Nina Simone, “My Father/Dialog” / Michael Boyce Gillespie

Crisis Harmonies

Sing a simple song? Comprised of four short pieces, the work of this dossier submits to a deep and wild listening that considers songs and the intricacies of their resonance. Melodious tensions. Sonic worldings. This work tunes in to what we might call crisis harmonies, an attention to the contextual measure of songs and how they might devise and evince rhythms of precarity, resistance, pleasure, and cultural history. Emily J. Lordi considers James Brown’s performance of “Please Please Please” at the T.A.M.I. Show (1964) and the politics of black work. Peter Coviello examines how songs by Phoebe Bridgers and SZA enact an accounting of patriarchal violence and accents of a #MeToo songbook. Michael Boyce Gillespie concentrates on Nina Simone’s attempt to perform a cover of Judy Collins’ “My Father” and the performativity of black disobedience. Finally, Amy Herzog offers a love letter to Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” disco historiography, and a movement.” Sing a simple song.

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Nina Simone’s first recorded attempt to cover Judy Collins’ 1968 hit “My Father” is dated February 1971. It resembles a failed take, or perhaps a warmup, or rehearsal. Listed as “My Father/Dialog,” the recording was improperly logged and subsequently lost. That is, lost until it was one of four songs discovered in the RCA vaults during the preparation of a greatest hits package devoted to her tenure on the label. The recording was eventually released in 1998 on The Very Best of Nina Simone: Sugar in My Bowl (1967-1972).1 Simone’s RCA recordings exhibit the continued shifting of her star persona throughout the 1960s from concert pianist to Civil Rights singer and beyond.2  Unbothered by musical categories or any other terms of confinement, her work on the label featured more inclusion of soul, blues, and pop in her repertoire. During this period Simone was formulating a black liberation pop songbook. 

The February 1971 date of the “My Father” recording session means that the song was recorded during the production of Simone’s Here Comes the Sun. Produced and arranged by Harold Wheeler, the album of covers was recorded during the same time as “My Father” and released later that summer. 3 Simone had been performing “My Father” in concert during this time and it would remain a part of her live catalogue throughout the rest of her career.4

My father always promised me
That we would live in France
We’d go boating on the Seine
And I would learn to dance

We lived in Ohio then
He worked in the mines
On his dreams like boats
We knew we would sail in time

A paternal tribute, Collins’ song features a woman musing on her blue-collar beginnings in Ohio. Once somebody’s daughter, the youngest sister and the last to leave home, the narrator thinks of her past life while now looking over the Parisian cityscape. The coal miner’s daughter remembers the promises made and dreams imparted by her father of better days to come. A little over a minute and a half, the recording of Simone’s cover opens with her solo at the piano and chatting with others in the studio. The echoed starkness of the production amplifies her enunciation of the song’s opening verses. Unlike the soprano intoning by Collins, Simone offers a grounding contralto in the place of soaring airiness. Settled into the melody, Simone delivers the first verse with an additional quip as an aside, “You know you don’t believe that.” The direct address to you targets the listener. Cheeky and seditious, the undercutting of the paternal pledge signals Simone’s infidelity to and ultimately her disinterest in the cover song shenanigans of simply inhabiting the place of the original protagonist. 

The contour of her vocals reaches a crescendo before the piano and her singing abruptly stops at the close of the “He worked in the mines” lyric. While holding the final note her singing dissolves leaving no trace of effort or commitment. At that, she deadpans, “I don’t want to sing this song—it’s not me. My father always promised me that we would be free, but he did not promise me that we would live in France.” This “self-interruption” becomes punctuated by her deep laughter.5 The volume of her amusement shifts from loud to low with the movement of her body rocking to and from the microphone. Sonic motion capture. She struggles to quell her joyful burst in order to continue speaking, “They’re going to take you away again.” The recording engineer patches in a query over the monitors, “How about Brooklyn?” To this, Simone replies, “No, my father knew nothing about New York. He promised me that we would live in peace, and that, maybe I’ll still get. Okay we’ll have to skip that one.” 

