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Just Like Nina Simone's Blues
The Art of Piano Festival, in collaboration with University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, is sponsoring the inaugural Nina Simone Piano Competition for African American pianists on June 21-24, 2023, at CCM’s Werner Recital Hall.
When Bob Dylan was named the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, he delivered a thoughtful acceptance speech in which he reflected upon his musical inspirations, including “The High Priestess of Soul”:
Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player, and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken, and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist I loved and admired.
The admiration was mutual, though it was tempered by Simone’s acute awareness of Dylan’s comparatively privileged access to the star-making machinery of American pop culture. In a 1966 interview, Simone lamented,
I have no faith that the greatest talent in this country will get any recognition while they’re alive. Perhaps Bob Dylan, but me, and Billie [Holiday] before me, and [John] Coltrane—in the jazz circles, yes, but not the general public. I don’t believe that the talent that would be considered artistic in this country is going to get any recognition, and that includes me. (qtd. Light 132)
Simone numbered Dylan among “the greatest talent in this country,” but her main point was to decry the biased inequity with which respect for such talent was granted or denied.
That said, Simone paid Dylan the highest compliment one musician can give another by performing several of his songs, and doing so with profound sensitivity. Late in life, her esteem for Dylan was unequivocal. In Princess Noire, biographer Nadine Cohodas points out that Simone kept a picture of Dylan on the wall of her French home in Bouc-Bel-Air, hanging next to a photo of Little Richard (354). Her friend Precious Williams visited there in 1999, and as she was leaving Simone told her, “Please tell my public that there aren’t many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It’s down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra, except Frank’s already dead” (qtd. Cohodas 359).
In honor of her talent and genius, and in conjunction with the Nina Simone Piano Competition taking place this week in Cincinnati, I’m devoting this Shadow Chasing piece to the rich interplay between the work of Simone and Dylan. I also want to introduce you to the work of a new friend and colleague, Yalie Saweda Kamara, who has written a poem that lovers of Simone and Dylan’s art are sure to appreciate as much as I do.
“House of the Rising Sun”
Let’s establish a baseline first with a song written by neither Simone nor Dylan but covered by both early in their careers. “We’re going to do a folk song called ‘The House of the Rising Sun,’” Simone announces to her audience, before counting off the band with loud snaps and easing into the number. Nina at the Village Gate was recorded live in March 1961, a couple months after Dylan first arrived in New York. She released the album in January 1962, a couple months before Dylan’s self-titled debut album came out with Columbia. Both records include “House of the Rising Sun,” but the two performances are significantly different.
Pop in your earbuds and you’re right there with Nina at the Village Gate. The microphones pick up everything in the room, on stage and off, including clinking glasses and shuffling chairs. I’m sure it wasn’t staged for this purpose, but the effect is to transport the listener sonically to the House of the Rising Sun, like patrons waiting in the bar before being escorted upstairs.
Simone’s vocals are mournful. She fully inhabits the song’s main character, a prostitute in a New Orleans brothel.
There is a house in New Orleans
They call it the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me, oh God, I’m one
She exudes remorse for being misled by a drunken gambler to this squalid life. She beats herself up for bringing disgrace upon her mother, and she sternly warns her baby sister against following in her footsteps. Simone’s delivery on the final verse is especially moving.
Well, I’m going back to New Orleans
My race is almost won
Yes, I’m going back to spend my life
Beneath the Rising Sun
Up to this point, her volume has been low and her pace slow, but here it sounds like the singer’s blood is draining out on stage. Paradoxically, she refers to this achievement as a triumph: “My race is almost won.” She defeats the forces that oppress her and escapes her prison through death. Yes, she claims to be returning to “spend my life” at the scene of the crime, but note her specific destination: beneath the Rising Sun. Within the context of Simone’s dirge, this comes across as an allusion to burial. She aspires to freedom in the afterlife that she never enjoyed among the walking-dead in her New Orleans flophouse.
