Revisiting Nina and Feeling Good

Nina Simone (1933-2003), the ‘High Priestess of Soul’, performing in the 1960s.  [Credit: Hulton Archive/Getty Images]
Yesterday afternoon, I got into my car after swimming my 65th and 66th miles of the year at the Y.  On the radio: the final minutes of  “The Takeaway” , with Todd Zwillich interviewing Amira Rose Davis, a Penn State professor with an interest in the nexus of race, gender, sports and politics, about the Paralympics.  Interview completed, the outro began and the jolt of familiarity made me smile: a few measures of a woman’s languorous a cappella, then a classic vamp, then Zwillich saying, “Yeah, take us home Nina Simone, that’s our show for today…”

Feeling Good, indeed.

Although I’m a day late for International Women’s Day, it still seems an opportune time to re-post my September 2013 entry on this trailblazing woman.  In June of 2015, Netflix released a documentary (directed by Liz Garbus) about the artist, What Happened, Miss Simone?, that did a tremendous job conveying her many dimensions: her incandescent talent, her activism, her complexity and many flaws.  Her humanity, in other words.  (It was nominated for the 2016 Best Documentary Academy Award, but lost to Amy, another film about a talented, tortured artist, Amy Winehouse.)

For those of you who haven’t seen What Happened, Miss Simone?, this trailer might pique your interest:

There’s a telling moment in the film when Simone is asked, in 1968, what freedom meant to her. “It’s just a feeling,” she said.  Then a better answer came to mind.  “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear. I mean really, no fear!”

Here’s to all artists, whether their medium is music, film, theater, or other fine arts, having no fear.

My original post is below.

Nina Simone had one of music’s great, unmistakable voices: a rich, husky contralto that she deployed in often astonishing ways.  As Stephen M. Deusner wrote in a 2008 review of a 4-CD compilation, “Simone…remained at all times an incredibly physical singer. Her music was a sculpting medium. She digs at her notes, molds them into curious shapes.”

In her obituary in the Guardian (UK), John Fordham noted that, like all the century’s great American singers, Simone embodied a struggle between the optimism of a culture being born, and the pessimism occasioned by its cost.  [Her] music was about love and respect – and their opposites, particularly in relation to race. She often seemed to be considering these matters afresh in the course of a performance, and to be confronting the pleasure and distress of life so close to the edge of a parapet that an audience hung on her every move, uncertain as to whether or not she would fall off. Sometimes she did, but mostly she didn’t, unleashing performances of reckless, blazing dignity that resembled those of no other singer-pianist in the business.”

Reckless, blazing dignity: that description makes we wish I’d had the privilege of seeing her live.

Illustration by Stanley Chow

While many associate her above all with jazz, Simone crossed freely among genres–from R&B, funk, and blues, to folk, be-bop, and show tunes–and left her stamp on each one.  And it’s a show tune I’ve chosen to post here.  “Feeling Good” is from the 1964 musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd (music and lyrics by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse).  There are plenty of other numbers that would qualify as her signatures–e.g., “Mississippi Goddam”, her own composition written in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in 1963; she was very active in the civil rights movement–but “Feeling Good” is close to the first thing I ever heard her sing.  I hadn’t encountered Simone’s work at any point during high school, college or medical school.  Then at some point right around Christmas in the late 80s/early 90s, I visited a friend and his parents at their home in Winchester, MA and Nina was on the stereo.  The voice was, as noted earlier, immediately intriguing.  I was hooked.  I have no memory of what she was singing at that point, but I went out a couple of days later and bought a CD compilation of her stuff and “Feeling Good” was the second track.

This recording is full of great moments: Simone’s a cappella opening, the brass and piano vamp that starts at 0:39 (Simone is at the piano), the string arrangement, her delivery of the lines “Freedom is mine, and I know how I feel” (especially in light of her civil rights activism), the 20 seconds of scatting (of which she was a true master) starting at 2:20, and the way she belts that last ‘good’.  There’s a sultriness, a sexiness, to the performance that’s just fantastic.

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me.
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, ooooooooh…
And I’m feelin’ good.

Fish in the sea, you know how I feel
River runnin’ free, you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me,
And I’m feelin’ good

Dragonfly out in the sun, you know what I mean, don’t you know,
Butterflies all havin’ fun, you know what I mean.
Sleep in peace when day is done: that’s what I mean,
And this old world is a new world and a bold world for me…

Stars when you shine, you know how I feel
Scent of the pine, you know how I feel
Yeah, freedom is mine, and I know how I feel..
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
And I’m feelin’ good.

Trivia tidbit: Simone was an accomplished, classically trained pianist, and studied briefly at Juilliard in the early 1950s. Hired by an Atlantic City bar in 1954 to just play the piano–so she thought–she was told by management that she would have to sing as well. A fine suggestion, indeed.

[Header photo: Nina Simone, 1969.  Jack Robinson/Courtesy of Getty Image]

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