Friday Five: Best Nina Simone Songs Every ‘Woman Of Quality’ Should Know

After I graduated college, I moved immediately to NYC, where I took any and every job, internship or opportunity in any media industry I could unearth. One of these random gigs was housesitting for a few weekends for a semi-powerful woman in publishing. A smart, active woman in her late 30s who had the energy of someone decades younger, she lived in a beautiful Park Slope brownstone — just before Park Slope began to gentrify — rode a bike to work, and dressed in the urban-utilitarian anti-chic of the late 90s that was actually quite fashionable in its refusal. She was attractive in her vivacity, open, frank and good-natured about her romantic life and its attendant pleasures and foibles, knew everyone and everything in her chosen career milieu and traveled often to Europe over weekends to see her charming younger Italian boyfriend. She had ease and confidence, at least in my young twentysomething eyes, and although I’m sure she faced her own troubles, doubts and obstacles, she seemed to barrel through life collecting people, accomplishments and curiosities.

She fascinated me, in part because I thought that her life as a professional woman with a full social and career life based in the city — back when “Sex And The City” was just a column published in the New York Observer — would likely be the one I would have at her age, with all its glamour and ambiguities: broad, energetic, unmarried, independent. But I think more than anything, I envied her cozy, glamorous apartment, full of books, pictures of her travels, some musical instruments, and many, many vinyl records. (I was also fascinated by her medicine cabinet — yes, I’m one of those people that peeks inside them — because she had only one lipstick — a red Shu Uemura one — and one bottle of perfume, Shiseido Feminite du Bois, and employed them both skillfully in her bold yet simple beauty look.

One night I was housesitting her apartment while she was there for a night — she was leaving early the next morning for JFK airport and didn’t want me to travel that early on the subway to her apartment. That night, we had kind of an inadvertent quasi-girls’ night. I say ‘quasi,’ because it wasn’t an evening drinking wine and chatting like commiserating equals — instead, she plied me with questions about men (not boys!), politics, fashion and my perceptions of everything and anything. Her questions to me had a sharpness and acuity that betrayed her former training as a journalist; her interest was less personal and more sociological. I didn’t kid myself that she cared about me; it was more like she found women my age fascinating and perhaps vaguely pitiable. But more than anything, she liked to hold forth: what she learned from when she was my age until ‘now,’ what wisdom she’d pass down. At that age, I was looking for mentors, for women who had mapped out a rich, substantial life for themselves, I suppose — and I was a willing, if slightly skeptical, audience.

She really liked playing records as we drank cheap red wine out of tumblers. (Because wine glasses were bougie, I guess.) She pulled out a Nina Simone record — she had a whole section in her record collection devoted to her. As she put it on, lining up the needle just so, she announced, “Every woman of quality has a Nina Simone phase.” As “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” played, she explained that Nina Simone was a musician that could only be appreciated once a certain maturity, experience and familiarity with sorrow was achieved. Nina was weathered by life — her voice reflected it — but with a sense of sovereignty and command that only a woman who wielded a certain level of personal power could truly ‘get.’

At the time I remember thinking this was kind of ridiculous. (I also did have a feeling like, “Wow, I’m living in some weird Whit Stillman movie right now!”) And yes, part of me thought, “Who is this skinny, privileged, well-off white woman in Park Slope to go on and on about Nina Simone?” (I had come off years of post-colonial theory in college and thought she was co-opting and romanticizing black women’s pain and experiences for her own self-image.)

But now I’m her age — although in a very different life I imagined for myself at the time. And I’ve been thinking of this moment, and perhaps other seemingly ‘throwaway’ moments that have taken on koan-like resonance with the passage of time: if a moment in your life doesn’t lead to anything or have a consequence, was it a real moment? Was it meaningful? I’ve spent a lot of time in the past looking at small moments that had larger consequences I could have never foreseen at the time. But now I’ve shifted and am now thinking over those encounters, conversations and acquaintances that seemed so rich while they were unfurling, but never quite connected to fuller friendships or extended experiences. And perhaps, in a strange way, grieving them for a sense of promise that never fully came to surface.

I think now of that phrase she used: “woman of quality.” Perhaps at the time I wrote it off, thinking it just another way to say ‘classy.’ (I have always hated applying the word ‘classy’ to women, because it also implies some women aren’t ‘classy’ — it’s often a word used by oppressors to exclude the poor, unprivileged, the have-nots.)

But now ‘quality’ seems…different. I think of the traditional scripts offered to women in life, and how it’s so easy just to fall into line. “Easy,” now that I’m in a busy lane of life, is so seductive, because life is hard and only seems to get harder as it goes. A woman of quality, perhaps, somehow pieces together a life that fits her despite the noise and the bullshit. She has the self-knowledge to know who she is and isn’t; she has eked out work that engages her, relationships that offer her a space for authenticity and connection, a home that reflects her interests. She follows her curiosities; she practices discernment in what she allows into her life, her contacts list, her closet even. (And of course, she has enough privilege to be able to have such latitude in her life to shape it in this way.)

