Nina Simone spent most of her life out of sync with the world, a state of existence characterized by pain and frustration, but also essential to artistic development. The artist spends a lifetime differentiating between personal truths and societal truths, using this perceptual divide to create aesthetic experience. An aesthetic experience (as opposed to an anesthetic experience) wakens the mind and senses of the listener or viewer. When you experience something aesthetically, you open yourself to alternative ways of looking at life, the people around you and the society you inhabit. An aesthetic experience is therefore a subversive experience, as all societies structure themselves to encourage stability, conformity and a shared vision of life.
Most pop music is an anesthetic experience. It is designed to make you feel comfortable, secure and happy with your life. Its melodies, harmonies and lyrics generally fall within accepted boundaries. Occasionally those boundaries expand to allow for more musical variation, and sometimes artists expand cultural boundaries through the inherent drive to differentiate themselves from the norm. Most of the controversy surrounding The Beatles when they arrived in the States had more to do with their hair and their impact on young girls than their music. Their early songs obeyed the basic rules of pop music, as demonstrated by the flurry of establishment artists who rushed to cover the works of Lennon & McCartney soon after they conquered America. “Hey, maybe these long-hairs are okay after all,” thought Average Joe after finding himself whistling to covers of Beatle songs by Herb Alpert and Ella Fitzgerald. Joe could now write off long hair and screaming girls as “just kids being kids,” sit back and enjoy the new normal. The threat turned out to be a false alarm; the foundations of society remained firmly in place.
Much to their credit, The Beatles continued to push boundaries. Whether it was John observing that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, expanding the limits of pop songs with “Strawberry Fields Forever” or admitting the use of LSD, The Beatles made a significant contribution to the expansion of the definition of “normal” in the Western world. In addition to their obvious talent and the intimacy they had created with the listening audience over the years, there was one other advantage they had that allowed them to challenge social norms without appreciably damaging record sales.
They were white guys.
Society finds it much more palatable to accept criticism when it’s delivered by nice-looking white guys with a sense of humor. It’s much harder to take criticism from a woman, especially an angry black woman, even when that woman is exceptionally talented and presents the message in the socially-acceptable formats of easy listening, soft jazz and Broadway show tune.
Nina Simone began her career singing songs well within acceptable boundaries, a combination of show tunes, standards, an occasional blues number and traditional gospel songs. Once she crossed the line into protest songs with “Mississippi Goddam” on Nina Simone in Concert, public perception changed. Nina always felt she had been blacklisted by U. S. radio stations once she raised her voice in protest, and the decline in her U. S. record sales during the mid-60’s certainly indicate that her embrace of the Civil Rights Movement had damaged her brand. This may seem strange to those who look back on the mid-60’s as the golden age of the protest song, when Bob Dylan Peter, Paul & Mary, Barry McGuire and Janis Ian became household names and even Elvis joined in the fun with “In the Ghetto.” Nina Simone took the hit because she was a powerful black woman who refused to hold back, a spectre even more terrifying to racists than the big black stud lurking in the shadows waiting for the chance to give all those peaches-and-cream white women the time of their lives.
As an artist, Nina Simone was automatically out-of-sync. As an African-American with a vagina, she was triply out of sync. It’s no wonder that her later years were marked by anger, outrage and bipolar disorder, when her trauma would drive her to traumatize others.
Her legacy to the world is her music, a diverse and deeply engaging catalog of music in multiple forms and genres. She built this catalog despite a lasting indifference to the music business, viewing her career as a way to pay the bills while she continued her studies of classical music. Nina Simone had more musical talent and ability than most of us have in our pinky finger, and though she spent a couple of years wasting that talent on blah pop songs, she left a legacy only a few can match. The Essential Nina Simone captures her power and diversity, emphasizing the period that represented her artistic peak—when growing social consciousness awakened mind, body and soul, resulting in live performances and recordings that clearly qualify as compelling, aesthetic experiences.
“The Other Woman” (1959, Nina Simone at Town Hall): One might expect a Nina Simone collection to begin with “I Loves You, Porgy,” her only Top 20 Billboard hit. Alas, that song (along with other standards) came from her first album for Bethlehem Records and the compilers were apparently unable to convince whoever owns the Bethlehem catalog to play nice. Actually, I rather like opening with something from Town Hall, as this was the album that made the folks in Greenwich Village stand up and take notice. This piece, written by African-American songwriter Jessie Mae Robinson, is sung from the perspective of the downtrodden housewife of the 50’s, stuck at home with kids, curlers and the cleaning while hubby bangs the shapely, well-coiffed and superbly-accessorised secretary after office hours. Nina plays the part to perfection, capturing the pathetic nature of the housewife’s meaningless consolation prize, “But at least he comes home to me.” I realize this song is pre-feminist, but geez how I wish the women would have united in opposition to this entitled jerk and rendered his active member inert with a couple of kicks to the nuts. Still, I can comfort myself with Nina’s gently emotive voice and her classically-enhanced piano.
“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (1959, Nina Simone at Town Hall): Nina takes this old Scottish folk song absconded by the hill folk in Appalachia and frees it from the traditional meter, extending notes according to the felt passion of the moment. The simple fact that a black woman sings a song about the beauty of her male partner—presumably an African-American male—makes her rendering subtly subversive. The piano introduction builds from relative quiet to furious intensity before ending on a cue chord that seems one octave too high but beautifully introduces Nina’s extended vocalization of the word, “black.” Even at this early stage in her career, she displays the remarkable command that holds you in anticipation of every subsequent note.
“Nobody Knows When You When You’re Down and Out” (1959, single): Nina would eventually have several encounters with blues standards during her recording career, and the way she absolutely nails this old Bessie Smith number makes you hungry for more. She literally owns the song, changing the words to suit her voice and creating a finish so strong that she almost makes the blaring band accompanying her completely irrelevant. Personally, I wish they would have backed off entirely, as Nina had more the enough power to get this sucker across the finish line.
“Trouble in Mind” (1960, Live at Newport): The Greeks called it melancholia; the common term in use today is clinical depression. Though volumes have been written about it for years, there are few songs that capture the essence of depressive affective disorder as “Trouble in Mind,” written by a jazz pianist named Richard M. Jones in 1924. The chorus depicts the “brave face” a person in depression conjures up, partly to lift the spirits, but primarily to console those around them who find depression unpleasant, socially unacceptable behavior:
Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause that sun is gonna shine in my back door someday
It’s a façade that can’t possibly last, and eventually the other, uglier possibility emerges from the emotional cauldron:
I’m gonna lay my head on some lonesome railroad line
And let the two-nineteen train ease my troubled mind
Though this performance took place long before Nina was diagnosed as bipolar, the song has an eerie, foreshadowing quality about it, in large part because she sings it with feeling—feeling that changes with the mood of the lyrics. Her rich, contralto voice holds so much here—false optimism, weariness, dark fantasy, hopelessness—all reflected in subtle changes in vocal dynamics and phrasing. The quiet, extended fade ends abruptly with a sudden increase in volume and Nina imitating a trumpet flourish, a nod to the norms of playing in front of a live audience who came to have a good time.
I would have loved it had she faded to a whisper then quietly strolled off the stage.
