Nina Simone, Duende & Pastel Blues
Nina Simone’s Pastel Blues is a true embodiment of duende — the rare depth and darkness that impels her work.
Her distinctive warble permeates thousands of movie soundtracks, hip hop samples and advertisements, let alone the countless personal moments by which people demarcate their lives. This omnipresence allows us to forget who Nina Simone was, and the outright value of her music. For the streaming generation, knowledge of such an artist is limited to “top hits”; on some Spotify, Sunday Mood playlist. Or worse, the songs will only wriggle into the brain from various attempts to sell Coca-Cola, Seat Atecas, Renault Clios, Volvo XC90s, Fords, Apple Watches, Chanel №5, Warehouse discount clothes, Virgin Flights, HTC Phones, Jockey underwear and Behr Paint.
Most egregious among these is the Muller Light yoghurt advert, inescapable for anyone sentient in early 2000s UK. It uses her 1968 song I Ain’t Got No, I Got Life, but only the second, I Got Life half; carving it off entirely from its I Ain’t Got No essence. In its truncated form, the song sounds like a free-wheeling celebration of life and limb: Got my hair, got my head / Got my brains, got my ears / Got my eyes, got my nose / Got my mouth, I got my smile. Yet the missing section is a lengthy condemnation of segregated American society, where disenfranchised black people had been given nothing to cling to: Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture / Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schoolin’ / Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name /…Ain’t got no god / Hey, what have I got? / Why am I alive, anyway?
Yes, the song contains positivity in tune and verse, but stripping the darkness from Simone’s work also strips away its incandescent light. It would be like taking Rodin’s Gates of Hell and shrouding everything except the seemingly peaceful thinker at the centre; or cutting the lightbulb from the top of Picasso’s Guernica and presenting it as a bright, merry, representative segment. Or a millionaire DJ taking Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream Speech and turning it into a dance track during race protests and a global pandemic. But surely not even David Guetta would do that.
The reduction of such a deliberate and profound artist to commercialised snippets is saddening. In Simone’s case this is particularly true because of the highly unusual, powerful darkness that clutches her music. She has something rare. In Spanish, it is known as duende.
Rooted in Iberian cultures, duende derives from “duen de casa”, meaning “possessor of a house”. Originally the superstition of a dark, goblin-like spirit, it is now the concept of impassioned, death-endorsing, creative invention; typically associated with the performative aspects of Flamenco. In that context, poet and playwright Federico García Lorca describes its contemporary meaning (in his 1933 Buenos Aries lecture, Theory and Play of the Duende), as the “buried spirit of saddened Spain”.
As a guitar maestro explained to him, “the duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet”. Lorca quotes others, one, after listening to Paganini’s violin, identified it as, “a mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained”; or another, upon hearing Manuel de Falla perform Nocturno, proposed that, “all that has dark sounds has duende”. In Lorca’s own words:
For every man, every artist called Nietzsche or Cézanne, every step that he climbs in the tower of his perfection is at the expense of the struggle that he undergoes with his duende. Not with an angel, as is often said, nor with his Muse…
…With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.
Nina Simone embodies duende.
It exists not only within her more explicit protest songs, born of the Civil Rights movement, but is present in everything she did — a ferocity, fragility, sadness and authenticity that claws its way up her throat and flings itself from her open mouth. It’s an otherworldly channelling of something very few can access, but which audiences pray to feel. With music so steeped in darkness, using it to gleefully sell products is a comedy — a joke on the shamelessness naivety of consumers and marketeers — as well as a tragedy.
A Brief History
Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933 and raised in Jim Crow-era North Carolina, Simone was ambitiously desirous of becoming a concert pianist — an uncommon career path for a young black girl at the time. Despite obtaining the ability to do so, she was instead funnelled into performing a mixture of jazz, gospel, soul and folk. And blues, in every shade. Her voice — ostensibly untrained — was burnished in the fire of necessity: if she wanted to earn money in the clubs, she had to sing as well as play piano. She electrified audiences, but remained persistently dissatisfied with how she was received and perceived:
It’s only normal to want acceptance from one’s own country for one’s gifts God has given you. I’m tired of begging for it. It took me 20 years of playing in clubs, in nightclubs, on the concert stage doing all these records to get a decent, real accurate review of my gifts by the New York Times… It was the first time I had been compared to Maria Callas as a diva. All before that I had been labelled a jazz singer, a blues singer, High Priestess of Soul, which… I am not sure what that is. I have studied piano 18 years! So yes I’m tired. I’m too old to keep asking for love from the industry. (Nina Simone, 1984)
Elevated by activists and aficionados alike, yet shunned by the industry at the height of her popularity after vigorously speaking out for black rights (see: Mississippi Goddam), she evolved as an artist in parallel with the revolution of television; first appearing in grainy monochrome and then in saturated technicolour. In the 12-year period between 1959 and 1971, she released 16 studio albums. In the years that followed, before her death in 2003, she released just four more.