I’m defending this interpretation intellectually through lyrical analysis, but more than anything I feel it viscerally through Simone’s singing. She amplifies the word “Yes,” hitting a height she hasn’t previously reached for. She sings the word loudly and stretches it into multiple syllables, extracting something affirmative in the dying notes of the song. She takes her voice deep down on the word “beneath,” aurally reinforcing the sense of burial—but then her voice soars on “rising,” communicating a sense of resurrection—flight out of darkness toward the light. She sings it better than I can write it. Listen to the last verse for yourself [3:15 and following] and you won’t require further explanation.
Dylan recorded his first album in only two sessions, November 20 and 22, 1961. With the exception of two original compositions, “Song to Woody” and “Talkin’ New York,” all of the tracks were folk covers. He was very familiar with “House of the Risin’ Sun” from recordings by Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, and Pete Seeger. But he was also a big admirer of Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement, which he heard regularly on the Village folk circuit. As Dylan admits in Chronicles, “when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It’s not like I planned that, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine” (262). Van Ronk bristled when he recounted the theft in Scorsese’s film No Direction Home—but then he delighted when The Animals stole the song back from Dylan, cutting an electric version that became a hit in 1964. [This is another thing Dylan and Simone have in common, since The Animals struck gold in 1965 with an electric cover of her song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.”]
It doesn’t require a great leap to imagine Simone and Dylan playing “House of the Rising Sun” on the same night and in the same neighborhood in 1961. If you scampered across Bleeker Street from the Village Gate to the Bitter End, you would’ve heard a starkly different interpretation from Dylan. On his record, the arrangement is sparse: just the singer solo on his acoustic guitar, pounding out a driving rhythm that propels the song toward its doomed conclusion. One of Dylan’s lines makes explicit what is only implied by Simone: “I’m going back to end my life down in the Rising Sun.”
Dylan’s singing is meek in the early verses. But about halfway through the song, in the line where the narrator warns her sister to steer clear of this sordid place, Dylan cranks up the volume to 11 on a 10-point scale. It has been many years since he could touch the upper register he hits and holds in “House of the Risin’ Sun.” Frankly, his passion is more impressive than his craftsmanship. He peaks at the three-minute mark and then struggles to maintain that same intensity level for the next two minutes.
It’s interesting to hear Dylan adopt the persona of a prostitute and sing in first-person voice as a woman character. Mind you, this is not burlesque; there is no hint of caricature or affectation. If he’s imitating anyone it’s surely Van Ronk. Mediated through Dylan’s voice, this sounds like a timid nasal whine at first, followed by a husky world-weary rasp, and finally a throaty growling bark. In other words, it’s unmistakably Dylan—and at the same time it’s a young woman eaten up with shame and desperate to end her misery. Dylan has a protean talent for reinventing himself from album to album, but on his debut record he sheds his skin from song to song, transforming from one character into another right before our ears. It’s startling to hear Dylan sing,
There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor girl
And me, oh God, I’m one
I doubt that anyone who listened to the album Bob Dylan in 1961 walked away thinking, “That kid’s going to be a genius!” But in retrospect we can hear a number of signature techniques and talents already on display. Like a character actor inhabiting each part he plays, the 20-year-old “rising son” assumes new identities and adopts whatever idiom best serves the song.
“Just Like a Woman”
Simone and Dylan’s musical paths intersected most directly when she covered five of his songs during a five-year span: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” on Let It All Out (1966); “I Shall Be Released,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on To Love Somebody (1969); and “Just Like a Woman” on Here Comes the Sun (1971). All of these performances are noteworthy, but I want to focus on two in particular as a comparative case study in the artistry of Simone and Dylan.
Let’s consider the last one first. Simone’s “Just Like a Woman” has to be on anyone’s short list of the greatest Dylan covers ever. Like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Simone’s “Just Like a Woman” is so damn good that it threatens to eclipse Dylan’s original, so thoroughly does she absorb the song and make it her own.