“Mississippi Goddam” (1964, Nina Simone in Concert): Ironically, the song that turned Nina Simone into a controversial figure is structured as a classic Broadway show tune, with the faux-dramatic flourishes common to the musical numbers Barbra Streisand sang during that period. Nina wrote the song in about an hour, and you can feel its stunning immediacy more than fifty years later. After the musicians establish the semi-comic, catchy rhythm, Nina introduces the song:
The name of this tune is Mississippi goddam (warm laughter from the largely white audience)
And I mean every word of it (more laughter, though obviously subdued)
Nina then takes us on two rounds of the chorus, using a familiar within-the-limits melodic pattern that could have come from Oklahoma! or Funny Girl:
Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
She separates the syllables on the cursed word, just as we do when we hear something shocking beyond belief: god-damn! A brief bridge leads us to another repetition of the chorus, and all the comfortable white folk in the audience probably felt pretty relieved at this point, thinking “Okay, this isn’t too bad.” The song then shifts to the minor key, and the insistent rhythm that felt so lighthearted a moment ago now takes on a darker cast. Nina uses the opportunity to slyly insert an explanation of the musical style she has chosen to employ:
This is a show tune
But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet
As she begins the first verse, the change in her tone is palpable—it’s now, “Let’s get real, people.”
Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last
That last line should have outraged every person in attendance at Carnegie Hall that night. Maybe after the show, once the drinks were poured and the cigarettes lit, someone in the entourage would have spoiled the post-theatre dinner by asking, “How can people live like that, in constant fear of their lives? We have to use our white privilege to help these people!” Nina’s tone during the verses is no-holds-barred “This is real, heavy shit, people!” and that intensity continues when Nina cues the shift to call-and-response with the classic white excuse for tepid action: “They keep on saying, ‘Go slow!” Nina rattles off a list of “Negro jobs” (picking cotton, washing windows) and common slurs (rotten, lazy) while the band members respond, “Do it slow!” People are dying every day at the hands of vile racists and all you’ve got is “Go slow?” “Go fuck yourselves,” I would have responded, and although Nina doesn’t go that far, the anger she expresses in the final verses certainly captures that sentiment—but first, she can’t resist taunting the audience:
I’ll bet you thought I was kiddin’
I’ll bet they did. Guess what? She wasn’t.
Picket lines, school boy cots
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me
J. Edgar Cross-Dresser labeled any unpleasantness part of a communist plot, à la “They’re stirring up our Negroes.” It was a lie that some Americans actually bought, but Nina goes further, exposing the entire American dream as a lie:
Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
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
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
I imagine that most Americans of the time would have been shocked by the inference that American history is one big lie, as Americans have always believed in their essential righteousness. The more threatening line is “You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” portending a violent revolution. Although Nina Simone supported Dr. King’s non-violent approach to change, the documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone? showed several diary entries where she expresses her anger in the form of violent fantasies. At this point in her life, I interpret that line as a mix of deep emotional frustration and a warning to those advocating gradualism rather than a call to action. Her warning would prove prescient less than two years later, when Watts exploded, inspiring the Reagan-driven racist backlash that planted the seed that grew into Donald Trump. “Mississippi Goddam” is a still-relevant indictment of American racism, the factor that defines American history more than any other, and continues to define the American way of life to this day.
“See-Line Woman” (1964, Broadway-Blues-Ballads): The B-side to “Mississippi Goddam” would later be released as an A-side, probably because a.) it’s damned compelling and b.) songs with Afro-Caribbean rhythms were pretty popular in the late 50’s and early-to-mid 60’s. The song itself is an ancient song of uncertain origin, but the best guess places its birth in one of the ports in the southern United States. The “see-line” or “sea lion” woman is essentially a more modern version of the mythological sirens, whose call would lure dumber-than-fuck men to sail their ships into the rocky coasts, all in the pursuit of pussy. The sirens in this song are the entrepreneurial prostitutes who set up shop in seaports to meet the excess demand and outrageous supply of ships full of horny sailors. Like the sirens of old, these early female capitalists left destruction in their wake:
See-Line woman, dressed in red
Make a man lose his head
See-Line woman, black dress on
For a thousand dollars, she wail and she moan
Wiggle, wiggle, turn like a cat
Wink at a man and he wink back
Now child, see-line woman
Empty his pockets and wreck his days
Nina’s arrangement of handclaps, drums and flutes allow her to go into sort of a trance, and she sings the story as if she’s visualizing the docks, smelling the salt air and staring with wonder at the remarkable women in “silk stockings with golden seams.” Her tone is a combination of warning to the sailors and admiration for female power, and my biases say she comes down on the side of the women. As a woman who firmly believes that female domination is the only social structure capable of producing everlasting human happiness, what else would you expect me to say?
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” (1964, Broadway-Blues-Ballads): Though The Animals’ version is more familiar to most, let me tell you something: Nina Simone wipes the floor with Eric Burdon. For one thing, you can actually understand the lyrics, something Eric had a hard time doing because he was always faking a black accent over his native British phrasing. For another, Nina masters the psychology of the person who explodes with rage at random intervals and then feels (or feigns to feel) apologetic. Occasionally, she goes over the top (the expression of tears on the closing line of the chorus, for example), but all in all she overcomes a ridiculously ornate arrangement to come out a winner.
“I Put a Spell on You” (1965, I Put a Spell on You): Now we have her version of the song popularized by ex-Animal Alan Price, and the contest here is much closer. The organ on Alan Price’s version is one of the few organ pieces I desperately love, and his vocal reflects a dark confusion about the wayward passions that are racking body and soul. Nina’s version is more in the tone of a real-life practitioner of voodoo who has chosen to use the dark arts (inappropriately, I might point out) to keep her male lover’s pecker in her and only her vagina, where it belongs. I’m tempted to give Alan the victory here due to those goddamn strings in Nina’s version, which contradict the possessive mania of her vocal, but her vocal riffs are pure passion. Nina in a squeaker.
“Ne Me Quitte Pas” (1965, I Put a Spell on You): Jacques Brel represents the highest degree of separation between my musical tastes and my mother’s. She loves the guy; he drives me fucking batty. So, while I can’t recommend the song here, I do recommend Nina’s performance, and though it’s sung in somewhat-over-precise French, her precision serves as a valuable learning tool for those just beginning their efforts to master the French language.
“Strange Fruit” (1965, Pastel Blues): Written by Abel Metropol, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, the anti-lynching song originally titled “Bitter Fruit” began life as a poem published in a Teachers Union paper that was later picked up by a Communist rag of the era. During the 1930’s, many Americans with liberal inclinations joined the Communist Party primarily due to its emphasis on genuine social equality for all in contrast to the bullshit equality peddled by the American Establishment. In J. Edgar’s twisted mind, if the Communists advocated for something, it was by definition anti-American, hence his insistence that the Civil Rights movement was all part of the larger Communist plot to undermine American values. Linking Communism with Civil Rights turned racist assholes into patriots, and the White Power structure of the Confederacy guaranteed that no white person would ever have to face punishment for lynching American citizens without due process.
Despite the consciousness-raising power of the song, despite decades of calls from the NAACP and other groups to pass a federal anti-lynching law, nothing changed. According to Wikipedia, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress and none of them became law. Everyone blames the failure on the power of the Senate’s racist Southern bloc, but to my knowledge, no one ever challenged the political structure (i. e, power based on seniority rather than competence) that allowed the atrocities to continue.
Nina chose to perform Time’s “Song of the Century” in minimalistic fashion, an arrangement limited to the essential chords and Nina’s clear and commanding voice. She enunciates every word with searing clarity, forcing you to visualize the “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” and experience “the sudden smell of burning flesh” that cruelly erases the scent of magnolia. Though “Strange Fruit” is known as Billie Holiday’s signature song, I’ve always felt that the blaring trumpet fills decorating her version rather jarring and unsupportive of the subject matter. Nina’s version leaves you in stunned, guilty silence as you consider the horror of it all.
Abel Metropol (who used the pseudonym Lewis Allan to make white Americans happy) would later go on to write “The House I Live In,” a vision of an open society respecting all races and religions popularized by Frank Sinatra and Josh White. All the evidence coming out of the United States at the present time indicates that no one took that song seriously either.