These days, the idea of albums is virtually defunct, Drakefied to an incoherent heap of songs occasionally “dropped” like laundry, to be worn or discarded at the listeners behest. But as with other great artists, if the extent of Simone’s depth and duende is to be appreciated, it is essential to listen to her albums — the home of her authorship.
Pastel Blues is a nine track, 36-minute LP, mainly of covers and blues standards. It was released in October 1965, eight months after Malcolm X was assassinated, seven months after Bloody Sunday in Selma, and two months after the Voting Rights Act became law. Arguably, it arrived at the height of the movement. Nina Simone was 32. Just imagine.
Although the title suggests something soft and light, underneath the label, the substance is preternatural. As you listen, watch the image on the cover transform from a gentle gaze into a pointed glare; a stare in stereo. Altogether, it is a marvellous enunciation of Nina Simone’s darkness, with which she writhed in body, mind, and soul to give us some of the most memorable artworks of the 20th century. Pastel Blues gives her duende its due.
Be My Husband
It opens with Be My Husband, featuring lyrics incidentally written by Simone’s own husband (and manager), Andrew Stroud. Slightly off-kilter, echoey, four-beat stamping and clapping, heightened by the tight splash of a high-hat, introduces a languid, yet driving pace. With purity of purpose, Simone’s voice drawls intensely into her opening repeated demand: Be my husband and I’ll be your wife / Love and honour you the rest of your life.
It suggests a woman pleading for the hand of her lover, committing to do all he would expect of a wife: If you want me to cook and sew / Outside of you there is no place to go. In return, she asks him only to curb his wandering eye: Stick the promise man you made me / That you stay away from Rosalie, yeah. This is presumably the intended (somewhat biased) perspective of the lyricist. But the way Simone sings it, with improvised shrieks dropping into deep, bassy groans, something quite different is suggested.
At this point, Simone was four years into an emotionally and physically abusive marriage with Stroud. Knowing this, it has far more resonance to picture her in a kitchen, staring down a boorish, unsatisfactory, and unsatisfying man; stomping on a linoleum floor, and throwing him a powerful, sacred ultimatum — give me what you promised. To imagine it otherwise is to imagine how Ed Sheeran might perform it — with the frivolousness of a millennial wedding on a sunny day in Surrey, and all the stamping, clapping vigour of a gaggle of giggling, inebriated aunts.
Furthermore, Be My Husband is effectively a re-worked chain gang song from the segregated south — a version of Rosie by the Inmates of Parchman Farm Penitentiary recorded in 1947 Mississippi by ethnomusicologist, Alan Lomax (and notoriously sampled by… well, well, well… hello again, David Guetta). The original lyrics ring out: Be my woman, gal, I’ll be your man… Stick to the promise girl that you made me / Won’t got married til’ I go free. Even aside from Simone’s interpretation, its genesis as a song of imprisonment immediately gives it a grimmer tone.
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out
As it bows to track two, Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out, the heavy opening of the album is extended. A blues standard written in 1923, it was popularised by Bessie Smith’s 1929 recording and re-introduced to a new audience by Eric Clapton, who performed it throughout his career. Sam Cooke, Otis Reading, Janis Joplin, Bobby Womack, John Lennon, Derek and the Dominos and Duane & Gregg Allman all put their spin on it, with wildly varying degrees of quality, duende and notoriety.
It begins deceptively upbeat: Well once I lived the life of a millionaire / spending my money I didn’t care / Taking my friends out for a mighty good time. Simone’s version is no different as she lightly pads major key piano chords, but what immediately sets her rendition apart is the tremble in her voice. It sounds like she is singing through tears, not least when the song reaches its sobering bridge: Nobody wants you / Nobody needs you.
In Simone’s case, the song became painfully prescient. Following her fall from grace within the music industry, she left for Barbados in 1970, where she had an affair with then Prime Minister, Errol Barrow. Her subsequent divorce from Stroud limited access to her income, which he, as her manager, controlled. Also, due to an arrest warrant for taxes she withheld in protest at the Vietnam War, Simone was unable to return to the US, so ended up first in Liberia, then living across Europe. With little money to live from and few relationships to speak of, for a time, she came to epitomise the song.
