Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Nina Simone


Sonny Rollins once said that if Nina Simone was a jazz singer, then he didn’t understand jazz. Nevertheless, a lot of her obituaries call her a jazz singer. They also refer to her as singing pop, cabaret, rhythm and blues, soul, blues, classical art song and gospel.

She had a different idea. “If I had to be called something, it should have been a folk singer because there was more folk and blues than jazz in my playing.”

Maybe that’s true of her piano playing. But her singing, not her playing, defined her. Mainly, it defined her as Nina Simone, sui generis. But if you need a label, try this one: Freedom singer.

The term describes her militant presence in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the way that she sang, both within and without the limits of predictable cadence and melody. More than that, it describes what she sought. Like her good friends James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone made art about wanting to live like a free person. This certainly didn’t mean to live-or to sing-like a white person or for that matter, an American. It meant living, and singing, like a person who not only counted on the promise but lived in the actuality of the American Dream.

Personally, she could be haughty, with audiences as well as everyone else, but once the music started, her hauteur showed its real face: an unshakable, irrevocable commitment to her own self-worth, and by extension, ours, too. This is what Aretha Franklin and everyone else found in songs like “To Be Young Gifted and Black” and it’s what let Simone set “Mississippi Goddamn,” otherwise a “protest” song, to a jaunty cabaret arrangement and fill it with jokes that turn out to be time-bombs. The shadow that she casts across her blues, especially “Noobdy’s Fault But Mine” and “Work Song,” represents not so much what it is to live without freedom as what it is to live with the fear of losing the sense of self that allows freedom to exist.

“I wish I knew how it would feel to be free,” she sang, so delicately that it sounds like she feared the concept would shatter from merely being uttered out loud. But she ends that song on an entirely different note: “I sing ’cause I know how it feels to be free.” In that moment, so does the listener. This tension animates virtually every one of the songs she sang and all of the songs she wrote, starting with “Four Women,” which speaks like a condensed Toni Morrison novel twenty years early.

Her classical training made her wish that she could convey that spirit simply by singing her songs. If you hear her sing “I Put a Spell On You,” “I Loves You Porgy” or “To Love Somebody,” you know she could-she still stands as the greatest interpretive singer of the ’60s, pouncing on songs by the likes of Dylan, Leonard Cohen, George Harrison and Randy Newman with cat-like grace and singularly personal insight. (This week, I find many of them too painful to listen to.) But once Hansberry convinced Simone that joining in the Movement would not diminish but enhance her work, she took off in the opposite direction. No singer-no artist–committed herself or her work to the Movement more fully than Simone, and she followed its twists and turns from the days of Freedom Marches to the less hopeful time of identity politics that lay just the other side. I Put A Spell On You, one of the great music autobiographies, spends at least as much time conveying her political attachments and adventures as talking about her music career or personal life.

Simone took the treacheries with which the Movement it ended so deeply to heart that she went into exile, first in Liberia, then in Barbardos, finally in the south of France. She returned occasionally, always written up as a self-involved diva but, perceptive as always. She found her native country’s racial and political malaise, she said in 1996, “worse than ever.” In that respect, what a mercy that she will not, as planned, tour the U.S. this spring.

Nina Simone hadn’t made an important record or written a well-known song since the early ’70s, so in a sense her absence will not be widely felt. But she had a song about that, too. “I’ve forgotten you, just like I said I would / Of course I have / Well, maybe except when I hear your name.” The words are Hoagy Carmichael’s. The sentiment is hers. And ours.

DAVE MARSH coedits Rock and Rap Confidential. Marsh is the author of The Heart of Rock and Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles.

He can be reached at:


Dave Marsh edits Rock & Rap Confidential, one of CounterPunch’s favorite newsletters, now available for free by emailing: Dave blogs at

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 21, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Trump’s Naked and Hillary’s Dead
John W. Whitehead
American Psycho: Sex, Lies and Politics Add Up to a Terrifying Election Season
Patrick Cockburn
13 Years of War: Mosul’s Frightening and Uncertain Future
Pepe Escobar
The Aleppo / Mosul Riddle
David Rosen
The War on Drugs is a Racket
Sami Siegelbaum
Once More, the Value of the Humanities
Mark Hand
Of Pipelines and Protest Pens: When the Press Loses Its Shield
Michael Hudson
The Return of the Repressed Critique of Rentiers: Veblen in the 21st century Rentier Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Drumbeats of Anti-Russia Confrontation From Washington to London
Howard Lisnoff
Still Licking Our Wounds and Hoping for Change
Brian Gruber
Iraq: There Is No State
Peter Lee
Trump: We Wish the Problem Was Fascism
Steve Early
In Bay Area Refinery Town: Berniecrats & Clintonites Clash Over Rent Control
Peter Linebaugh
Ron Suny and the Marxist Commune: a Note
Andre Vltchek
Sudan, Africa and the Mosaic of Horrors
Keith Binkly
The Russians Have Been Hacking Us For Years, Why Is It a Crisis Now?
Jonathan Cook
Adam Curtis: Another Manager of Perceptions
Ted Dace
The Fall
Cathy Breen
“Today Is One of the Heaviest Days of My Life”
Susana Hurlich
Hurricane Matthew: an Overview of the Damages in Cuba
Dave Lindorff
Screwing With and Screwing the Elderly and Disabled
Chandra Muzaffar
Cuba: Rejecting Sanctions, Sending a Message
Dennis Kucinich
War or Peace?
Kristine Mattis
All Solutions are Inadequate: Why It Doesn’t Matter If Politicians Mention Climate Change
Jack Rasmus
Behind The 3rd US Presidential Debate—What’s Coming in 2017
Ron Jacobs
A Theory of Despair?
Gilbert Mercier
Globalist Clinton: Clear and Present Danger to World Peace
James A Haught
Many Struggles Won Religious Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Dear Fellow Gen Xers: Let’s Step Aside for the Millennials
Winslow Myers
Christopher Brauchli
Wonder Woman at the UN
James McEnteer
Art of the Feel
Lee Ballinger
Tupac: Holler If You Hear Him
Charles R. Larson
Review: Sjón’s “Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was”
October 20, 2016
Eric Draitser
Syria and the Left: Time to Break the Silence
Jeffrey St. Clair
Extreme Unction: Illusions of Democracy in Vegas
Binoy Kampmark
Digital Information Warfare: WikiLeaks, Assange and the US Presidential Elections
Jonathan Cook
Israel’s Bogus History Lesson
Bruce Mastron
Killing the Messenger, Again
Anthony DiMaggio
Lesser Evil Voting and Prospects for a Progressive Third Party
Ramzy Baroud
The Many ‘Truths’ on Syria: How Our Rivalry Has Destroyed a Country
David Rosen
Was Bill Clinton the Most Sexist President?
Laura Carlsen
Plan Colombia, Permanent War and the No Vote
Aidan O'Brien
Mao: Monster or Model?
David Swanson