“Four Women” (1965, Wild Is the Wind): Incredible as it may seem, this song exploring racial stereotypes through the experience of four African-American women was banned by several radio stations for . . . being racist. You can’t make this shit up, folks. Americans are very creative when it comes to preserving the inalienable right to be a racist asshole.
The four black women in the song are of diverse skin colors, but all are subject to demeaning stereotypes, victims of circumstance and what Thulani Davis called “the damning legacy of slavery.” Aunt Sarah personifies the long-suffering denizen of the South, “strong enough to take the pain.” Saffronia is the outcome of a rich white male raping a black woman in the hallowed style of Thomas Jefferson. Sweet Thing has the tan skin that makes her acceptable to johns looking for a socially-acceptable way to explore forbidden fantasies. The fourth woman claims she’ll “kill the first mother I see,” deeply bitter about both slavery and the inheritance of the childish name “Peaches.” The stories of the first three are related in a tone of shameful detachment, while the verse about Peaches is full of anger and grit, leading to a powerful crescendo on the acrid rendering of the name she finds deeply insulting. Given the increase in intensity in the “Peaches” verse and Nina’s personal growth trajectory, it’s easy to define Peaches as Nina Simone, and while that view has some validity, it diminishes the empathy Nina felt for all the women she portrays. The dynamic she describes—the power of stereotypes to dehumanize coupled with the power of stereotypes to encourage conformity—is essentially the human struggle for individuality in societies that encourage simplification through classification, particularly when it comes to people of color. A powerful song highlighted by a powerful performance, “Four Women” is an enduring and honest exploration of a subject that is too uncomfortable for most people to handle.
“Sinnerman” (1965, Pastel Blues): Nina Simone’s rendering of this old revival song she learned from her minister mother is a ten-minute master class in piano accompaniment, vocal phrasing, arrangement diversification and the power of human percussion. The basic lesson is more interesting than most gospel songs, for the Lord sizes up this sinner as a guy who only runs to the Lord when he’s in deep shit, and the Lord tells him to go to the Devil—a bit of tough love from God Almighty. Nina’s piano contributions vary from insistent rhythm to remarkable runs that break free of the key and intensify the excitement. Her phrasing is very loose, conversational and breathy—at times she sounds like she’s running out of breath, reflecting the enhanced spiritual state of the preacher confronting the sinner. Despite her rejection of precise note placement, her profound sense of rhythm always places her vocal in sync with the rhythm by the time she ends the chorus. The arrangement features a diverse set of soundscapes including an extended hand-clapping segment and the passionate piano-vocal duet that precedes the rousing climax. “Sinnerman” is a musical masterpiece—as compelling a piece of music as you will ever experience, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.
“Do I Move You?” (1966, Nina Simone Sings the Blues): Me being me, I was seriously tempted to review Nina Simone Sings the Blues because it’s her sexiest album by far. Figuring my readers couldn’t stomach another celebration of the glory of sex, I’ll limit my exploration of Nina Simone’s contributions to the field of erotic music to the two excerpts from that album that appear in this anthology.
NOTE: Recently a reader called my writing “vulgar,” so here’s your official consumer warning that my commentary on this song and the next will be extremely “vulgar,” with language similar to the language you’d find in Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, the passage that led to the decade-long ban of the world’s greatest novel in the U. S. and U. K. “Vulgar” is in quotes because I don’t believe in the concept of vulgarity, a socially repressive notion if there ever was one, a ludicrous limit to expression that is applied more stringently to women than to men.
In other words, fuck vulgarity.
“Do I Move You?” is so hot that the male band members can’t contain their excitement, as they shout and scream to what Nina’s laying down—female dominance, defined as the state of relations where the pleasure of the woman is the first and only priority:
Do I move you, are you willin’
Do I groove you, is it thrillin’
Do I soothe you, tell the truth now
Do I move you, are you loose now
The answer better be (Yeah, Yeah)
That pleases me
The men take the “Yeah, Yeah” response, responding to Nina’s demand (“the answer better be . . . “) with enthusiasm up and down the shaft. But the core line is the one that ends every chorus: “That pleases me.” It’s a not-so-subtle reminder to the inferior sex that their standard single shot is neither a priority or even a consideration except in the context of achieving female pleasure. Nina sings this song with sadistic delight, reveling in the power of the bottomless depths of female desire. Though she’s in serious heat throughout the song, she rises to orgasmic levels when she cries “Great God Almighty” before the final “That pleases me,” and though my orgasmic lines are more secular (like “Fuck yeah!” or “Keep it the fuck coming!”), I fully embrace the notion that orgasms are a religious experience. This is the first pairing on the album featuring Nina with both guitar and blues harp, and she responds to those high-heat instruments by doubling down on the vocal temperature.
“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (1966, Nina Simone Sings the Blues): Having dissed the importance of male ejaculation in the discussion of the previous song, I will now restore it to its rightful place in the sexual hierarchy, honoring Nina’s stated desire to feel a little sugar in her bowl.
Personally, I would prefer a lot of sugar in my bowl. I love the feel of a man shooting into me. On a sensual basis, it’s warm and wet, especially at the moment of release. Depending on male physiology, the temperature of his come may be warmer or cooler than the temperature of my natural juices, and I find the temperature differential incredibly stimulating. Even if the guy wasn’t that talented in his overall delivery, I can never remember a time when I didn’t shoot upon male ejaculation, and usually I come four or five times depending on how much the guy has to deliver.
To be perfectly honest, the orgasms have more to do with the conquest than the physical sensations. I love breaking a hard cock, stripping a male of their pretentious notions of power and their fragile shield of manliness. For me, the primary purpose of male ejaculation is to make me happy, not the other way around. It isn’t that I don’t care whether or not my sexual partners experience pleasure—eliciting pleasure is an effective way to establish domination, especially when you overwhelm them with pleasure. But since ejaculation is the end of the road for most men (at least temporarily), that shot had better please me mightily or that dude will never get another chance to fill my bowl.
Nina’s approach is more subversive than mine, more the plaintive bitch in heat than the dominant female. Even from this apparently submissive position, there’s no questioning the intensity of her desire: her horniness has triggered mood swings and she’d rather go with a hard one than a bottle of pills to regulate her constitution:
I want a little sugar in my bowl
I want a little sweetness down in my soul
I could stand some lovin’, oh so bad
Feel so funny, I feel so sad
I want a little steam on my clothes
Maybe I could fix things up so they’ll go
What’s the matter daddy, come on, save my soul
I need some sugar in my bowl, I ain’t foolin’
I want some sugar in my bowl
While I’m not fond of euphemisms, I can handle sugar = semen and bowl = vagina because color and shape are in sync. The arrangement features a sax solo by Buddy Lucas, who applies the passion he regularly displayed on the harmonica to the larger reed instrument and more than holds his own despite Nina Simone’s completely mesmerizing vocal.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (1967, Silk and Soul): Professor Billy Taylor co-wrote this jazzy spiritual back in 1963 when the Civil Rights Movement was really hitting its stride. Nina manages the flow of the song exceptionally well, expressing the sadness and exhaustion occasioned by constant repression in the first two verses, then strengthening her vocal in the third verse to reflect a deep longing for the right to live up to her potential and act upon the feelings deep in her heart:
I wish I could give all I’m longing to give
I wish I could live like I’m longing to live
I wish that I could do all the things that I can do
Though I’m way overdue I’d be starting anew
In the last verse, she lets it all out, using the symbolism inherent in the flight of a bird to carry her to the uplifting conclusion:
Well I wish I could be like a bird in the sky
How sweet it would be if I found I could fly
Oh I’d soar to the sun and look down at the sea
And I’d sing cos I’d know that (3)
I’d know how it feels to be free (3)
Although many were (and are) intimidated by Nina’s choice to voice anger and frustration, beneath those entirely justifiable feelings was a woman with classically human aspirations capable of expressing joy as well as anyone.
