I’m going to have to track down the Threepenny Opera in a translation somewhere.

    Love that anecdote! A perfect early response to white privilege.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    For some reason, the embeds don’t work well with some RSS feeds, but I don’t know how to fix it.

    For now, I’ve just edited the post and added the embed manually.

    I love Simone’s cover of this song — the best cover of it ever done, that I’ve ever heard. I can still remember the first time I heard it, many many years ago — it gives chills, as you said. I don’t think I’ve ever heard rage expressed so purely.

  8. I’ve been listening to Nina Simone since her first album Little Girl Blue.
    I’d never heard her version of Pirate Jenny. Thank you.

    I did hear Lotte Lenya sing it in the late 50′s and it was anything but benign!

  9. 9
    Bread & Roses says:

    “Pirate Jenny” to me goes in a threesome with “Mississippi Goddamn” and “Four Women”. Four women is explicitly about blackness (and womanhood, and the way the oppression of both cooperates), and like the other two, the rage builds and builds- I think the phrase “my name is Peaches!” at the end is pretty much the most pissed-off lyric I’ve ever heard sung.

  10. 10
    Ruchama says:

    Wow. I’ve heard “Pirate Jenny” before, but never that version. That version is awesome.

  11. 11
    Linoleum Blownaparte says:

    I dunno… I think it would take some high-test controlled substances to be able to delude yourself into thinking “Pirate Jenny” is about anything but violent revolution. But I guess a lot of racism in those days was about self-delusion, so it would have been easy.

    Well hey it’s just about pirates, right? Pirates are adventure movie fodder, nothing to be taken seriously!

    Hell look at all the yo ho ho commentary that accompanies any discussion of the Somali pirates.

    It’s not just self-delusion, it’s privilege.

  12. 12
    Grace Annam says:

    Wow.

    Thank you, nojojojo, for bringing my attention to Nina Simone, and for putting her work in cultural context. I grew up listening to protest music, but knew nothing about her. Clearly, there are gaps in my education. I find myself humming Pirate Jenny and Mississippi Goddamn in the last couple of days. (I find angry and depressing music soothing; I’m weird that way.)

    Grace

  13. 13
    elsworthy says:

    I have been listening to this song (it’s in steady rotation in my car) since I got the Watchmen album, and it is hands down, the most awesome (in the true sense of the word) song on the CD. It is power.

  14. 14
    Deborah Frederick says:

    I have been listening to Nina Simone since the early 60′s (when I was in my crib), and to the greatest hits album since it was released. I always loved the power of her music, particularly her virtuosity on the piano. But this past year I had the chance to read her autobiography and it put everything in a totally new perspective.
    Although I agree Pirate Jenny is a very angry song (which I usually play at the top volume on my stereo), but as Bread & Roses so aptly stated ““my name is Peaches!” at the end is pretty much the most pissed-off lyric I’ve ever heard sung.”

    Ditto.
    Soulflower

  15. 15
    Robert says:

    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.

    I am not sure that this is right.

    First off, I am sure that you know a lot more than I do about Nina Simone, but I will agree with the last part of the sentence – she was definitely filled with rage (with considerable justification) and wanted to tear the country to pieces. Specifically, she wanted an armed revolution to lead to a separate all-black nation. So yes, the nation could have been “torn to pieces” quite literally.

    So Kennedy was not “yielding to the inevitable” and getting out of Nina Simone’s way by advancing civil rights for black Americans. Rather, he was routing around her, and making her solution untenable. Black people deprived of their legitimate civil rights might have rebelled and broken away from the United States; black people given some or all of those rights wouldn’t make that choice. Kennedy and the rest of the white civil rights movement were undermining Simone and similar radicals, not giving in to them.

  16. 16
    nojojojo says:

    Robert,

    (I’m not sure why this old post suddenly popped up, but okay…)

    I think there’s a very thin nuance’s worth of difference between “yielding to the inevitable” and “undermining the inevitable before it can occur”. Frankly, IMO, it’s a matter of whose motives you’re centering as important — Simone and other civil rights activists, who were demanding equality, or Kennedy and other white liberals, who pretty much just wanted their peace and quiet back and were looking for the most expedient means to that end. I choose to center my framing on Simone; obviously your mileage varies.