End of the Line
The first fully original song on the album, End of the Line is initially carried by another deception of positiveness, this time through its melody; romantic and light despite the lyrics: This is the end of the line / I’ve clearly read every sign / The way you glance at me / Indifferently / And take your hand from mine. Such is the flowing nostalgia of the tune, it is plausible to imagine the same song with all words made positive (e.g. The way you glance at me / So happily / And place your hand in mine).
Divisible into two parts, the first has the feel of Simone sipping a martini in a Rogers & Hammerstein bar (perhaps offering some musical theatrical hope of salvation). The second, however, gives way to resigned sorrow, over a steady, rumba beat. Aside from showcasing Simone’s prodigious classical piano-playing ability — albeit only through twinkling, floral runs — the richness of her vocal tone spills forth, smoothly and lusciously, particularly in the second half. While lyrically it lacks the forcefulness of other tracks, its simplicity opens the door to Simone’s abundant musicality.
Trouble in Mind
Written in 1924, Trouble in Mind is another blues standard, but given its title, after three tracks of despair, it surprisingly brings a degree of levity.
The original lyrics (as sung by Dinah Washington, Janis Joplin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ella Fitzgerald, Marianne Faithful, Johnny Cash and original recording artist Thelma La Vizzo) are far darker than this version. Typically, the singer, wrestling with the irrepressible demons of their psyche, contemplates suicide by train: I’m gonna lay my head / On some lonesome railroad line / Let the 2:19 train / Ease my troubled mind. Yet on Pastel Blues, it never gets that far.
While refrain of the song always concludes: I won’t be blue always / ‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday, Simone’s version leans more heavily on those lyrics than others’ versions; giving it a more hopeful perspective. She also dresses the music with a quicker, cheerier pace. Furthermore, instead of seeking the certainty and finality of a gruesome suicide, she resolves only that: I’m going down to the river / Gonna get me a rocking chair / If the Lord don’t help me / I’m gonna rock away from here.
Given she was be known to perform the full lyrics on other occasions, it is an interesting choice to uplift them on Pastel Blues. In terms of the album’s full narrative, however, it makes sense to offer a moment of optimism, keeping us on an undulating journey of emotion, rather than wallowing solely in melancholy.
Tell Me More and More and Then Some
The dynamic changes once again in Tell Me More and More and Then Some, as Simone hints towards her unapologetic, simmering, sexuality. Sex is known to have often enthralled her — as she wrote in her diary, “My attitude toward sex was that we should be having it all the time.”
Originally recorded in 1940 by Billie Holiday, Simone tweaks the lyrics to make the titular line more demanding, more desirous: I want more, more and then some. Accompanied by quivering, raunchy harmonica and clanging, insistent piano chords, Simone’s phrasing and emphasis draws lustfulness from the lyrics: You know how I love that stuff / Whisper from now on / To doomsday / But I never no no no no, ooh / I never, no I never, will get enough. It’s an erotic elaboration on Holiday’s already sultry interpretation, loading the request for whispered sweet nothings with a throbbing, sexual overtone.
Chilly Winds Don’t Blow
Chilly Winds Don’t Blow acts as a natural, also largely optimistic companion to Trouble in Mind, making Tell Me More and More and Then Some the bawdy, thick-cut meat between two, forward-looking slices of bread. That said, the song was previously released by Simone as single in 1959, as an even more upbeat spiritual, with denser orchestration and less of her signature vocal style.
On Pastel Blues, however, it is likely sung from a position of matured disappointment towards the unending hostility experienced by black Americans. With a sparser arrangement and greater vocal freedom, the new context is pointedly conveyed: There will be red roses round my door / I’m going where they’ll welcome me for sure, oh baby / Where the chilly winds, they don’t blow. Notably, as her piano rumbles, mimicking the sound of a rolling, cold wind, Simone also refers to her own maturity, as a woman. In this new version, she no longer wants to go where her father waits for her. Instead, it’s her daddy who will be waiting.
Ain’t No Use
Recorded in 1959 by Joe Williams and Count Basie, Ain’t No Use manifested as a break-up song. In that bright, brassy version, Williams croons at the opening: Ain’t no use of hanging round / Ain’t no use I put you down / There’s no love left / In my heart for you. In Simone’s rendition, the subject of the warning is much more ambiguous. When considered alongside Chilly Winds Don’t Blow and the tracks that follow, Simone instead implies a sense of exasperation, perhaps a desire to withdraw from broken American society, or the increasingly hostile music industry. She opens not with fallen love but accusation and fatigue: Ain’t no use baby / I’m leaving the scene / Ain’t no use baby / You’re too doggone mean / Yes I’m tired of paying dues / Having the blues / Hitting bad news.