If you’ve been following the timeline, you may have noticed that Nina Simone had been one busy gal. She released twenty studio and live albums in a span of ten years, and an incredible twelve albums between 1964-1967. Much of this lunatic scheduling was driven by her husband and manager, Andrew Stroud, who also started slapping her around during this period. The quality of her material declined precipitously, as she turned to readily available pop and soul songs to fill up albums. Compared to the passion she brought to previous performances, she delivers these songs perfunctorily and professionally, with mixed results. “The Glory of Love” (1967, unreleased) should have been left it the can, as it’s an awful song in the first place. “To Love Somebody” (1967, To Love Somebody (1969) turned out to be her first Top 10 hit in the U. K. but did nothing in the States; perhaps the British preferred Nina Simone Lite to the real thing. “Do What You Gotta Do” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!) is a Jimmy Webb number spoiled by a glossy soul arrangement full of unnecessary distractions (the Brits loved it anyway). It seems like this period was dominated by Nina was recording songs that “everybody else was recording,” as demonstrated by her choice to record “Ain’t Got No – I Got Life” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!) from the horrid musical Hair. It’s probably the best of the four, but still a long, long way from her best stuff.
“Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)” (1968, ‘Nuff Said!): Nuff Said! featured one stirring moment, the live rendition of “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” Performed live at the Westbury Music Festival only three days after the death of Dr. King, the band had no time to rehearse bass player Gene Taylor’s moving eulogy. According to Nina’s brother, Samuel Waylon, they learned the song the day of the performance; in the unedited version (available on YouTube), Nina mentions she had just learned the song “yesterday.” If Nina had broken down in the grief of the moment, no one could have blamed her, but with supreme will she tames the flood of emotion and gave what could be the performance of her life. Through Gene Taylor’s honest lyrics, she expresses all the sadness, frustration, anger and disbelief that people felt at that moment, providing listeners with a blessed moment of catharsis. After a period of singing songs that were far beneath her talent and disconnected from her passions, the performance must have been liberating for her as well. And though the song focuses on Dr. King’s contributions and legacy, it ends with a dire warning:
Folks, you’d better stop and think . . .
For we’re heading for the brink.
What’s gonna happen now that the king of love is dead?
History tells us that the progress Dr. King helped initiate would solidify and strengthen after his death, confirming his legacy a hundred times over. Sadly, the people of the United States have traded a minister of love for a preacher of hate, and overt racism is now all the rage in the land of the free.
Listen . . . and remember the struggle, the progress, the possibility. Please, America, don’t let this dream die:
“Everyone’s Gone to the Moon” (1968, Nina Simone and Piano): Man, I loathe the Jonathan King original . . . I’ve never heard of a another composer who so completely ruined his own composition. His sanitized vocal bears absolutely no relation to the pointed social criticism in the lyrics, making the end product intensely annoying. Nina Simone saw the potential, and instead of giving another half-hearted rendition of another half-assed pop song, she ramps up her acting skills and makes the song her own. She takes the cue from the line, “A church full of singing, out of tune” and presents us with a dissonant, drifting vocal that reflects a planet gone mad, as described in the lyrics. By the end of the song, she seems infected by the madness, increasing her disconnection from the scale and tossing out lines as if she were on acid. An absolutely riveting example of outstanding song interpretation.
“Revolution” (1969, To Love Somebody): This is not a cover of The Beatles hit (though the guitar riff curiously resembles George’s fills on “Old Brown Shoe”). While Nina’s in good spirits, I think the song flopped because of its too-close resemblance to the original, particularly the common rhymes (constitution and evolution) and the reference to destruction. I’m sure that many listeners of the time thought she was covering John Lennon, albeit rather loosely.
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969, single): Although I’m not a big fan of self-affirmation songs, rituals or chants, I’ll make an exception for this one because I grew up hanging out with various POC and budding gays and spent a good chunk of my time trying to lift up their spirits and convince them that they weren’t the worthless pieces of shit society claimed they were. It still blows my mind that I have so many “natural advantages” because of the color of my skin, a condition Ian Anderson described as “an accident of birth.” At first glance, people don’t know that I’m a sadomasochistic pervert in a bisexual relationship—they look at me and feel either comfort (that I’m not going to rob or kill them) or suspicion (that I’m the arrogant white bitch who believes in her god-given superiority). People don’t walk across the street to avoid me when they see me coming. They don’t ask to be moved to another seat on the airplane. They don’t hurry up and finish their meal once they see a group of white women like me enter the restaurant. If I decided to wear a hajib on my stroll down the Promenade, people would think “fashion statement,” whereas if my dark-haired, dark-eyed, brown-skinned partner did the same, she might draw some attention from the gendarmes. First impressions matter because most are reflections of stereotypes, and stereotypes stick unless you actively engage the person you’re stereotyping.
The stereotypes applied to Black Americans had always adhered to the tired old themes of intellectual inferiority and laziness. That’s why MLK, John Lewis and the others who led the movement were so threatening and “uppity”—they could speak better English than the crackers and there was absolutely no question about their willingness to work their asses off for what they believed. White people of the time were terrified by the phrase “Black Power,” which they mistakenly took as a threat instead of an attempt to rid the black psyche of centuries of programming that told them not to believe in themselves. When Weldon Irvine (lyricist) and Nina Simone (composer) wrote this song in honor of the late Lorraine Hansberry, it was a message of affirmation that served as a sorely-needed antidote to the self-loathing that held back too many good people:
Open your heart to what I mean
In the whole world you know
There are a billion boys and girls
Who are young, gifted and black,
And that’s a fact!
Nina’s music is full of strong punctuation, especially on the chorus lines, reinforcing the uplifting message in thrilling fashion.
“Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (1970, Black Gold): The spoken introduction tells us a great deal about Nina Simone’s journey so far. Responding to Faye Dunaway’s comment that “she tried to give the people what they want”, Nina says, “That’s a mistake . . . You use up everything you’ve got trying to give everybody what they want.” Then she admits it’s a skill she’s had a hard time mastering, a surprising admission from a woman who came across as “too strong” for those who liked their women docile. The truth is that the challenge of not living up to everybody’s expectations is a challenge we all face (except for sociopaths like he-who-shall-not-be-named), and finding the right balance is always a tricky thing.
Sandy Denny’s signature song is the perfect vehicle for Nina to reflect about life in the context of the strange concept of time. Further along in the intro, Nina opines that “time is a dictator,” a feeling common to many in our too-busy age, but in this context reflects the scars Nina earned by giving too much away in the pursuit of her musical career. Accompanied only by a simple guitar strum for a good part of the song, it feels like Nina is singing more to herself than the audience. When she offers us a perfectly lovely piano solo, it feels like an echo of the line in “I Wish I Knew How It Feels to Be Free” where she sings, “I wish I could do all the things that I can do,” giving herself a moment to indulge herself in bit of piano artistry, an aspect of her talent that she never quite fulfilled based on her own high standards. This is one of the lovelier and sadder moments in the collection, where a woman who has achieved so much expresses the wish that she should have resisted the demands to “give the people what they want” with more vigor.
“Here Comes the Sun” (1971, Here Comes the Sun): In comparison to “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” this is a fairly weak effort marred further by overproduction. The tiny piano solo is lovely, but as is usually the case with Beatle covers, it’s hard to compete with the original.
“Just Like a Woman” (1971, Here Comes the Sun): Here Nina surpasses the original, not a particularly difficult task given Bob Dylan’s typically piss-poor vocals. However, Nina goes beyond the vocal competition and makes the song hers by turning it into a reflective moment on what it means to be a woman in our society. The off-structure piano intro is sheer delight, another small example of her underplayed virtuosity. For most of the song she tracks Dylan’s third-person presentation of the woman in the song, but in the last verse Nina becomes the subject:
Yes, I take just like a woman
Yes, I do, and I make love just like a woman
And I ache just like a woman
But I break just like a little girl
She delivers those lines on the fade, ramping down the background support to close in relative quiet as she sings the final line, confessing her vulnerability. I never knew whether or not Dylan was being sexist or empathetic with that final line, but when Nina Simone sings it, it becomes a courageous act in a world where tears are seen as a sign of weakness for both sexes but the kiss of death for a woman who’s trying to get people to take her seriously.
