A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Jamuary 20, 2006
Many speeches were made about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week during his annual holiday. But if you really want to know how King affected people, pick up a copy of a new compilation of political songs by Nina Simone called Forever Young, Gifted and Black: Songs of Freedom and Spirit and cue up Track 4, “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).”
Just three days after King’s assassination, Simone, performing at the Westbury Music Fair in Westbury, N.Y., unveiled undoubtedly the most moving musical tribute to King ever conceived.
And someone was smart enough to record it.
Written by her bass player, Gene Taylor, it’s a slow dirge that, like many a powerful gospel song, gradually picks up tempo.
The pain in Simone’s voice has always been obvious. But in this unedited version of that performance, listeners can get a taste of the full depth of the raw grief, the outrage, even the honest paranoia behind that song.
Previously released versions of “King of Love” had been seriously edited, to about half the length of the nearly 13 minutes on the new CD.
The previous versions crescendo until Simone wails, “What’s going to happen/Now that the king of love is dead?
But in the unedited version, we learn that there was more to the performance before she got to that last line.
“ What’s going to happen now when all of our cities/Our people are rising,” Simone begins to improvise as the music starts slowing down. In fact, many American cities were on fire at that moment as black people raged against the murder of King.
“They’re living at last,” she sings, “even if they have to die, even if they have to die at the moment that they know what life is/Even if at that one moment that you know what life is, if you have to die, it’s all right/Because you know what life is, you know what freedom is for one moment of your life/What’s going to happen/Now that the king of love is dead?”
As the applause subsides, it appears as if Simone is about to introduce another song. But then she goes off on a tangent about how many black leaders, artists, and musicians had died in recent years. She names Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, John Coltrane, and Otis Redding.
“We can go on,” she says, her voice beginning to quiver. “Do you realize how many we have lost? It really gets down to reality, doesn’t it?”
By now, Simone is in a stream-of-consciousness mode: “Not a performance. Not microphones and all that crap. But really something else.” Now she’s whispering. “We’ve lost a lot of them in the last two years. But we have remaining Monk, Miles ...”
Breaking the tension, a man in the audience adds, “Nina.”
“I love you, too,” she responds warmly. The audience applauds.
She could have left it there on a sweet sentiment. But this wasn’t a time for greeting-card clichés. Simone had more to say.
“And of course for those we have left we are thankful, but we can’t afford any more losses,” she says. Then she breaks down.
“Oh no,” she sobs. “Oh my God! They’re shooting us down one by one. Don’t forget that. ’Cause they are. They’re killing us one by one.”
She theorizes that King might not have been killed had just a few more people stayed “a little closer” to him. “Just a little closer to him,” she says, “Stay there, stay there. We can’t afford any more losses.”
As if there were no more words to say, Simone begins singing the bridge of “King of Love”: “He had seen the mountain top, and he knew he could not stop ...” And the band joins in.
Here Simone completely blurs the lines between entertainer, political advocate, and grieving friend. In that moment — “Oh no. Oh my God!” — Simone expresses the horror of a nation, not only for a terrible murder but for the grim realization that the civil-rights movement was doomed to dissipate.
Simone and her music soon would largely fade from the American consciousness. A few years after her Westbury performance, Simone left the United States. After living in several countries in Europe, the Caribbean, and Africa, she settled in France, where she died in 2003.
(Troubling fact: There’s a tradition of great black artists — including Josephine Baker, Sydney Bechet, James Baldwin, Memphis Slim, and Tina Turner — moving to France. I don’t think it’s for the cheese.)
While “King of Love” definitely is the highlight of Forever Young, Gifted and Black, the compilation is full of hard-hitting political songs from an artist who was hard to peg.
Known as the “High Priestess of Soul,” Simone, born Eunice Waymon in rural North Carolina, studied at the Juilliard School of Music in New York. Her music, especially her piano-playing, drew from her classical training.
But she also interpreted folk music, gospel, blues, soul (also released this week is an expanded reissue of Nina Simone Sings the Blues, featuring an ultra-funky version of “House of the Rising Sun”), and show tunes. She even makes pop pap like the Association’s “Cherish” (from the album Silk and Soul, rereleased this week) sound soulful.
But it was her protest tunes that distinguished Simone. Forever Young, Gifted and Black has her inspiring anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” and stirring versions of “Turn! Turn! Turn!” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” There’s a song called “Revolution,” which sounds like an answer to the Beatles song. (But unlike the Fab Moptops, Nina’s saying, “Count me in!”)
The compilation includes two other tracks from the 1968 Westbury Music Fair — “Backlash Blues,” featuring words by poet Langston Hughes (“Who do you think I am?/You raise my taxes, freeze my wages and send my son to Vietnam”), and one of her most powerful songs, “Mississippi Goddam.”
Simone wrote the latter herself in the early ’60s, following a spate of murders of civil-rights activists. With its title and refrain, Simone ensured that this song would never get radio play in this God-fearing nation. But instead of a top-10 teen tune, she left us an honest testament from a troubled but promising era.
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