22 Aug 2019

Prom 45: Mississippi Goddam - A Homage to Nina Simone

Nina Simone was one of the towering figures of twentieth-century music. But she was much more than this; many of her songs came to be a clarion call for disenfranchised and discriminated against Americans. When black Americans felt they didn’t have a voice, Nina Simone gave them one.

The very title of this Prom, ‘Mississippi Goddam’, taken from Simone’s 1964 album, Nina Simone in Concert, comes from her first civil rights song and was written in response to the 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, and the September 1963 bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama. The song was controversial at the time - especially below the Mason-Dixon Line, where ‘Goddam’ was expunged and boxes of records sent to record stations were returned broken in half; but, despite its almost show-tune feel it remains extraordinarily powerful half a century later. The protest songs are one part of Simone’s output, but what this magnificent Prom also amply demonstrated is that Simone’s legacy and outreach is one of astonishing breadth.

In many ways, Simone was considerably more radical - and more complex - than other American artists of the time such as Ella Fitzgerald or Dina Washington. She was just very different to them; and the voice was too. If you were looking for a parallel today, the singer who most resembles her is Diamanda Galas: Both invoke the power of their feminist credentials, both cross into multiple musical genres, and both are unafraid to confront unfashionable and overtly political causes. Simone’s music can clash with her personal life, just as Galas’s does - when Simone writes and sings in ‘Be My Husband’ the slavery she is referring to is the abuse of marriage, but while it might be framed as a very personal story it has a universal truth to countless other American women trapped in abusive marriages. Galas’s Plague Mass isn’t just about her brother’s fight against AIDS - it’s an angry, terrifying onslaught against all personal AIDS battles.

Nina Simone’s voice was a lot of things, often within the same song. It could be extraordinarily warm, almost thickened like treacle, but also have an adenoidal range to it. It was unusually intense, even in her studio recordings for Philips or RCA, though some of her live performances on disc have a magnetism that is quite unique: ‘Dambala’, which appeared in 1974, and which was heard in this Prom, is staggering for its intensity and radiance. Improvisation mattered a great deal; but what is also there is what you can’t really teach. At her greatest, there is a depth and spirituality to the voice, a poetry and soulfulness which touches the visceral. In part this must certainly have much to do with Simone the inner woman: Fiery, volatile and prone to bouts of rage. Only later was she to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

It’s perhaps not surprising, given all this, that it took two singers to do justice to the songs in this concert. Ledisi and Lisa Fischer have strikingly different voices, in both colour and range. What they share is an ability to dig deep - if some of this concert was clearly a display of vocal virtuosity of the highest order, other parts of it were about exploring the plight of black women in America, their place in wider Eurocentric cultures or about how beauty and identity relate to women of colour. Fischer generally sang these more emotionally demanding songs; the smoky, dark soulfulness of her voice mostly caught the complex place of womanhood in a divisive cultural world. Fischer’s performance of ‘Dambala’ was simply profound, taken at such a slow tempo the power of it became unbearable. I’m not sure any song during the evening was more emotionally draining or invoked the sheer horror of slavery more successfully. The deliberate tempo, not to say the way in which Fischer drew us in, made us complicit in the hopelessness of ever unshackling those in slavery.

Ledisi Mark Allan.jpg Ledisi and Jules Buckley. Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

This was a marked contrast to Ledisi’s performance of ‘I Put a Spell on You’ which had been almost cannibalistic - somewhat different to how Simone takes the song on her classic Philips recordings from 1964-5. Simone’s willingness to draw back from this song’s rawest elements, even to be restrained in it until winding up towards the end in typical belt-it-out fashion, isn’t a vision that Ledisi shares. From the very start, this was a performance that never shrunk from being a tour de force: If spells are remotely menacing this one wasn’t that, but it was simply naked with passion, inflamed with intensity and staggering in its vocal control. Predictably, it brought the house down.