First, it’s worth remembering that this is one of Dylan’s more controversial songs. In 1971, the same year Simone released her moving rendition, Marion Meade published a column in the New York Times titled “Does Rock Degrade Women?” where she singled out this song as quintessentially misogynistic: “There’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman,’ in which he defines woman’s natural traits as greed, hypocrisy, whining, and hysteria. But isn’t that cute, he concludes, because it’s ‘just like a woman.’ For a finale he throws in the patronizing observation that adult women have a way of breaking ‘just like a little girl’” (D-13). However, as I discussed in my previous post for Shadow Chasing, the song is more complicated than that, as feminist critics like Laura Tenschert have taught me to recognize.
A selective reading of the lyrics is pretty damning, particularly in the chorus:
She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
She aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl
Hard to defend those remarks on the page, which read as condescending paternalism. But songs are written to be sung not read. Listen to Dylan sing “Just Like a Woman” and you probably won’t hear hate or smug superiority. He has sung his share of sneering put-downs, but this doesn’t sound like one of them.
The word “aches” carries a lot of weight in this song. We’re told about a woman who allegedly aches, but what we actually hear is a male voice in pain. By the end, it seems Dylan has been setting us up all along for a reversal. The singer finally admits that he’s the one hurting. He sings in an increasingly frantic tone:
It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here
He can’t handle it. He’s been putting up a tough front, but it’s all been an act. He accuses her of being weak and wounded, when in fact he’s the damaged one—he is broken like a little boy.
Songs are meant to be sung, and it matters who does the singing. “Just Like a Woman” becomes a different work when interpreted by talented women artists like Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Stevie Nicks, Norah Jones, and Ren Harvieu. No singer channels the song’s fragility more effectively than Simone in her achingly beautiful performance for Here Comes the Sun.
Simone’s most daring artistic intervention comes at the end of the song, when she switches from third- to first-person:
I take just like a woman, yes I do
And I make love just like a woman
And I ache just like a woman
But I break just like a little girl
Over the span of that final chorus, she crosses entire continents of emotion, from an explorer planting her flag on the highest mountaintop, to a scared little girl shivering at the bottom of a well. She takes a song sometimes derided for perpetuating shallow gender stereotypes and finds a foothold for a complex woman’s perspective.
The line “I break just like a little girl” assumes an extra layer of meaning when sung by Simone. Her first album was Little Girl Blue (1958). She recorded the title song multiple times throughout her career, and “Little Girl Blue” was a mainstay of her concert setlists for many years. If you’re familiar with Simone’s oeuvre, it’s impossible to listen to her sing “I break just like a little girl” without hearing echoes of “Won’t somebody send a little tender blue boy / To cheer up little girl blue?” Furthermore, in the present context “Little Girl Blue” reverberates with Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”: “Strike another match, go start anew / And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
Simone begins her reclamation of “Just Like a Woman” in 1971, but she emphatically completes it with an earth-shattering performance in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 13, 2000. She sings in first-person from the start in this rendition. Despite having been in poor health for several years (she died of breast cancer three years later), she summons every fiber of vitality for this magnificent performance. It’s the conclusion where she creates something magical and transcendent. She dives down to the bottom of the pool, touches the floor, and then launches herself skyward. Go to the 4:45 mark of the video and witness this miracle for yourself.
Simone heads into the final chorus as you would expect:
I take just like a woman
Mmmmm, I make love just like a woman
And I a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ache just like a woman
But I bre-a-a-ak . . . .
I used to break
I don’t break anymore
They can’t do anything else bad to me anymore
Anything worse than they’ve done before
So I don’t ache
I’m not a little GIIIIRRRRRRRL!
So much for fragility, eh? Simone takes a sledgehammer to the song and shatters it to smithereens. Harmony Holiday writes a Substack called Black Music and Black Muses. In “Black Swans,” a recent piece on the “elegant belligerence” of Nina Simone, Holiday captures the animating tension that drives some of Simone’s most powerful performances: “There’s a thrashing quality to Nina Simone’s virtuosity—It extends beyond her sensibility almost violently, in sudden bursts and languid retreats. Her tonal palate is where vulnerability and vengeance meet and stare one another down until either sentiment cracks and unburdens the other.” The convergence Holiday describes, “where vulnerability and vengeance meet,” perfectly encapsulates Simone’s fierce “Just Like a Woman” in 2000 São Paulo.