Fuck that. I respect and cherish people who are willing to show vulnerability—it’s a strength, not a weakness.
“Funkier Than a Mosquito’s Tweeter” (1974, It Is Finished): Nina recorded this song for her last album on RCA before going on hiatus for four years. Written by Ailene Bullock, Tina Turner’s older sister, it’s essentially an early rap about hypocritical men: preachers, hipsters and educated snobs. What’s interesting here isn’t so much the song as the shift to African instrumentation and style. This was a rich mine for Nina to explore, but by this time, she was ready to disengage from the grind and wander the globe, spending time in Liberia, The Netherlands, Barbados, England, France, Belgium and Switzerland.
“Rich Girl” (1978, Baltimore): I can’t believe she bothered to come back to do this absolutely crappy Hall & Oates number. In all fairness, this is a compiler fuck-up: they should have included the title track, her reggae version of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore.”
“A Single Woman” (1993, A Single Woman): Her final studio album was broadly panned; her voice had lost much of its resonance; and the arrangements are seriously over-the-top. Correcting their Baltimore error, the compilers picked the one song on the album that unintentionally came closest to reflecting her life at the time: the terrible loneliness of a woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Always alone at home or in a crowd;
A single woman out on a private cloud;
Caught in a world few people understand
I am what I am only one single woman
Rod McKuen wrote the song, but as she did on all of her best work, Nina made this song her own.
The brief biography posted on ninasimone.com describes the last decade of her Nina’s life:
With two marriages behind her in 1993 she settled in Carry-le-Rout, near Aix-en-Provence in Southern France. She would continue to tour through the 1990’s and became very much ‘the single woman’ she sang about on her last label recording. She rarely traveled without an entourage, but if you were fortunate enough to get to know the woman behind the music you could glimpse the solitary soul that understood the pain of being misunderstood. It was one of Nina’s many abilities to comprehend the bittersweet qualities of life and then parlay them into a song that made her such an enduring and fascinating person.
It’s no surprise that Nina wound up finding refuge in France, the sanctuary for many artists the world over, and especially welcoming to black jazz artists of note. While we have our own problems with racist populism and institutional sexism, the French have been better than most in respecting the contributions of artists the world over. There was no way she could have returned to the United States, as she had experienced the more virulent strain of racism in that country first-hand, and had exposed American myths about equality as absolute falsehoods.
In her autobiography, Nina Simone stated that her mission as an artist was “to make people feel on a deep level.” I don’t know how anyone can listen to “Mississippi Goddam,” “Four Women,” “Sinnerman,” or “Why (The King of Love Is Dead)” and not feel strong emotion—and that applies to both listeners who cherish equality and listeners who cherish notions of white supremacy. It’s always somewhat dangerous to trigger the deeper feelings we would like to hide, and sometimes listeners blame the artist for exposing the ugliness of some of those emotions. Any artist who dares challenge cultural norms is going to face blowback, but in Nina Simone’s case, the blowback damaged her career and eventually robbed America of one of its greatest musical artists—a woman who displayed unusual courage, exceptional versatility and astonishing musical ability. If Nina Simone’s life is viewed through the lens of tragedy, it is a uniquely American tragedy: the failure of a culture to embrace a talented woman who wished only “to give all I’m longing to give.”
Sometimes Wikipedia authors let their enthusiasm for a subject run wild . . .
The 1940s and 1950s saw the rise of music that continued to protest labor, race, and class issues. Protest songs continued to increase their profile over this period . . . (article, “Protest Songs in the United States”).
To support this swiss cheese theory of a “rise” in protest songs, the author cites Woody Guthrie, The Weavers and Josh White. Woody Guthrie made it to the Billboard Top 100 once in his lifetime, with “This Land Is Your Land” landing at #29 in 1940. The Weavers did indeed have the best-selling single of 1950—that stirring protest song, “Good Night, Irene.” And despite support from Eleanor Roosevelt, Josh White’s influence on music was pretty much limited to folk circles and Greenwich Village denizens during this period.
A naïve person could read that article and assume that protest songs had a significant influence on the American public during WWII and well into the Eisenhower era. The truth is that none of those artists received the recognition they deserved until the American Folk Revival peaked in the 1960’s. The market for protest songs in the 1940’s was largely an underground affair.
There were certainly plenty of opportunities to use music to protest injustice and violence in wartime America, from The Japanese Internment to segregation (at home and in the armed forces) to the failure of the government to respond to the systematic annihilation of Jews and other undesirables in the Third Reich. There was simply no audience for that kind of music. After spending their energies during the 30’s trying to survive the worst economic calamity in American history, the populace now had to deal with a two-front war and the deprivations associated with the rationing of meat, tires, gasoline and sugar. When the family huddled around their charmingly bulky radios after finishing off what passed for an evening meal, they wanted to relax and have a few laughs tuning into The Chase & Sanborn Program with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, the mildly humorous Fibber McGee and Molly (sponsored by Johnson’s Wax) or comedians like Jack Benny (The Jell-O Program) and Bob Hope (Pepsodent Program). And when it was time for a little music, well . . . here are the Billboard’s #1 songs during the war years of 1941-1945:
- 1941: “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” Glenn Miller
- 1942: “Moonlight Cocktails,” Glenn Miller
- 1943: “Paper Doll,” The Mills Brothers
- 1944: “Swinging on a Star,” Bing Crosby
- 1945: “Rum and Coca-Cola,” The Andrews Sisters
Wow! Americans spent the war years jumping on trains just to eat their ham and eggs in Carolina, getting drunk, chasing skirts, carrying moonbeams home in a jar and getting drunk all over again! Sorry I missed it!
I’ve always found it weird that many of the songs during the Depression and World War II seemed unusually happy. Consider this 1944 juxtaposition: stream Saving Private Ryan, skip ahead to the part when the soldiers start jumping out of the landing craft and onto the D-Day beaches, then mute the soundtrack and play “Swinging on a Star” as you watch the Nazis rake all those poor young guys with blistering machine gun fire.
The blame for the era’s cognitive dissonance rests with one man: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest marketer in American history. He exuded boundless optimism in his speeches, in his smile and in his “jaunty” look with a cigarette holder clenched firmly between those smiling teeth. Depression? No! “Happy Days Are Here Again!” From a purely statistical perspective, his administration didn’t make much economic progress until the war, but just listening to FDR give one of his fireside chats could make you believe that you never had it better. He addressed the American people as “my friends,” played the “we’re all in this together” card to perfection and made morale on the home front a major priority. During the war, Americans had full access to lighthearted radio programs, sappy and patriotic movies and star-depleted major league baseball. These signs of normalcy helped Americans cope with the rationing and the persistent stream of war-related bulletins that occasionally interrupted Fibber and Molly. When Stan the Man is still belting the ball with authority and Abbott and Costello are still providing the laughs, well, hey, things ain’t so bad, are they?
After listening to a large sampling of the popular music of the era, I found that nearly all of it falls neatly into two categories: happy and sad. Rooseveltian philosophy stressed optimism, so that explains happy. But even the all-powerful FDR couldn’t stop people feeling sad about missing the sons, daughters, brothers and sisters shipped off to distant battlefields, so “sad” became a permissible way to let Johnny know that Jane was still waiting for him under the apple tree. In a backhanded way, “sad” boosted morale.
