Monday, April 20, 2009

Four Women

I was first introduced to Nina Simone's music through hip hop. Upon first hearing Simone's music I reacted in a way similar to Hughes's description above in terms of liking Simone and her music: "If you do--wheee-ouuueu! You do!"

My introduction to Simone through hip hop is representative of larger generational shifts and is inseparable from the ways that hip hop quotes, through sampling, the blues, soul, and jazz. The proliferation of these samples in hip hop has been made visible through the works of producers such as Kanye West, with his signature sped-up soul samples, and the less well known, but arguably more influential work, of producers like J Dilla, among many others.

Covers by hip hop artists of the great works of past generations is less common. Below Reflection Eternal (Talib Kweli and Hi Tek), on their seminal Train of Thought (2000) album, covers Simone's "Four Women." This is how I was introduced to Simone's music.

Here's Reflection Eternal's version, which begins a little over one minute into the last track on the album.

And here is Nina Simone's "Four Women" from the album Let It Be Me (1987). (The song was first released with the 1966 album Wild is the Wind.)

"Four Women" performed live in 1965.

"Four Women" performed live sometime in the 1960s.

In this version of "Four Women" Simone begins by emphasizing that the song is about: "Four women. Four negro women. One, each one with a different color. Each one with a different grade of hair. And one of the women's hair is like mine. Each one with a different background. Four women."

The song was greeted with some controversy when it first came out, as a 1966 article on "Four Women" published in the New York Post discusses (Click on image to enlarge):


Earl Calwell. "Nina Simone's Lyrics Stir Storm of Protest" in the New York Post (Spetember 2, 1966). Available in the "Nina Simone File," Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, New York Public Library. Clipping File, 1925-1975.

Langston Hughes. "Nina Simone" in the New York Post (June, 29 1962). Available in the "Nina Simone File," Schomburg Center for the Study of Black Culture, New York Public Library. Clipping File, 1925-1975.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Schomburg Clippings

Below I have posted a number of images that I scanned from the Nina Simone File at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Clipping File, 1925-1974.

The above is from a promotional packet released by On Records. Simone is pictured with James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry, among others. The following images include a flier for a benefit concert at the Harlem Branch of the YMCA and the cover and first page insert for one of Simone's concerts at Lincoln Center, New York City:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Four Women Lyrics

Nina Simone, “Four Women”

(This is called Four Women)

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
That’s been inflicted again and again
What do they call me?
My name is Aunt Sarah
My name is Aunt Sarah

My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me?
My name is Safronia
My name is Safronia

My skin is tan
My hair’s alright it’s fine
My hips invite you
And my mouth is like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Well yours if you have some money to buy
What do they call me?
My name is Sweet Thing
My name is Sweet Thing

My skin is brown
And my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
‘Cause my life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
Because my parents were slaves
What do they call me?
My name is Peaches

(Lyrics Based on “Four Women” from Let It Be Me)

Talib Kweli, “Four Women”

Yea, so we got this tune called "Four Women" right
Originally, it was by Nina Simone
She said it was inspired by ah, you know
Down south, in the south they used to call her Mother Antie
You know, she said no Mrs.
Just Antie, you know what I’m saying
And ah, she said if anybody ever called her Antie
She'd burn the whole goddamn place down
You know what I’m saying
But you know, we’re moving past that
You know what I’m saying
Coming into the new millenium, we can't forget our elders

I got off the 2 train in Brooklyn on my way to a session
Said let me help this woman up the stairs before I get to steppin'
We got in a conversation she said she a 107
Just her presence was a blessing and her essence was a lesson
She had her head wrapped
And long dreads that peeked out the back
Like antenna to help her get a sense of where she was at
Imagine that, livin' a century, the strength of her memories
Felt like an angel had been sent to me
She lived from nigger to colored to negro to black
To afro then African American and right back to nigger
You figure she'd be bitter in the twilight
But she alright, ‘cause she done seen the circle of life
Yo my skin is black like it’s packed with melanin
Back in the days of slaves she be packin' like Harriet Tubman
And her arms are long and she moves like song
Feet with corns, hands with callouses
But the heart is warm
And my hair is woolly
It attract a lot of energy, even negative
She gotta dead that, the head wrap is her remedy
My back is strong and she far from a vagabond
This is the back the masters' whip used to crack upon
Strong enough to take all the pain that's been
Inflicted again and again and again and again and she flip it
To the love for her children nothin’ else matters
What do they call her?
They call her Aunt Sarah

I know a girl with a name as beautiful as the rain
Her face is the same but she suffers an unusual pain
Seems she only deals with losers who be usin' them games
Chasin' the real brothers away like she confused in the brain
She tried to get it where she fit in
on that American Dream mission paid tuition
For the receipt to find out her history was missing and started flippin
Seeing the world through very different eyes
People askin' her what she'll do when it comes time to chose sides
Yo, her skin is yellow, it's like her face is blond word is bond
And her hair is long and straight just like sleeping beauty
See, she truly feels like she belong in two worlds
And that she can't relate to other girls
Her father was rich and white still livin' with his wife
But he forced himself on her mother late one night
They call it rape that's right
And now she take flight
Through life with hate and spite inside her mind
That keep her up to the break of light a lot of times
I gotta find myself
I gotta find myself
I gotta find myself
She had to remind herself
They called her Safronia, the unwanted seed
Blood still blue in her vein and still red when she bleeds