After blowing the audience away, Simone rises from the piano bench, takes a deep bow, drinks in the adulation from her awe-struck fans—and then sits back down and finishes the song again! Hey, she just completely reinvented “Just Like a Woman,” and that was so much fun she decides to reinvent it again at 6:42 and following:
I take just like a woman, yes I do
I’m gonna take me a yacht soon just like a woman!
And I a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ache just like a woman
And I don’t break—NO!
I don’t break like a little GIIIIRRRRRRRL!
Here comes and there goes the rising sun that outshines all others. Simone takes what Meade heard as “a complete catalogue of sexist slurs” and turns it into a blazing feminist manifesto.
Simone’s reinterpretation of “Just Like a Woman” is more than a cover: it’s an artistic intervention and a powerful political act. NPR music critic Ann Powers explains how this re-creative process works. She begins by asking, “What does it take for a work of art to become an intervention?” Powers tells us precisely what it takes:
In music, any reinterpretation alters the original, if only because different fingerprints touch it. But certain lineages — folk music, for example — are built on the bones of those retellings. Whoever owns a song for a period of time connects it to her lived experience and the world in which she lives, and it changes. It might also change the world, or a small part of it. This is the political power of the single voice: not to dictate or even necessarily cajole, but to state truths from a different perspective that shows earlier tellings to be shockingly incomplete. The song opens up and receives this new information; listeners hear it and realize something fresh about their own lives. They may even be compelled to act.
Powers was referring specifically to Rhiannon Giddens’s Tomorrow Is My Turn, but she might just as well have been writing about Nina Simone’s 2000 performance of “Just Like a Woman.”
“Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”
Much as I love “Just Like a Woman,” my favorite Simone cover of Dylan is “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Dylan has been producing remarkable albums for over sixty years, but Highway 61 Revisited is arguably his best. Opening with “Like a Rolling Stone,” closing with “Desolation Row,” and including other classics “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Queen Jane Approximately,” and “Highway 61 Revisited,” it’s better than just about any other artist’s greatest hits record. Hell, if this were the only album Dylan had ever released, his place in rock history would still be secure.
On a record that feels like a surrealist mosaic of the sixties American zeitgeist, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” sticks out as the album’s one bona fide story song. The singer recounts a decadent trip south to the Mexican border town of Juárez, where he scrambles his brain on booze and drugs, visits a bordello, and finally slinks back to New York in need of a shower, a shot of penicillin, and a ruthless moral inventory.
He claims, “They’ve got some hungry women there / And they really make a mess out of you.” He’s a mess alright, but he has no one to blame but himself. If there’s anyone with uncontrollable appetites in this song, it’s the Ugly American singer, who ingests every substance put before him and works his way through the brothel like he’s wolfing down a sampler platter.
Dylan the character actor is fully convincing as the first-person narrator of this tawdry tale. His tack piano sounds straight out of an Old West saloon, and he has the raw voice of a stoner who’s been deep-lunging doobies from dusk ’til dawn. As written and performed by Dylan, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” is “House of the Risin’ Sun” relocated to Juárez and retold from the john’s perspective. But this is Dylan after all, so we should avoid being too literal minded.
Juárez is an actual city in Mexico, but Dylan’s Juárez is something more mythical. One of his signature talents as a songwriter is inventing places (e.g., Desolation Row), or appropriating settings from other works (e.g., Scarlet Town), or reimagining existing locations (e.g., Key West) and expanding them from physical addresses into metaphysical conditions.
In “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” the trip south doubles as a descent into the underworld and the unconscious. The singer crosses the border of the waking world with its rules of social propriety and enters a subterranean realm of fantasy, vice, and inhibition. After indulging his desires and wrestling with his fears, he returns north of the border, reawakening from the dream/nightmare. As with other mythic quests, the hero makes the journey back home but returns as a changed person.
Simone intuits the otherworldly possibilities of the song, but she pursues them in different directions. She takes Dylan’s illicit squalor and spins it into baroque melancholy. With Simone at her golden loom, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” comes across less like a Hunter S. Thompson road trip or The Odyssey sequel by a hipster Homer and more like a funeral hymn for a martyred sex worker.