Anger, however, was strictly verboten. Any expression of the serious social problems that afflicted America during the war was off the table. This restriction allowed Americans to dance through those dark days in a happy state of cognitive dissonance as they fought a war against racism while still cherishing racism at home.
No one captured the ethos of American life during this era better than The Andrews Sisters.
Born to a Greek father with an anglicized last name and a Norwegian-American mother in the small town of Mound, Minnesota (twenty miles west of Minneapolis), the three girls (LaVerne, Maxene and Patty) began singing together when Patty (the youngest) reached the ripe old age of seven. They patterned their act after The Boswell Sisters, a superb and influential vocal group steeped in the music of New Orleans, who were very popular in the early 1930’s.
The Boswells’ classical training and experience working with jazz and blues legends gave them a decided edge in terms of understanding music theory; hence, their music is surprisingly sophisticated. As for the Andrews Sisters, only LaVerne had studied piano and knew how to read music, so she took on the task of teaching her younger siblings how to sing harmony. To to keep things simple, she focused on one particular feature you hear in a good chunk of the Boswells’ music: close harmony.
I know how my readers hate it when I delve into musical theory, but it’s a rather important point here. Close harmony means the notes used for harmony are as close as possible to each other on the scale, generally within the same octave. Open harmony takes a leap to another octave. If you have a guitar handy, form a C major chord (it was probably the first chord you learned). The close harmony would consist of simultaneously plucking the C, E and G notes on the fifth, fourth and third strings. You would create a simple open harmony by using your fingers to pluck C on the fifth string, the open G string and the open high E string all at the same time. If you don’t have a guitar, just listen to The Everly Brothers and early Beatles records—most of the harmonies you hear sit within the octave.
Nearly all of The Andrews Sisters’ work features the girls singing in close harmony: LaVerne singing the low note, Maxene taking the middle and Patty soaring on high (and also singing lead). The harmonies they created are uniformly marvelous and the timbres of their individual voices blended extraordinarily well together. Still, I doubt they could have become one of the most popular acts of the era by relying on harmony alone: barbershop quartets had been passé for years when The Andrews Sisters came along.
What made The Andrews Sisters special was the attention they paid to rhythm and dynamics. By listening to The Boswells, they developed a strong appreciation of the importance of rhythm in vocal music. Most importantly, they transferred that awareness to the musical context of the time—the big swing bands. Those big bands were driven by the horn section, and the sisters learned to mimic the tone, dynamics and sensibility of the horns, making the transitions between the vocal and instrumental segments of a song sound natural and seamless. The sisters also had to ramp up the energy to compete with the dynamics of the big bands, who provided more energetic accompaniment than the small combos who supported The Boswells—and if there’s one quality that defines The Andrews Sisters, it’s “infectious energy.”
Their cultural timing was also perfect. The Andrews Sisters reflected the never-say-die optimism of the period and saw it as their job to lift the spirits of Allied forces. They traveled to war zones and hospitals, made special recordings for Allied forces (V-Discs) and performed regularly at stateside canteens patronized by servicemen. The sisters also hawked war bonds to those on the homefront and regularly performed on Armed Forces Radio, reminding the boys on the battlefield that the good old USA with all its lonely, horny girls would still be around when they finished the job.
They filled their role as morale-builders naturally and enthusiastically, for The Andrews Sisters were anything but rebels. They were chaperoned by their parents on many of their stateside tours, even after passing legal age (Maxene’s marriage to their manager was kept a secret from mom and pop). They bought into the cultural norms of the time, hook, line and sinker. The only piece of theirs I could find that comes close to a protest song is “One Meat Ball,” an old folk tune that proved to be Josh White’s most popular song. The difference between The Andrews Sisters’ version and Josh White’s is galactic—the sisters are accompanied by a loud, brassy band and their vocal expresses zero empathy for the poor guy who can only afford a single meatball for dinner. Josh White’s versions are all quiet, haunting and empathetic—you feel the guy’s embarrassment as he is humiliated by the waiter and the mocking crowd.
The obliviousness The Andrews Sisters occasionally displayed generally tracked the obliviousness of American culture at the time. Some of their songs display a cheerful, patronizing racism, and none of their songs question the subordinate role of the female in American society. It’s hard to single them out for those retrospective sins, so when they sing something that gives me pause, I’ll point it out as an example of garden variety American insensitivity and move on.
So, yeah, let’s move on, because regardless of their lack of social consciousness, I love listening to these girls sing!
“Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” (1937): Their first big hit also had the distinction of becoming the first gold record for an all-female vocal group. Victory!
Sammy Cahn and Saul Chaplin had translated the song into English from the original Yiddish and persuaded The Andrews Sisters to give it a shot. Though they had been on the Vaudeville circuit for a while, serving as primary support for the family after their father’s restaurant failed during the Depression, the sisters were still relative unknowns waiting for the big break. With nothing to lose, they stepped into the recording studio and hit a home run on their first time at bat.
The original features a long, slow vocal preamble, a common feature in popular music of the era designed to establish the song’s basic premise. The arrangement used by The Andrews Sisters dispenses with the preamble, allowing Vic Schoen and His Orchestra to start swinging from the get-go. The use of a minor key grabs your attention immediately, setting the stage for Patty to deliver the opening lines in her appealing voice reflecting genuine feeling:
Of all the boys I’ve known, and I’ve known some
Until I first met you, I was lonesome
And when you came in sight, dear, my heart grew light
And this old world seemed new to me
You’re really swell, I have to admit you
Deserve expressions that really fit you
And so I’ve racked my brain, hoping to explain
All the things that you do to me
The chorus follows, giving millions of radio listeners their first taste of the exquisite harmonies that would define The Andrews Sisters:
Bei mir bist du schoen, please let me explain
Bei mir bist du schoen means you’re grand
I’ll tell you right now—if a guy walked up to me in a bar and said, “Baby, you’re grand,” I’d fuck him in a New York minute. It’s such a high-class compliment. On the flip side, “Baby, you’re really swell” would earn him hysterical laughter and the bum’s rush.
The pairing of The Andrews Sisters with Vic Schoen was a marriage made in heaven that would last throughout their most successful period. Vic directs the band to give it just enough gas to keep things jazzed but always eases up enough so the listener can delight in those gorgeous voices. The only quibble I have with the song is the shift to the major key in the closing line—it sounds forced, like the vows at a shotgun wedding.
“Hold Tight (Want Some Sea Food)” (1938): I love the fuck out of this song! I’d give anything to perform it on New Year’s Eve at the annual family bash but the two broads closest to me both say, “Ixnay, baby.” Maman thinks the song is silly, and while my Spanish lover nails the trills, she gets hung up on the sheer speed of The Andrews Sisters’ delivery. But damn, it’s such a great song to sing! I mean, who wouldn’t want to step up to the mike when you’ve got a set of lyrics like these in your back pocket:
Choo choo to Broadway foo Cincinnati
Don’t get icky with the one two three
Life is just so fine on the solid side of the line, rip
Hold tight, hold tight, a-hold tight, hold tight
Want some sea food mama
Shrimps and rice they’re very nice
The “Fododo-de-yacka-saki” is a poor substitute for the trilled r’s the girls use . . . its more like foo-drrrrrrrr-yacka saki, sung in perfect harmony. So—not only is it fun to sing, but the frequent trills give the tongue a nice workout that can seriously enhance your oral sex skills!
Speaking of pussy, I was shocked to learn that Sidney Bechet’s original version had been attacked by unnamed “guardians of public morals” for its “suggestive lyrics.” I certainly didn’t see or hear any suggestiveness in The Andrews Sisters’ version, but I learned that their version had been “cleaned-up.” Aha! So I went back and dug out the original, listened to it a few times and felt even more puzzled: “Where’s the sex?” I confirmed its alleged presence in Christian Bethune’s biography of Bechet, where he mentions “paroles à double sens.” Double entendres, heh? How can a song about a passion for dining on fish . . .