From the same album on which ‘I Put a Spell on You’ appeared, Ledisi also sang ‘Ne me quitte pas’, one of the many songs which Simone wrote in French after she moved to Europe. Diction issues aside, this gave Ledisi an opportunity to bring some depth to her singing - which she did admirably. ‘My Baby Just cares for Me’ (from her very first album in 1958) was probably better sung by Fischer than by Simone herself. This is to all intents and purposes a love song, but Simone’s general unwillingness to embrace this genre (for a time she even forgot she had recorded this song) demonstrates a side of Simone’s character that could so easily interfere with her ability to communicate to audiences. Simone’s tendency to deflect her passions onto others, into feminism, enfranchisement and protest, masked an often loveless and abusive personal life, one in which she neither received nor gave much emotional feeling to others. If there’s a detached, almost matter-of-fact tenor to Simone’s version of this song Fischer sees it otherwise. ‘Plain Gold Ring’ (also from 1958) is almost callous when set beside this love song - a ballad of unrequited love, unfaithfulness and exploitation. Fischer, her credentials so woven into the mysteries of emotions and love, found herself equally at home in the complex triangulation of a love that would never be.

Fischer had also been the vocalist in two pieces which came from two very different operas - one of which Simone did sing and record, the other which she did not. Her musical range was, of course, eclectic - indeed, in her formative years she had intended to study at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia but was turned down, something which she spent the rest of the life insisting had been racially motivated. ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ from Act II of Gershwin’s opera (which she recorded in 1958) always showed Simone at her best: Tender, the voice at its most evocative and controlled. Fischer certainly had the range for it, if not quite the tenderness, but there was a feverishness to her singing which was entirely descriptive of the narrative. Much less successful - in fact a miss for me - was ‘Dido’s Lament’. Fischer’s somewhat quirky, rather gospel-inflected version of this was literally sectionalised into ups-and downs; at times it just sounded unsettling. The voice is unquestionably dark enough, it’s warm and tonally rich - I just couldn’t warm to this interpretation.

Lisa Fischer.jpgLisa Fischer and Jules Buckley. Photo credit: BBC/Mark Allan.

‘Mississippi Goddam’, sang so impeccably by Ledisi, was superb. Despite the protest elements of this song, its radical overtones, it is musically quite the opposite. Its jauntiness, elastic rhythms and incendiary beat cover a deeply invective narrative. Ledisi launched into it with an intensity that gripped one from the very beginning, but every word of this profoundly powerful song was sung from the heart. ‘Four Women’, from 1966, was sung by Ledisi, Fischer and two members of the backing group, LaSharVu. Although this song is about enslavement it is about something else: It is about identity, and especially how black women are stereotyped. Unquestionably, the version of the song here probably worked better than Simone’s own because the sense of identity shared by different women was better advocated for, by voices which were very different in colour themselves. There was a deep spiritualism to this song in this performance - but also a contrast to the African-American, or mixed-race stereotypes which so inspired Simone to write it in the first place.

It has to be said that Big Jazz playing is just one of the most exhilarating sounds imaginable. Many of the versions for these covers were written for these performers, and the sound was beyond lush. The Metropole Orkest was bewildering good. Individual solos, whether on the piano, saxophone, trombone or amplified guitar were electrifying - but the corporate sound of the orchestra was thrilling, beautifully conducted by Jules Buckley.

Of course, concerts never just end, and this one didn’t either. A roof-raising, unforgettable encore of ‘Feeling Good’ followed. Subtle it was not, less slow-burning than Nina Simone ever brought to it, but sung here to showcase two voices at the peak of their considerable powers and ranges. It brought a capacity house to their feet.

This concert is on BBC iPlayer for 30 days, will be broadcast on BBC Radio 2 on Friday 13th September and shown on BBC Four on 30 th August.

Marc Bridle

Ledisi - vocalist, Lisa Fischer - vocalist, LaSharVu - backing vocalists, Jules Buckley - conductor, Metropole Orkest.

Royal Albert Hall, London; Wednesday 21st August 2019.