This week we’ve been surveying the Spaniards. But today I had an extraordinary discussion with my class at Hunter College. I teach a single class in the Theater department. It is called Singing. We sing of course, but today we had a deep discussion about race and music. In Dahomey, Shuffle Along, Porgy and Bess, Four Saints In Three Acts, Flower Drum Song, etc. and of course Hamilton. Everyone came alive. The discussion was amazing. I think the young people of NYC are wonderful and I am grateful to my students. I led off the class with this recording of Gershwin (from Porgy and Bess) by Nina Simone. Check out her Chopin/Debussy piano chops just before she lets loose with her full voice at the end.
For Song of the Day all this week, I am going to be giving you five songs, that for me, define and defy the genre, and have been not only influential to me as a composer, but have also changed my view on art as a whole.
My first selection is Jewish-American songwriter Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” as performed by the incomparable Nina Simone from her 1974 release A Portrait of Nina. Meeropol penned the initial poem in 1937, under the name “Bitter Fruit,” in reaction to Lawrence Beitler’s photograph (warning, graphic depiction of lynching) of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol eventually set the poem himself as a protest against lynchings and violence toward people of color and changed the title to what it is is today. Billie Holiday popularized the song, and it has become a part of greater American lexicon, the Library of Congress adding it to the National Recording Registry in 2002. The seminal work, written from a Jewish-American who also faced discrimination and persecution, is a stark, powerful, and biting account of this disgusting time of American history, and acts as a remembrance for those black lives lost to mob violence and racism in America, which unfortunately, still persists today, with police brutality and white supremacy marches.
The simple accompaniment, coupled with the disturbing and poignant poetry, coalesce to form a drifting and intense, penumbral piece of music, poetry, and drama in just three short minutes–a partial illumination of lynching in America. Nina and her stellar band’s absolutely iconic performance here only add to this work’s gravity. The gentle and subtle fills from the percussion create a hollow and suspended state of animation; the dichotomy between the short attacks from the piano and the incessant Rhodes organ, floating gently in the ether before exploring the full register, mazily and freely; the unexpected and specter-like entrance of the flute at the end; Nina’s text delivery, with at times precise sibilance, while at others languid freedom; Nina’s diverse timbral palate, sometimes intense and forceful, sometimes gentle and caressing; Nina’s final and dramatic descent on “leaves,” a nod to Billie’s original recording, hugely extended and taken a step further by Nina, has the force of an air-raid siren echoing through a nation, and the forced and vulnerable vibrato on “strange” from the song’s final line, a woman exhausted from an industry and society that did not want a black woman at the top of her game, recounting their atrocities: “Here is a strange and bitter crop.”
Put another way: Nina Simone’s performance of Abel Meeropol’s Strange Fruit accomplishes more raw-drama in three minutes than entire operas often manage to—a partial eclipse of the soul.
Nina Simone is simply one of the greatest artists of our time. Trained at Juilliard in classical piano, only starting to sing later in life, she embodies a true renaissance musician to me: someone who loves all genres of music and is interested in being a part of all aspects of it. This song is particularly heart wrenching, and in this version, Nina has decided to just make the recording herself and a piano, pairing down the music to her greatest strengths in order to bring a stronger light to the lyrics, which are all about the search for that perfect someone. Though the original song was done by Bill Holiday (pretty hard to top) I think any singer can meaningfully interpret the lyrics, especially the lyric:
I look around
And when I’ve found
Someone who sighs like you
I’ll know this love
I’m dreaming of
Won’t be the old love
I always knew
I have always loved this song and love how it fits so beautifully in Nina Simone’s voice. “The Other Woman,” written by Jessie Mae Robinson, has a special contemporary resonance as we all work to come to terms with the results of our recent presidential election. Hillary might be seen as the “other woman” but, to me, this song resonates in our current climate because it is a poignant narrative of otherness and how we deal with our bitterness towards outsiders of any type.
Competition between women in our culture can be brutal and a woman’s rivalry with her man’s lover can be especially bitter. Rivals in love are sworn enemies and feelings of betrayal run deep. The discovery of an affair is not a time for empathy and sisterly connection. To the contrary, the hurt deepens with our feelings that “the other woman is perfect where her rival fails.” Our emotional connection with our rivals is weak and Simone’s rendering of this song ends on a note that challenges us to find empathy no matter how much it hurts: the “lonesome queen…will end her life alone.” Surely we can all find some compassion and understanding for such loneliness.
The Trump presidency is a time for this sort of understanding. In politics compassion is a rare commodity, however, this song moves me to find love for “the other” in my life. We will all be better served if we connect rather than disconnect. This sort of understanding is difficult yet fundamental to a fully lived life. Nina Simone sings of what is true, deep and real. She gives voice to our inner fears and self doubts that we project onto others. We are all better off for finding the compassion that allows us to connect with “The Other Woman” in our lives.
“The Other Woman,” Nina Simone at Town Hall, 1959
I love Kanye. I also love “I love Kanye“. Lots of folks can’t stand him but something I fundamentally love about him is his blatant appropriation/re-adaptation of older materials. In “Blood on the Leaves” he pulls one of the most audacious moves I can think of — sampling the very famous recording of Nina Simone singing Billie Holiday’s “Strange fruit” and combines it with TNGHT’s “R U Ready“.
It’s a a miracle it works. God knows how, but Kanye’s voracious curiosity and blending is something I really love about a lot of the music on the show. It’s also Ted Hearne’s favorite Kanye song.
Kanye West – Blood on the Leaves
A vast canon of what Israelis consider to be “folk” songs were actually composed in the last 80 years by real people. Eliyahu Gamliel’s famous setting caught the attention of none other than Nina Simone, who recorded it in 1962 from the piano with her band and, fortunately for us, the cameras were running!
“Eretz Zavat Chalav” (“Land Flowing with Milk”)
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