Hey, wait a minute! It’s the old “pussy smells like fish” tale! Well, shit, anything can smell like fish if you don’t do something to stop the bacteria from biting! I’ve licked a lot of clits in my time, and have tasted everything from cinnamon to banana, but never mackerel! What the hell do you think a bidet is for—soaking your feet?
Oh, I forgot. Americans don’t have bidets (we did, because my mother wouldn’t put out until my father installed one, but we’re a weird family). I wonder what women used back in the day to “freshen up?”
Holy fuck! I found a Smithsonian article that claimed that women of the era not only used Lysol to flush their twats, but as a birth control method! Hundreds of women died from Lysol poisoning! On a doctor’s advice, no less! Didn’t the women of that era know that they had two other available orifices for receiving sperm deposits? I guess the moral guardians blocked proper sexual training as well.
While I try to clear my head of the image of a broad in a permanent wave shoving a turkey baster loaded with Lysol up her snatch, listen to this fabulous performance supported by a bright, snappy arrangement from Vic and the boys:
“Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” (1940): The warm-up number for the much more popular “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was recorded the same year by Glenn Miller, Woody Herman and the boogie-woogie experts of the time, Will Bradley and His Orchestra. Commander Cody revisited the song in the 70’s, but the best version of them all is Ella Fitzgerald’s take on Get Happy! from the late 50’s. The Andrews Sisters’ version comes up a bit short, largely because the tempo is a little too slow and their phrasing is too precise. The best part comes when Patty takes the solo, where she beautifully integrates bends and glides that add a little heat to the recording.
“I’ll Be with You in Apple Blossom Time” (1941): What makes this sickly sweet, sappy, sentimental and sexist recording palatable are the limitations of the era’s recording technology that clearly identifies it as a 78. It was already an old song when The Andrews Sisters recorded it, and listening to it seventy-seven years after the fact gives you that peculiar, warm feeling you have when you’re browsing through an antique store—a feeling that combines charm, amazement and arrogant pity for people who didn’t know any better. Sung from the woman’s point of view, all I know is this was one dumb broad thoroughly indoctrinated in the romantic myths of the time:
I’ll be with you in apple blossom time,
I’ll be with you to change your name to mine.
One day in May
I’ll come and say:
“Happy the bride that the sun shines on today!”
What a wonderful wedding there will be,
What a wonderful day for you and me
Church bells will chime
You will be mine
In apple blossom time.
Once again, Patty adds a dash of spice in her solo; when she sings “I’ll come and say to you” she sounds eerily like Marilyn Monroe in tease mode. I think it’s nice that Patty hints of a future more earthy and satisfying than parading around in a ridiculously expensive dress designed to be worn by an alleged virgin only once, but I’m going to place this piece into the horror genre and move on . . . quickly.
“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (1941):
Pearl Harbor was almost a year away, but isolationist sentiments had begun to crumble after Hitler’s tanks made mincemeat out of the French. FDR took advantage of the shift in public opinion to push a peacetime draft through Congress, and on October 29, 1940, Secretary of Navy Frank Knox was blindfolded so he could draw the first number in the military lottery without cheating.
Hey! That guy in the back looks like Joseph Goebbels! I imagine he felt pretty comfortable with all those Aryans in the room.
Meanwhile, Tin Pan Alley got to work churning out songs with a patriotic bent, keeping them light enough so as not to offend the people who still thought Hitler wasn’t such a bad guy. This particular song was first introduced in the also light-hearted Abbott & Costello flick Buck Privates, making it eligible for nomination as Best Song at the Academy Awards, where it lost out to “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
As a French citizen, I appreciate the sentiment, but really, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” should have won in a landslide.
Now that they had a few years of recording experience under their girdles, The Andrews Sisters really nailed this one. The slight awkwardness you hear in “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” has vanished completely as the girls put their hearts, souls and boundless energies into their performance. The high-speed harmonies are seamless and the rhythm in the phrasing is full of remarkable syncopation. Once again, Patty Andrews is absolutely amazing, dropping out of the flow to buzz like a bee and growl like a tenor sax. The dynamics are marvelous, with the sisters raising the energy a notch in the last verse and closing out the song in a glorious crescendo. Bette Midler did a nice job with her cover, but her intent was nostalgic and had no grounding in the reality of her times. The Andrews Sisters were there, caught up in the excitement of a country preparing for war and committing themselves to morale-building long before the first American shot was fired. Their version will always have a sincerity and immediacy that can never be matched.
“Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)” (1942): What was it with Americans, apples and music? Didn’t they have other kinds of fruit trees? I know that certain fruits like oranges and bananas were hard to come by during the war, but why not sing about a pear tree or peach blossoms? Apples have long been considered mystical and forbidden fruits, so what were all those apples doing in supposedly Christian America? Were they really sitting under the apple tree, or doing something naughty and nice?
With war a reality and millions of men heading for Europe and the Pacific, it was a time for sad and sweet goodbyes, long kisses before the train pulled out of the station and endless promises to be true to one another. This piece, derived from a 19th Century English folk song, is all about those promises . . . to not sit under the apple tree, to not go walking down lovers’ lane, and especially not to show off all your charms in someone else’s arms. I can’t believe that women of the era were naïve enough to believe that such exhortations would keep Johnny’s prick in his pants during a war, and it’s heartening to know that some women who stayed home managed to get a little action themselves while waiting for Johnny to come marching home—action with both men and women. The book Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold explored lesbianism during WWII, and the authors found that the shortage of male partners didn’t stop the girls from having a good time:
The narrators of Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold felt that the important effect of the war was that it gave more independence to all women, thereby making lesbians more like other women and less easy to identify. Since all women were able to wear pants to work and to purchase them in stores off the rack, butches who only wore pants in the privacy of their home in the 1930s could now wear them on the streets . . . The changes associated with World War II for women in general and specifically for lesbians manifested themselves in the proliferation of lesbian bars and the extensive social life that developed around them. Many straight women even went out to the bars for an evening of fun; some of who became regulars and developed temporary lesbian relationships until their husbands returned from the war. (from outhistory.org).
The Andrews Sisters were confirmed heterosexuals, so their music is strictly G-rated and consistent with American myths about fidelity in relationships. But you know, I think it would have been nice for Johnny to come marching home, straight into a ménage à trois.
“God bless America!” cries Johnny, his pecker rigidly standing at attention.
“Shoo-Shoo Baby” (1943): This is a more interesting take on the goodbye song, with the sailor headed overseas gruffly dismissing his babe’s irrational feminine emotions, because, you know, boys don’t cry:
Seems kinda tough now
To say goodbye this way
But papa’s gotta be rough now
So that he can be sweet to you another day
Bye, bye, bye baby
Don’t cry baby
Shoo, shoo, shoo baby
Your papa’s off to the seven seas
It’s best to forget the lyrics normalizing female subservience and concentrate on the music. The preamble is notoriously sentimental, as Patty sets up the listener to expect yet another sad song about the boys going overseas. However, the intro proves to be a ruse, as the sisters open the song proper with blue note harmonies that transform sweet into sexy. What follows is an elaborate vocal arrangement cleverly mixing harmonies and vocalizations. The best part of the song is when the sisters use the shh sound to cue the band to lower the volume while simultaneously creating a syncopated high-hat effect to jazz up the rhythm. The softer passage ends with Patty shifting to trumpet mode, blaring the word “QUIET!” before launching into a near-scat vocal riff that dissolves into the chorus. “Shoo-Shoo Baby” shows The Andrews Sisters at their peak, playfully using vocals to enhance the rhythm while displaying complete command of the possibilities within the harmonic range.