If a cover bears the expectation of a repetition accented by a nuance, then Simone falls short of this objective. When she says to “skip that one the song becomes ‘that which shall not be named.’ She stops herself and completes an unraveling of the song’s conceit. Dismissed as too precious a fantasy for her, she casts it aside as impossible and breaks the hold of the fantasy necessary for the song. She’s not hating on the song, she’s hating a world that limits access to the possibility of experiencing and identifying with this song.6 With the halting of her performance, she renders the world of “My Father” strange and uncanny.7 

Michael Awkward suggests that when musicians perform covers of popular songs a performative doubling occurs, “They utilize familiar songs as sonic and lyrical canvasses upon which they test, display, and promote their evolving notions of the connections between their musical and experiential selves.”8The conceptual connection in “My Father/Dialog” between Simone’s musical and experiential selves unequivocally demonstrates a difference surrounding the sentiment of nostalgia and paternal wishes. While Collins speaks to the dreams of our fathers, Simone steals away from the song’s intentional cast to speak of dreams deferred. She proffers profane rejection in the place of sacred submission to the Judy Collins original. Importantly, Simone’s acts of sonic dissent can never be strictly limited to her catalogue of protest songs alone. Her record of cover songs consistently entailed a covert transgression of genre and form. As Daphne Brooks crucially notes,

Repeatedly, Nina Simone staged a kind of performative sit-in that yielded what we might think of as a kind of socio-politicized musical crossover—one that was less about achieving conventional success on the pop charts and more concerned with barreling into putatively forbidden representational territories.9  

Never just an attempt to mimic the feelings or fortune of another, Simone’s cover tendencies assigned new values by re-stipulating the terms of the popular. 

Simone’s attempt to recast the song becomes mediated by her specificity, her contextual imbuing of another history and memory—her blackness.10 While she doesn’t want to sing the song (it’s not me) she nevertheless performs a desire and a possibility in the sense deduced by Josh Kun, “Music insists on the possibility of difference, even when that difference is something we have not yet learned how to listen to.”11 He promised me that we would live in peace, and that, maybe I’ll still get. While maybe attests to baited anticipation, the terms of peace are conditionally tied to her father’s hopes and also to a negative logic, something only recognizable as a coveted difference from the current state of things.12 They’re going to take you away again. You signals her abstracted self-awareness as she pronounces her sense of precarity. Are they those unnerved by her truth?

Her daddy may never have spoken of France, but many expatriates including Simone herself explored it as an option. An exact(ing) and exquisite read, Simone’s black performative dissent enacts a crucial and hostile witnessing. She does not simply lure the listener to feel and process a familiar melody, lyric, and rhythm newly minted by another’s tongue. Simone’s counterpose demonstrates an unwillingness to be convincing. Her black disobedience intones a double voicedness of a me and not me. I am still not free? With Nina Simone I hear fuck you and Claudia Rankine’s disquieting thoughts on going hungry and living through antiblackness, “Appetite won’t attach you to anything no matter how depleted you feel.”13 Undone by wanting on a steady diet of nothing, a performer chooses to stop.  

Nina Simone’s first recorded attempt to cover Judy Collins’ 1968 hit “My Father” is dated February 1971. It resembles a failed take, or perhaps a warmup, or rehearsal. Though, she does not fail; she refuses.14

Nina Simone, 30th October 1969 (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

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Thanks to Emily, Peter, and Amy for their work. Love, love, love.
Thanks so much to Abe Foley for all the ASAP/J goodness.

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Previous: Peter Coviello, Phoebe Bridgers, “Motion Sickness”; SZA, “Love Galore”

Next: Amy Herzog, Sylvester, “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”

Endnotes

  1. Much love to Charles ‘Chip’ Linscott, Annie J. Howell, Dana Seitler, Julie Beth Napolin, Amber J. Musser, Lisa Uddin, and Cathy N. Davidson for their comments and suggestions.  

    Nina Simone’s RCA albums were Nina Simone Sings the Blues (1967), Silk & Soul (1967), ‘Nuff Said (1968), Nina Simone and Piano (1969), To Love Somebody (1969), Black Gold (1970), Here Comes the Sun (1971), Emergency Ward (1972), and It Is Finished (1974). It Is Finished was not represented on Sugar in My Bowl.

