As one does when life gets hard, I’ve been doing what sad people have done for decades: I’ve been singing the blues. I don’t mean this figuratively. I mean I’ve deeply embraced that musical genre in a way I never have before.
Specifically, I’ve made my own the music of Nina Simone, as much as a white girl can.
I’ve not ever really known much about her until I started binging on her life about a month ago. What a talent; a genius by many standards. An truly, truly gifted pianist who could not attend conservatory to become a classical pianist (because she was black, not because she couldn’t afford it) and so she became a jazz pianist and, just my happenstance, a singer. Now, her voice is what defines her and an era of social upheaval and change.
She had good, good reason to sing the blues.
Everything about her story feels at once tragic and triumphant. She found fame and a showcase for her talent but hated that life. She found a life and love in a man who beat her and who, controversially, she needed to beat her to feel love. She used drugs to the point of wasting away her fortune, her talent, and eventually her mind and her life. She was violent, raw, and damaged–one of the great female faces of the Black Power movement–but sang, “I Love You Porgy,” televised at the Playboy Club. When I think of this life I think of wild swings between genius and torment. Probably because what she really wanted in life was to play classical piano.
I’ve particularly become enamored with her version of “Just Like a Woman” for all the reasons already mentioned. She made a life but it wasn’t her own and she never settled into it, was always looking for that which the world wouldn’t let her have.
I’ll never truly sing this song. I have much more freedom in many ways than Nina Simone did although she’ll have much more money in her life than I ever will. Nonetheless, I hear my own story here. I am stronger than even I know. But that little girl is always there, waiting for her moment.
Ladies and gentlemen, Nina Simone.