Of course, I wonder if I’ve grown into being a ‘woman of quality,’ and perhaps my struggle in answering that implicit question is indicative that I haven’t. Beyond all the external life and role changes, additions and revisions, I’m also just older — and thinking over the way I’ve lived my life in the past and how I want to proceed forward. Sometimes I look back on that 21-year-old girl in the city — living on her wits, scrabbling for any opportunity and loving the chase of it all — and I marvel at the presumption that the world was at her feet, ready to be had. Her great optimism, her boundless energy. Her openness to experience, and her ability to seek it and make it happen for her. (Also: her ability to thrive on four hours a sleep a night and bagels for dinner for weeks on end and not feel at all depleted!)

But I also shake my head in some way because she has yet to truly learn there are many things in life outside of her control, many delusions she holds about herself and the world, many secrets in herself that she had yet to discover.

If that sounds a little sad, I guess it’s because I’m in a bit of a blue period for myself now. And, actually, it is this sadness — and not the elusive, vaguely ridiculous notion of ‘quality’ — that makes me understand Nina Simone. Because lately her songs have been my companions in this period of blue nights. I have always enjoyed Nina’s work and I think any age can access it, considering Nina’s emotional range, her stellar classical musicianship and the ability to bend songs from different genres into her own difficult to categorize style. She had a limited vocal range but her emotional expressiveness was vast, managing to be both subtle and theatrical. And maybe it’s this complexity, then, and her ability to hold emotional contradictions in song, that can only really be truly ‘gotten’ once someone’s achieved a certain level of experience in life.

I don’t know; I don’t presume to put limits on anyone’s ability to empathize. But I do know since becoming a mother, suffering from post-partum depression and just dealing with all the complications of getting older, starting a family, switching careers, reworking old dreams, confronting failures, shining off unexpected victories — well, Nina’s world-weariness feels absolutely understandable now.

Nina’s own story is too rich and impressive to discount here — a Google search will do you right — but I will say that though it wasn’t well-known while she was famous, Nina suffered from mental illness for much of her life, and wasn’t treated for it until well into her middle age. Perhaps as a result, her marriage was full of violence, and sadly, so was her relationship with her daughter.

She was obviously a troubled person for many reasons — mysterious and enigmatic, likely even to herself. But a gifted one, able to translate the full messiness, glory and despair of her particular human condition into songs that managed to connect to so many others — including women of quality, I suppose.

“Four Women”

To me, this is one of Nina’s greatest songs, from my favorite album by her, Wild Is The Wind. It is also one of her least conventional, much more of an art song than a typical pop/blues/jazz one — there is no chorus, just four verses describing in first-person narration four different African-American female characters, ranging from an enslaved woman, a mixed-race one, a prostitute and a survivor. Just listening traverse the emotional range of wistful, tired, sensual, sad to defiant, fierce and so much more in one song…it’s just such a rich song in so many ways, from the writing to the performance to the music. This is a secret history made into song form, compressed into one amazing composition.

“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”

This is one of Nina’s most well-known songs, written for her and then also covered by the Animals and so many other artists that it’s kind of ridiculous. (I’m fond of Lana Del Rey’s cover.) Sometimes I think of this song as existentialism personified — how suffering can imprison you, how our frailty can set you a degree apart from the rest of humankind, how inner grief and anger can twist ourselves in ways we’re aghast at and yet can’t stop — and how much we long to be seen, witnessed and accepted, much less understood. As someone who sometimes wonders if I’m disappearing from my own life in my worst moments, sometimes I hear this song as a prayer against spiritual invisibility.

“Mississippi Goddam”

Nina herself called this a “show tune” for a show that had yet to be written — and that show would be an African-American historical experience that isn’t poisoned by injustice, hatred, bigotry and hostility on all levels. This is Nina is at her most defiant, proud and imperious. (No one could do imperiousness like she could!) I also think there are flashes of humor and irony, which are so brilliant. It’s an incendiary call to civil rights and equality, and I think especially relevant these days. (Sadly.)

“Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair”

I don’t think a lot of people would put this under a list of “best Nina Simone songs” — a friend of mine even argued it’s a minor work for her. But I love it for its softness, vulnerability and elegance. But also for the sad but subtle twist at the end — to sing a paean to your true love, and then reveal that you’re still hoping for them to reciprocate something in some way. Eternal longing — ach, it just kills me!

“Here Comes The Sun”

Nina was an incredible, utterly singular interpreter of other people’s songs, bending the music to her own highly idiosyncratic, unmistakeable musical style. Some would argue her covers of “I Put A Spell On You” is more iconic — and I can definitely see that point of view. But I find her cover of one of my favorite Beatles song to be so inexpressibly lovely, hopeful and authentic. You just know that when she sings about that “long, cold, lonely winter,” she really knows what that means. And the fact that she can summon the lightness of spirit and the sweetness of heart to sing this despite that knowledge — what could be more “quality” than that?

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