In a personal tribute, British soul singer Laura Mvula travels to New York to celebrate the Nina Simone songs that mean most to her and explore their musical roots.
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# Take me outside
# Sit in a green garden... #
'I'm Laura Mvula.
'When my debut album, Sing To The Moon, was released,
'someone said I sounded like Nina Simone.
'No-one sounds like Nina.
'But I'm hugely flattered,
'as I've always felt a deep connection with her.'
# I put a spell on you...
# Cos you're mine, yeah... #
'Nina Simone's infectious music still speaks to us,
'over half a century since she first performed her songs.
'Her influence is immense.
'She's the one who opened the door
'for generations of bold black female performers, including me.'
I remember when I was, like, 17, I was like, "What is this,
"and why do I want to cry when I hear her...wail or moan
"or chant or shout?"
'She's an artist with an extraordinary song book
'that's almost impossible to categorise.
'Her music has soul, jazz, folk and classical elements.
'Sometimes it's feel-good and joyful,
'other times it's like dark, bewitching blues.
'I've come to New York City to explore
'some of the Nina Simone songs that mean most to me and to find out
'why Nina's music still casts a spell over her listeners today.
# You're mine. #
'I'm going right back to the beginning of Nina's musical story
'and I'm starting my journey in Harlem.
'The young Nina Simone came here
'when it was the Juilliard School of Music in the summer of 1950.
'Back then she was Eunice Waymon, a gifted 17-year-old
'who aspired to become the world's first black concert pianist.
'But Eunice never completed her conservatoire training.
'To make money she started out as a nightclub singer
'and renamed herself Nina Simone.'
# I want your love and I don't want to borrow
# Have it today to give back tomorrow
# Your love is my love, there's no love for nobody else... #
'In 1957 Nina recorded her first album, which captured
'the rich variety of songs and styles
'she'd been playing in the clubs.'
'Like Nina, I studied classical piano, and to me
'it's clear from her arrangements of songs like Love Me Or Leave Me
'that she owes as much the baroque music of Johann Sebastian Bach
'as to any jazz or blues performer.'
I can hear so much how she's influenced by Bach.
It's his melodies and the way that she's using the fugue idea,
and so the fugue idea is when we have one tune on top
and maybe there's another tune that comes underneath, and they're
working independently and somehow working together at the same time.
And I've transcribed just a little bit of the part where she's
Only four bars, because my hands can't handle what she does.
# I want your love, I don't want to borrow
# Have it today to give back tomorrow
# Your love is my love
# There's no love for nobody else. #
Once she's sung the first verse and the chorus
then she's free with this improvisation.
What's even more awesome is that she takes risks with this.
She knows all the rules but then she completely abandons them.
# For nobody else. #
'I've come to Greenwich Village to meet someone
'who tuned in to Nina's distinct musical wavelength.
'Al Schackman was her musical director,
'guitarist and friend for 46 years.
'Nina and Al would play many songs on many stages together
'but the Village Gate was where they played the most.
'The very first song they played together
'was also the title track of Nina's first album, Little Girl Blue.'
# Sit there
# Count your little fingers
# Unhappy little girl blue... #
'It's a record very dear to my heart.
'I've covered the song and I'm going to play it with Al today.'
# Sit there
# And count the raindrops
# Falling on you
# It's time you knew
# All you can ever count on
# Are the raindrops
# That fall on little girl blue... #
'I love the way she uses the countermelody of Good King Wenceslas
'as if it were a Bach fugue.
'Mixing up her influences
'made Nina's arrangements complex and exciting.
'She played popular tunes like a classical pianist.'
# Blue boy
# To cheer up
# Little girl blue. #
-Thank you, sir.
-Oh, it's chills being back here in this...
-Really? I bet.
-In this place. I never played the song again...
-..since Nina, until now.
-And it's, like, whoa!
And she never told me what she was going to play, didn't
look at me, no key or anything, and she started in on the introduction.
-To Little Girl Blue.
And I started to play the counterpoint with her and then
she looked up at me and I looked down at her
-and we were off and running.
And it was...it was fabulous.
# We come
# And we go... #
It just seemed to be organic, just natural.
We were like telepathic together.
'Nina and Al's musical relationship was for the most part harmonious
'but from the beginning Nina demanded
'only the best from her band.'