  2. While this shift was evident throughout her live performances during the early 1960s, the first recording to make this most evident was her Nina Simone in Concert (1964) with the its’ inclusion of “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Go Limp,” “Old Jim Crow,” and her refabulation of Bertolt Brecht and Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (1928).
  3. I spoke with Wheeler last year and hope to eventually publish that conversation. While he had no memory of the recording of the “My Father” track, his thoughts on the role of the producer and his memories of working on Broadway with Melvin Van Peebles, the production process for Here Comes the Sun, and working with Simone were generous and invaluable. “…I cared so much for her doing that album. It’s an experience, I mean, if you’re working with a genius you work the way the genius likes to work.” Harold Wheeler, personal conversation, October 19, 2019. In recent years, CD and digital reissues of Here Comes the Sun have included this rendition of “My Father” as well as other songs from those February 1971 sessions as bonus tracks. These songs include a cover of Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,” a jazz jam (“Jelly Roll”), and a black speculative epic that gives the sense of an Octavia Butler tome (“22nd Century”). The 2008 release of the Tell It Like It Is – Rarities And Unreleased Recordings: 1967 – 1973 compilation included the first release of Simone’s bluesy and vaudevillian cover of Melanie’s “What Have They Done to My Song, Ma.” Recorded during the Here Comes the Sun sessions, it has also been added to subsequent reissues of that album.
  4. John Divine Waymon, Simone’s father, would die in the fall of 1972 and from then on traces of  “My Father” appeared as a part of her own autobiography when reflecting on him.. In an article for Jet Magazine that detailed her performance  in New York City at Town Hall (3.8.85) where she made her NYC concert debut in 1959 the allusions to the Judy Collins song are evident, “My father used to say to me, ‘One day, I promise you, you will see the world. You’ll go to far distant places…Along the way, you’ll have your joy and you’ll have your pain.’ I’ve experienced some of that…(54).” “Nina Simone Ends Voluntary Exile from U.S.,” Jet Magazine (April 22, 1985): 54-55.
  5. Malik Gaines uses “self-interruption” while discussing a discuss a moment during a Nina Simone live performance of “Young, Gifted, and Black” at Morehouse College in 1969: “Speaking directly to her audience, Simone ad libs a few words in this energetic performance, adding to the song’s written lyrics. Rather than ‘when you’re feeling real low,’ Simone elaborates, ‘when you’re feeling depressed, alienated and low’ framing the notion of feeling with emotional and political dimension. Typical of Simone’s performances, additional utterances lead to sections of mid-song oration, delivered here as the music continues to play…This interjection, typical of Simone’s self-interruptions, specifies a historical context for the performance” (25-26). Malik Gaines, Black Performance on the Outskirts of the Left: A History of the Impossible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).
  6. Also consider Simone’s cover of Morris Albert’s “Feelings” on stage at the Montreux Jazz Festival (July 3, 1976). Simone seditiously remediates the original by suspending the audience’s non-responsiveness that she reads as perhaps a condescending dismissal of the song as oversentimental. She sharply demands reflection from the audience during a moment when she abruptly stops playing and declares, “What a shame to write a song like that. I’m not making fun of the man. I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like that!” For more on the Montreux performance, see Danielle Heard, “‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’: Nina Simone’s Theater of Invisibility,” Callaloo, Vol. 35, No. 4 (2012): 1056-1084.
  7. Daphne A. Brooks acutely notes this in a discussion of Simone’s remediation of Brechtian aesthetics with her cover of “Pirate Jenny” that I find applicable to my reading of the “My Father” cover, “[Simone’s] work dares audiences to see and hear ‘America’ differently and on a different frequency” (182). Daphne Brooks, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play,” Callaloo 34.1 (2011): 182. For an important consideration of Simone’s Brechtian encounter in the context of cinema, see Daydream Therapy (Bernard Nicholas, 1977): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EotxDfPIEd8. Also, see Morgan Woolsey, “Re/soundings: Music and the Political Goals of the L.A. Rebellion” and Samantha N. Sheppard, “Bruising Moments: Affect and the L.A. Rebellion” in L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, eds. Allyson Nadia Field, Jan-Christopher Horak, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 171-95, 225-250.
  8. Michael Awkward, Soul Covers: Rhythm and Blues Remakes and the Struggle for Artistic Identity (Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Phoebe Snow) (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 10.
  9. Brooks, “Nina Simone’s Triple Play,” 178.
  10. I’m thinking here of Simone’s 1971 cover of the Hoyt Axton penned “The Pusher,” on It is Finished (1974). A song made famous by Steppenwolf’s version with its cautionary tones of how the love of flower gives way to dangers of spice became popular with its inclusion on the soundtrack for Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Also, keep in mind the amending historiographic force of her version of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” that distends the Appalachian, by way of Scotland, roots of the song with the embodied resignifying by a black voice and black consciousness. As an example of the worst case scenario of a cover with regard to refabulation and race, consider this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KG63owa9uio
  11. Josh Kun, Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 18.
  12. Discussing Nina Simone’s response to “What’s free to you?,” Joshua Letson-Chambers insightfully considers the conceptualization of freedom, “Black people know that freedom is mostly because we know what it is not to have it” (42). Joshua Chambers-Letson, After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
  13. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 94.
  14. A successfully recorded cover of “My Father” would be released on Nina Simone’s Baltimore (1978) for the CTI (Creed Taylor Incorporated) label. I do not cherish this version.
Michael Boyce Gillespie
Michael Boyce Gillespie is a film professor at The City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He is the author of Film Blackness: American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film (Duke University Press, 2016) and co-editor with Lisa Uddin of Black One Shot, an art criticism series on ASAP/J. His recent work has appeared in Black Light: A Retrospective of International Black CinemaFlash ArtUnwatchableFilm Quarterly, and Keywords in African American Studies.