“Rum and Coca-Cola” (1944): Hey! Remember Morey Amsterdam? You know, the guy who played Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show? Well, in addition to his talent with one-liners, he was also a practiced plagiarist! I’ve always thought it wise for entertainers and athletes to have an extra job on the side in case their dreams of superstardom don’t pan out.
Unfortunately for Buddy—er, Morey—his entrepreneurial efforts came up a cropper when the original author of “Rum and Coca-Cola” called him on his bullshit and sued for copyright infringement, depleting the Amsterdam checking account to the tune of $150,000. Not exactly chump change.
It gets worse. “Rum and Coca-Cola” was originally a . . . protest song! The true author, a Trinidadian gent who went by the ironic moniker of Lord Invader, wrote the song to protest the treatment of the islanders by American soldiers. Lord Invader accused the Yanks of using their comparatively ample stash of U. S. dollars to encourage women to make big bucks through prostitution, thereby destroying marriages and disrupting island culture.
Like Louis in Casablanca, I’m shocked—shocked!—that Americans could stoop so low in the pursuit of pussy.
Morey made things worse (and hung himself in the process) by eliminating all that unpleasant stuff about Yankee exploitation except for two lines at the end of the chorus: “Both mother and daughter/Working for the Yankee dollar.” The only possible explanation for keeping those lines is that Amsterdam’s pride in the power of the Almighty Dollar canceled out the microscopically small guilt he may have felt about men using power to exploit women . . . mothers and daughters.
It gets even worse. “Rum and Coca-Cola” was banned by several radio stations—not because of its celebration of female exploitation—but because a.) it mentioned an alcoholic beverage and b.) it gave Coca-Cola free advertising. This is called “multi-faceted hypocrisy,” or “layers of bullshit.” It didn’t matter—in spite of the partial ban (or because of it)—“Rum and Coca-Cola” was the best-selling song of 1945. Americans have always looked down at all those brown and black people who live south of the border, and I’m sure that the millions who bought and danced to this record found the song both humorous and validating.
So what did The Andrews Sisters have to say about their participation in cultural denigration? Patty claimed they recorded the song in a rush without thinking much about it. Long after the fact, Maxine (she finally changed her first name to reflect the standard spelling) gave a more thoughtful response: “The rhythm was what attracted the Andrews Sisters to ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’. We never thought of the lyric. The lyric was there, it was cute, but we didn’t think of what it meant; but at that time, nobody else would think of it either, because we weren’t as morally open as we are today and so, a lot of stuff—really, no excuses—just went over our heads.”
At least the sisters were honest about their ignorance and realized the errors of their culturally-compliant ways. As for the exploiters in uniform . . . they didn’t learn a goddamn thing, and continued to act from an arrogant sense of entitlement . . . in Vietnam, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and even with their own sisters-in-arms.
In the interests of social justice, here’s the Lord Invader original:
“Near You” (1947): I’m not sure why the compilers messed with the timeline here, but we’re now in postwar America, where everyone is pissed off about a nationwide housing shortage and no one thinks Harry Truman can possibly get re-elected. The Andrews Sisters celebrated the return of massively horny GI’s with this cuddly little number about happy couples. The song lacks the pzazz of their wartime numbers but meets the primary requirement for a hit song during the postwar years: you can whistle it.
“I Wanna Be Loved” (1950): The postwar version of The Andrews Sisters featured more songs with Patty taking the lead, a development that led to some bitterness between the siblings. Patty dominates this track, with LaVerne and Maxine joining the party late in the game. What’s amazing about this performance is that you’ll rarely find a song in the pre-rock area where a female vocalist so clearly proclaims she’s a bitch in heat:
I feel like acting my age
I’m past the stage of merely turtle-doving
(Be careful, be careful what you do)
I’m in no mood to resist
And I insist the world owes me a loving
I wanna be thrilled to desperation
I wanna be thrilled starting tonight
(Love me, love me, love me)
With every kind of wonderful sensation
I wanna be loved
Come on, say it! I wanna be fucked and fucked again, dammit! The world owes me a big stiff one!
“Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive” (with Bing Crosby) (1945): No less than three versions of this song hit the charts in early 1945: Johnny Mercer’s original, Artie Shaw’s instrumental version and this one featuring The Andrews Sisters with Der Bingle.
The Andrews Sisters’ version dispenses with the sermonic preamble of the original (Gather ’round me, everybody/Gather ’round me while I’m preaching’/Feel a sermon comin’ on me/The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m agin’ . . . blah, blah, blah). It’s really a lousy intro, so you’re not missing much, but it would have explained Bing Crosby’s pathetic attempt to adopt the accent of a black preacher, a choice that comes across as the aural equivalent of blackface. Patty Andrews also tries to “go black,” with equally pathetic results. The two analogies used in the song to justify optimism are taken from that fictional account known as The Holy Bible:
You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum
Bring gloom down to the minimum
Have faith or pandemonium
Liable to walk upon the scene
To illustrate his last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do
Just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said we better accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between
I can visualize the movie clip with Bing in his clerical collar singing this story to Jake, the hardened convict from Brooklyn sitting on death row. Suddenly a beam of moonlight bursts through the bars of the cell’s tiny window, angelically illuminating Jake’s previously dour mug. Slowly, Jake breaks into an idiotic smile and says. “Noah and Jonah! Hey, dose mokes are alright by me! It’s time I stopped bein’ a killjoy and—what was dat again?—ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive—yeah, dat’s the trick—tanks, Fadda!” Cut to an outdoor shot of the prison. Close in on Bing walking out of the prison, whistling the song with a rosary in his hand. Suddenly, a power surge causes the prison lights to blink on and off. Jake is burnt toast. Cut back to Bing, who pauses to give the sign of the cross, then resumes his stroll, picking up the melody at the start of the chorus. Fade. Credits.
Maybe Admiral Nimitz had this song in mind when he announced, “Well, this will be easy. The Japanese will surrender Iwo Jima without a fight.” Perhaps if he had ac-cent-tchu-ated his reconnaissance, he could have avoided a good chunk of those 26,000 American casualties. Americans have always been suckers for false optimism; seven years after the war they’d make the book The Power of Positive Thinking by another huckster preacher named Norman Vincent Peale a best-seller. A few decades after that they’d buy into Reagan’s “Morning in America” crap. As a firm believer in seeing reality for what it is, accepting both the upsides and the downsides that accompany nearly every human endeavor, I find this song both silly and offensive.
Hmm. Maybe Trump will do us some good after all. I haven’t heard anyone in America ac-cent-tchu-ate the positive in a quite a while. If the experience of Trump teaches Americans to dispense with the bullshit optimism and the we’re-the-greatest-country-ever crap and actually start dealing with their very real and persistent problems, maybe . . .
Hold it! Now I’m ac-cent-tchu-ating the positive! Well, it is a damn catchy tune . . .
“I Can Dream, Can’t I?” (1949): This is another Patty-dominated longing-for-love song, but unlike “I Wanna Be Loved,” her intentions are pure Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. If you’re suffering from the common insomnia that afflicts many a road warrior, put this song on, reach for the Gideon’s Bible in the nightstand drawer, open it to any page and I guarantee you’ll be dreaming in no time.
The Andrews Sisters probably represent a quaint bit of nostalgia to most people today, an act suited for a period in distant history whose music no longer has any relevance. I think such a view is both tragic and astonishingly ignorant. This is a group that had more Top 10 hits than Elvis or The Beatles, whose harmonies influenced every vocal group who followed them and whose impact extended far beyond their music. They may have been conventionally-oriented women but they used the opportunity afforded them by their musical talents to give people trying to dodge bullets and bombs a break from the relentless trauma of the battlefield. They were the soundtrack of their times, a soundtrack that provided hope and belief in a better future.
I hope our times wind up producing a similar soundtrack.