Suddenly she would decide to change the key, and she would just start.
You know, instead of playing E flat she'd start in E,
-and I knew she was in E.
-We both had perfect pitch.
I'd be standing, usually on a riser, above her piano on that side,
and the audience would be out here,
and the bass player would be there,
the drummer there and percussion...out there.
-And I would just quickly say, "E!"
-God help us if we stumbled and made a mistake.
-She was a taskmaster.
And if one of us just goofed something in the arrangement of
anything we did in rehearsal,
we'd have to repeat the piece ten times.
-Because that's how she was taught
when she was a youngster by her piano teacher.
-You know this one?
-HE PLAYS "MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME"
# My baby don't care for shows
# My baby don't care for clothes
# My baby just cares for me!
# My baby don't care for
# Cars and races
# My baby don't care for
# Don't care for high-tone places
# Liz Taylor is... #
'Within her repertoire, Nina Simone effortlessly covered
'everything from ballad to blues, show tune to pop song.
'In her hands they were transformed into extraordinary,
# My baby don't care who
# Who knows
# My baby just cares for me. #
# My baby don't care for shows... #
'Nina arranged her cover of My Baby Just Cares For Me
'as a filler for that same debut album in 1957.
'But 30 years later this long-forgotten song
'became a worldwide hit,
'inspiring a new generation of fans to discover her music.
'From TV adverts to dance floor remixes,
'Nina's songs have surrounded us ever since.'
# My baby just cares
# For me. #
'So what is it about Nina's music that makes it so hard to resist?
'Underneath her grooves, showmanship and classical stylings,
'there's something else that gives her songs deep emotional impact.'
# Listen here
# Nobody's fault but mine
# Nobody's fault but mine
# I said, if I die and my soul is lost
# Hey! Nobody's fault but mine... #
'Nina's mother was a Methodist minister.
'She had her musically gifted daughter
'playing the opening hymn in church from just four years old
'and leading the congregation at the piano from the age of five.
'In her mother's eyes,
'Eunice had a gift from God that had to be shared.'
# Well, if I die and my soul is lost
-Nobody's fault but mine
# Nobody's fault but mine... #
We were all born in the Depression
and grew up in the South in the '30s and '40s,
and what life was like then formed us.
We're around the same age and we both are from North Carolina.
'Bill Eaton is a musical arranger who's worked with
'Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack and Bill Withers,
'and he shares the same Southern gospel roots with Nina.'
So what do you think Nina took from her church upbringing,
the gospel music that surrounded her as a kid?
Playing in church, you know, you sit there and you listen,
and when the preacher gets to a certain level of fervour
-you start doing stuff on the piano.
And he says, "Yeah!", you go...hmmm. He says, "Yeah!", you go... You know.
And then people...you know, the people respond to that,
and pretty soon you've got a maelstrom of emotions going on.
-And you lit the match.
Gives you a sense of power, and you never forget that sense of power.
You can bring that into any arena if you're a performer.
'Decades later, the lessons she learnt in church would
'inspire Nina to create her version of an old spiritual
'that remains one of her most popular songs today.'
# Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
# Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
# Where you gonna run to
# On that day?
# Well, I run to the rock... #
'Sinnerman... Nina made it sound like gospel song.
'She brought her genius to it
'and applied what she learned in church to the music.
'What she did to the song was,
'she just made it a vehicle for her creativity, that's all.
# Lord, Lord, Lord
# On that day
# I said, rock
# What's the matter with you? #
'Like Nina, I grew up with gospel music.
'Once it's in your blood it stays with you,
'and I'm still drawing on its influence.'
# So I ran to the devil
# Devil was waiting I ran to the devil
# Devil was waiting I ran to the devil, oh, oh, oh
# Lord, on that day... #
'And the call and response that we hear in the song,
'it's not a thing that's a... roots thing that came up,
'that she heard around her.
'That's totally her invention.'
# Oh, sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
# On that day... #
You can take a choir
and have them perform it the way she performed it...
-..and it becomes powerful.
In the same way that it became powerful when she performed it.
-That's a real gift if people do that.
By the time she went out to the world, she'd already
made people get in the aisle and dance around like that, so she...
-She knew she could do it.
-She knew what she was doing.
Oh, she was always confident in that way.
'Nina's background in gospel gave her an exceptional ability
'to improvise and connect with her audience.