To this point, Pastel Blues is a solid, often special, blues album, but here it really begins to soar; marking it apart. The underlying anguish of the blues is of course ingrained in the genre, but with Simone, her duende, fraught personal life, and civil rights activism, a dramatic narrative acceleration begins to emerge in the gap between Ain’t No Use and Strange Fruit (and again between Strange Fruit and Sinnerman). Without realising, tracks one to eight have been quietly coaxing you towards the edge of a cliff. The final two rip through you, forcing you over the edge before you can pull back. Amidst the silence between the songs, everything that preceded becomes re-contextualised with a deeper, darker tone. Embrace the fall.
The majesty of Strange Fruit is well documented — in 1999, Time named it the best song of the century. It was written by Abel Meeropol — a white, Jewish sometime Communist, and real-life MacGuffin, who intersects with numerous historically important features of 20th century America, but never appears at their forefront.
As a student and then teacher at Dewitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he crossed paths with a young James Baldwin and numerous other luminaries of American culture. After seeing a photograph of a lynching, he felt compelled to write; originally penning the words as an anti-lynching poem. Published in a teacher’s union publication, it concisely described the horror he had seen through the sinister metaphor of a seemingly innocuous fruit tree. He later set it to music and presented it to Billie Holiday, who recorded her socially and sonically remarkable version in 1937. In 1945, he gave up teaching to become a full-time songwriter under the pen name Lewis Allen (the first names of his two, tragically stillborn sons), most famously writing Frank Sinatra’s Oscar winning, patriotic short film and accompanying song, The House I Live in. Not only that, but in 1953 he adopted the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — a Jewish couple famously executed for spying on America for the Soviet Union.
As for the song itself, if Holiday’s recording is classical — a regretful, tender jazz lament — Simone’s is something more modern, more openly enraged; a cutting, resonant howl; transcending genre. The arrangement is minimal and masterful at once, with often dissonant piano chords treading like distressed steps through fallen leaves towards the horrifying tree at the agonising conclusion. It climaxes with a literal wail as the end nears: Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck / For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck / For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop / Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Its intensity lent itself perfectly to the sample on Kanye West’s scorching rebuke of destructive celebrity relationships, Blood On the Leaves.
Simone’s Sinnerman is virtually unrecognisable from the first, folky version recorded by the Les Baxter Orchestra in 1956. Baxter adapted (read: plagiarised) the song from On the Judgement Day, by the Sensational Nightingales, which in turn takes elements from the 1924 No Hiding Place Down Here, by the Old South Quartette. But much like Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s similarly spiritual Hallelujah, Simone’s version remains, and will forever remain, the definitive iteration; the most copied, covered, celebrated and recognised; never bettered beyond that point.
As her Sinnerman evolves, it reveals the preceding short, eight tracks to have been little more than an (excellent) overture to this — the epic, operatic finale. At ten and a half minutes, it makes up nearly a third of the entire album. Brace yourself.
After the silent gap following Strange Fruit — another inhale between urgent roars — the first few bars are timeless, perhaps some of the most familiar notes ever recorded. Piano keys clamber over one another, skipping like a broken record. A foot taps out a light beat in the background. The percussion joins: a double-time, racing, hi-hat heart rate, yielding only to the occasional heavy, melodious thump of a double bass. Simone enters, Oh, Sinnerman, where you gonna run to? / Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
After Strange Fruit, the question takes on new meaning. Picture Simone in a deep purple Cadillac Deville n hot pursuit of a fleeing lynch mob; hood down, foot down, brow furrowed, engine roaring, steering on the edge of control. This toying with tumbling gives the song its energy. Like running down a steep slope, with the slightest misstep, all would be lost. As the beats impatiently trip over the piano notes, it feels like it’s constantly accelerating; never settling into a regimented pace.
After erupting into a minute-long call and response of: Power!, Sinnerman changes gear. A jangling, twanging guitar breathes heavily in contemplation of the next charge. The music fades, leaving only intimidating clapping, until the piano returns most wonderfully with a couple of pleasingly apparent (yet well-intended) mistakes; three or four notes missed, misplaced, or hesitated over as the tune searches again for its order among the tumult. When found, it resurges with renewed purpose; Simone audibly hyperventilating in anxious anticipation: So I run to the river, it was boiling / I run to the sea, it was boiling / All on that day. Judgement Day has arrived, and the devil is everywhere.
(Should this masterpiece really ever be used to sell hatchbacks?)
It ends with a pleading prayer, agitated piano chords and chaotic drums: Don’t you know, I need you Lord?, Simone cries. Whether the prayer is answered, we’ll never know, but as the percussion takes over and batters us into a final, frenzied submission, it feels too late.
Exhausted and exhilarated, Pastel Blues is at its end. But within it, Nina Simone’s duende forever persists.