Teenage lovers sit on the stoops up in Harlem
Holdin' hands under the Apollo marquis dreamin of stardom
Since they was born the streets is watchin' and schemin'
And now it got them generations facin' diseases
That don't kill you they just got problems
and complications that get you first
Yo, it's getting worse, when children hide the fact that they pregnant
‘Cause they scared of giving birth
How will I feed this baby?
How will I survive, how will this baby shine?
Daddy dead from crack in '85, mommy dead from AIDS in '89
At 14 the baby hit the same streets they became her master
The children of the enslaved, they grow a little faster
They bodies become adult
While they keepin' the thoughts of a child
Her arrival into womanhood was hemed up by her survival
Now she 25, barely grown out on her own
Doin' whatever it takes, strippin', workin' out on the block
Up on the phone, talkin' about
My skin is tan like the front of your hand
And my hair...
Well my hair's alright whatever way I want to fix it
It's alright it's fine
But my hips, these sweet hips of mine invite you daddy
And when I fix my lips my mouth is like wine
Take a sip don't be shy, tonight I wanna be your lady
I ain't too good for your Mercedes, but, first you got to pay me
You better quit with all them questions sugar, who's little girl am I?
Why I'm yours if you got enough money to buy
You better stop with the compliments we running out of time
You wanna talk whatever we could do that it's your dime
From Harlem is where I came, don't worry about my name
Up on one-two-five they call me Sweet Thang

A daughter come up in Georgia, ripe and ready to plant seeds
Left the plantation when she saw a sign even though she can't read
It came from God and when life get hard she always speak to him
She'd rather kill her babies than let the master get to 'em
She on the run up north to get across that Mason-Dixon
In church she learned how to be patient and keep wishin'
The promise of eternal life after death, for those that God bless
She swears the next baby she'll have will breathe a free breath
And get milk from a free breast
And love being alive
Otherwise they'll have to give up being themselves to survive
Being maids, cleaning ladies, maybe teachers or college graduates, nurses, housewives, prostitutes, and drug addicts
Some will grow to be old women, some will die before they born
They'll be mothers, and lovers who inspire and make songs
But me, my skin is brown and my manner is tough
Like the love I give my babies when the rainbow's enough
I'll kill the first muthafucka that mess with me I never bluff
I ain't got time to lie, my life has been much too rough
Still running with barefeet, I ain't got nothin' but my soul
Freedom is the ultimate goal
Life and death is small on the whole, in many ways
I'm awfully bitter these days
'Cause the only parents God gave me, they were slaves
And it crippled me
I got the destiny of a casualty
But I live through my babies and I change my reality
Maybe one day I'll ride back to Georgia on a train
Folks 'round there call me Peaches
Guess that's my name.

(Lyrics based on “Four Women” from Train of Thought)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


"Feelings" live at Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976. This song is incredible to me because it is different each time I listen to it. Sometimes I focus on the beginning when Simone questions the conditions that would require her to write such a song, sometimes it is on the piano playing, and the last time I viewed it I was taken aback by the intensity of Simone's singing about midway through the performance.

Sinnerman and Get By

In this post I've included Simone's version of "Sinnerman" followed by Kweli's "Get By" that samples "Sinnerman." "Sinnerman" is an American folk song whose authorship is unknown.

After listening to Simone's version it is a bit disapointing to hear the vocal sample in "Get By" simply because the lead up to the vocal selection that is used is so specific to "Sinnerman"; it just fits, you know? I want to include this, however, because of the questions that it raises about continuity between blues music and hip hop through sampling. After the songs I discuss this a bit more.

Nina Simone, "Sinnerman" from Pastel Blues (1965)

Talib Kweli, "Get By" from Quality (2002)

The use of sampling in hip hop and specifically the continuity between Talib Kweli's music and Nina Simone's based on Kweli's reinterpretation of "Four Women" and sampling of "Sinnerman" provokes the question: is hip hop the blues? Clearly hip hop is influenced by the blues, but I'm posing the question of hip hop as the blues to suggests a way of reading hip hop within the context of Amiri Baraka's blues aesthetic. This is an area of the blog that I hope to expand upon because 'answers' to the questions that I pose above are by no means clear to me.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Hughes and the Blues

In a recording released on the Essential Hughes Langston Hughes discusses the blues in relation to his own interest in the form and its relationship to poetry. The track is titled "Commentary -- I Sort of Went..." Perhaps he can help us to think about the question: what is the blues?

Below I have an included an image of a number of clippings of articles on Simone. Of particular interest is Langston Hughes' 1962 piece on Simone in the New York Post:


Nina Simone File. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Clipping File, 1925-1974.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Harlem, Central Park Concert

Below I have posted five parts of a live performance at a Central Park festival from 1968. Following the videos I have posted a review of the concert from the New York Times, July 8, 1968 as well as an article published later that references the Central Park concert (I believe it is referencing the same concert) that will be of interest mainly because of the writers assertion: "We like her better when she leaves politics alone." I'm not sure who the 'we' is, but I can guess. The funny thing about the assertion, and from what I have learned about Simone, is that if she 'left politics alone' there wouldn't be a Nina Simone.

The first song of the day is "Four Women."


Robert Shelton. "Nina Simone Sings for 5,000 in Park" in The New York Times (July, 8 1968). Nina Simone File. Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Clipping File, 1925-1974.

Unknown author. "Drive Us Mad Nina" in New York News (c. 1980). Nina Simone File. Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library. Clipping File, 1925-1974.