'It made her a compelling and unpredictable stage presence.
'Nina lived to perform. As she herself said...
'If I had my way, it would just take off.
'If a band could be there right then and start playing
'and everybody start dancing, oh, wow, what a happening.
'What a happening.'
'As the 1960s took hold and Nina grew as a performer, she would use
'her talent for rousing an audience in a new and radical way.
'And it was in 1963 that Nina was first spurred into action.
'First there was the murder of Medgar Evers, a leading light
'in the civil rights movement, at the hands of a white man.
'Then four black schoolchildren were killed when Ku Klux Klan members
'threw dynamite into a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama.
'Nina Simone was determined to fight back.'
She just went ballistic,
and wanted to buy a gun and go down South and just kill people.
You say, "You don't know how to shoot a gun."
-She says, "I can learn."
She once said, "All I have to do is point and pull the trigger
"and I know what I'm pointing at."
And we all said, you know, "Why don't you just turn that into...
"you know, write about it, tell the story,
"do what you can, what you know how to do."
# Hound dogs on my trail
# Schoolchildren sitting in jail... #
'Instead, Nina chose music as her weapon,
'and, fired up with rage, wrote both the words and the music of a song
'for the first time in her career.'
# God have mercy on this land of mine
# We all gonna get it in due time
# I don't belong here, I don't belong there
# I've even stopped believing in prayer
# Almost, but not quite... #
-She wrote that song, like, in minutes, almost.
Yeah, and we performed it for the first time here at the Village Gate.
Depending on her mood or what she had been thinking about,
she would change some phrasing, drop a different line in, especially
during the interlude, where, you know, we're just playing...
Right. So keep that going.
And that's where she'd do...
Er, "This is a show tune but the show hasn't been written for it yet.
"Did you hear about what happened in North Carolina?
"It's just another goddam example of Mississippi Goddam,
"Carolina Goddam, the whole South Goddam."
-And that's how she would...
-She would just go...
-So could we try a little bit of Mississippi Goddam?
-Yeah, you've got the vamp, you...
-OK, well, I'll do my best.
-Or I'll do it, if you want.
-Yeah, yeah, you start.
# Alabama got me so upset
# Tennessee make me lose my rest
# Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
# Can you see it... #
'Mississippi Goddam is a song that makes me
'want to sing along with its catchy show-tune rhythm.
'But what makes it so amazing are the bitter,
'electrically charged lyrics that she places on top.'
-# Well, that's just the trouble
-# Mass participation
-# Do things gradually
-# Will bring more tragedy
# Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it?
# I don't know... #
-What was the response from the audience?
I mean, there really wasn't a song like that,
dedicated so strongly and with such strong statements, like,
"You don't have to live with me, just give me my equality."
# You don't have to live next to me... #
'Releasing Mississippi Goddam was a bold decision for Nina.
'Crates of her records were broken in protest.
'Nina's bravery would cost her the loyalty of much of her white audience.
'But in 1965, when Martin Luther King led thousands
'marching 54 miles over five days for black voting rights in Alabama
'and the South, Nina couldn't stand watching the unrest
'unfold from the sidelines and decided that she and Al would
'take the firebrand song to an audience who would appreciate it.'
We actually were playing at the Village Gate and we flew down from there
and we had to go through the lines of state police that were
surrounding the seminary,
where the big concert was going to happen on the soccer field.
Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, erm, Leonard Bernstein,
and we had to cross those lines to get in to perform.
# Can't you see it, can't you feel it?
# It's all in the air
# I can't stand the pressure much longer
# Somebody say a prayer
# Alabama's got me so upset
# Selma makes me lose my rest CHEERING
# And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam... #
'In Mississippi Goddam, Nina Simone proved herself a brilliant
'and original songwriter, who could write powerful music
'and lyrics that helped inspire and agitate her generation.'
# I want a little sugar... APPLAUSE
# In my bowl... #
'But Nina didn't only lend her voice to the struggle.
'She also expressed the new-found female confidence
'and independence of the era in a very personal way
'with her versions of songs like I Want A Little Sugar In My Bowl,
'originally performed by blueswoman Bessie Smith.'
The blues singers are the most famous performers
in the African-American tradition at the time
but they're also making us think about black women's sexuality,
not in the stereotypical way of being hypersexual
but about women who have sexual agency, who have sexual desire.
# I put a spell on you... APPLAUSE
# Cos you're mine, yeah
# I don't like the things you do
# I ain't lyin'... #
There's something about Nina Simone's style
that I think most audiences would think is quite haunting,
that we're left with this spell.
But I think Nina Simone, and I can't think of too many artists who can
do this, but she brings vulnerability and defiance together.
# They say you're mean and evil... #
And I think that actually is something that
artists are trying to find and articulate for themselves today.
Part of that I think is what the blueswomen gave her,
and then she kind of adapts it, because with the 1960s
there's this vibrant feminist movement and women really
are redefining what it means to be sexual and what it means to be free.
And so even though she didn't self-identify as a feminist
she's also shaping that movement and part of that movement as well.
'I've come to meet Camille Yarbrough,
'an activist, writer and musician.'
-How are you?! Hi!
-Come on in, come on in!
'Camille knew and was inspired by Nina
'and I want to talk to her today
'about my favourite Nina song, Four Women.'
'For me, it's her most striking and original composition, where
'she binds together all her themes
'of sexuality, race and emancipation.'
# My skin is black
# My arms are long... #
'Here, Nina Simone dared examine
'the troubled history of black female experience
'in an America that was still dealing with the legacy of slavery.'
# And my back is strong... #
# Strong enough to take the pain
# Inflicted again and again
# What do they call me?
# They call me Aunt Sarah
# My name is Aunt Sarah... #
What does this song mean to you?
All of these lyrics are disturbing to me. "My name is Aunt Sarah."
You ain't no aunt to this family, you know what I mean?
But when you're elderly they would refer to aunt and uncle,
as if you belong to the family of the slaveholders.
# My father was rich and white
# He forced my mother late one night... #
If people don't know what these lyrics mean, they should examine it.
Again, Nina Simone showed her strength,
her wisdom and her courage.
There's the obvious expression of deep pain,
and, like you say, it's not a comfortable song.
But, for me, I remember thinking when I first heard it, I'd never
heard a song before talking about four women of different shades.
-There you go.
-So this to me was revolutionary.
# Whose little girl am I?
# Why, yours, if you've got some money to buy... #
It had that longing that you hear in old spirituals.
# Mmmmm-mmmmmmmm.... #
-You know, they just go on and on.
CAMILLE IMPROVISES MELODY
You can feel it, you can hear it.
# Sweet Thing... #
So she always goes back to spirituals and gospel,
and that's in most of her music,
whether it's an upbeat or not it's still...it's still there.
-I think it's probably the rawest female...black female vocal...
-It's in my head, I'll never forget that...sound.
'Nina's songs shine a spotlight on all kinds of human pain
'and experience and are often full of sadness, anger and longing.
'But some of her most well-loved and famous songs are also hopeful,
'uplifting and irresistibly feel-good.'
She had to say, "We experience this but we go above it."
-"Birds in the sky, you know how I feel.
"A breeze going by, something, you know how I feel."
It was a difficult period, in which she nourished us,
through which she nourished us.
# Birds flying high, you know how I feel
# Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
# Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel
# It's a new dawn
# It's a new day, yeah
# It's a new life for me
-# And I'm feeling good
# Fish in the sea
# You know how I feel
# River running free
# You know how I feel... #
Nina Simone's music stirs the soul, restores, challenges,
nourishes, uplifts and comforts.
'She opened the door for the black female songstress and voice.
'Here is an artist who used the broadest palette -
'gospel, blues, classical and pop.
'She created a musical style to express political anger,
'personal pain and her desire for freedom.'
I don't know if there'll ever be another artist like Nina
but I'm thankful that the power of her legacy
and the power of her voice lives on.
# Oh, 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
# I'm feeling good... #
Over half a century since she first performed her songs, Nina Simone is more popular than ever. From Sinnerman to Mississippi Goddam, Feeling Good to My Baby Just Cares for Me, she is an artist with an extraordinary songbook that mixes jazz, blues, soul and even classical.
British soul singer Laura Mvula travels to New York to celebrate the Nina songs that mean most to her and explore their musical roots. Performing with a Harlem gospel choir, uncovering the influence of Nina's classical training and meeting Simone's long-time guitarist Al Shackman, Laura presents a personal tribute to the genius of her musical hero.