The musical ensemble consists of Simone on piano, accompanied by her longtime collaborator Al Shackman on guitar, Gene Perla on bass, and Charles Alias on drums. They create an ethereal sonic atmosphere in which the breathy vocals drift across a gloomy sky.
When you’re lost in Juarez
And it’s Eastertime too
And your gravity fails
And negativity don’t pull you through
Don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue
They’ve got some hungry women there
And man they’ll really make a mess out of you
This first verse sets the plot in motion with directions to the macabre Mexican brothel. There’s nothing remotely sexy about Simone’s setup, which is saturated in sadness. The journey is “lost” from the first line. Between the Easter timing (think Jesus in the tomb) and the Rue Morgue setting (think Edgar Allan Poe), the shadow of death casts a pall over this song from the start. The vocabulary was always there in Dylan’s lyrics, but it took Simone’s melancholic delivery to call my attention to it.
By some alchemy that’s hard to fathom, Simone morphs the perspective of the song from that of a wastrel scratching at every door in the brothel to that of a lost soul confined like a spirit in purgatory. It’s strange and exhilarating to hear the exact same words repurposed to communicate such different meaning through a singular shape-shifting voice. For instance, consider these lines:
I don’t have the strength
To get up and take another shot
And my best friend, my doctor
Won’t even say what it is I’ve got
When Dylan sings these words, I’m certain the drunken rogue has picked up an STD. However, when Simone sings the very same words, I’m equally certain that she is dying of some terminal illness, an incurable sickness of the soul.
Simone is generally faithful to Dylan’s original lyrics, but the one exception becomes the most moving moment in the whole song. In the fifth verse, Dylan writes,
And picking up Angel who
Just arrived here from the coast
Who looked so fine at first
But left looking just like a ghost
Instead, Simone varies the lyrics at the 3:30 mark: “And picking up my brother Carroll / Who just arrived here from the coast.” She momentarily breaks character and inserts a nakedly personal reference to her brother Carroll (she pronounces it “Carl”) Waymon, who lived on the west coast in San Diego. She doesn’t elaborate on what happened to send him away “looking just like a ghost,” but apparently the atmosphere of death surrounding the singer is contagious. Here’s the part that kills me. After delivering these lines, and before advancing to the final verse, Simone improvises this desolate interjection at 3:53: “Well, that’s it, folks. / That’s it.” O brother, where art thou? Why hast thou forsaken me? The singer sounds utterly defeated.
Simone’s improvisation invites contrast with the conclusion of her most famous protest song “Mississippi Goddam,” which ends with the shout “That’s it!” There the declaration sounds like a call to action, a fighter’s vow to stand up against brutality and injustice. But here, after years of absorbing abuse and making no progress, “That’s it” sounds like throwing in the towel. She doesn’t have the strength to get up and take another shot. What a woeful distance that phrase covers from 1964 to 1969, from resilient defiance after the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, to resigned despair after the continued murders of Black leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. “Well, that’s it, folks. / That’s it.” Absolutely heartbreaking. Dylan implies multiple connotations for the border crossings in the song, but it’s hard not to conclude that the singer in Simone’s version is limping toward the ultimate liminal threshold, passing from life to death.
At least that’s what I got out of listening to the song on my own. I’ve learned to appreciate other dimensions, however, from a wonderful poem by a new friend and colleague.
“Listening to Nina Simone Sing ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’”
Yalie Saweda Kamara is a Sierra Leonean-American poet who hails from Oakland. She earned her PhD from the University of Cincinnati in 2022, and she serves as Cincinnati’s official Poet Laureate. At Xavier University where I teach, we were lucky to hire her as an Assistant Professor of English beginning in the fall of 2023. Looking through her materials during the job search, one title immediately leapt off the page: “Listening to Nina Simone Sing ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”. The poem first appeared in the literary magazine JuxtaProse, and it will soon be part of Besaydoo, forthcoming in 2024 from Milkweed and winner of the Jake Adam York Prize. I’ve read the poem many times, and each time I discover new details to admire. With kind permission from the author, I’m happy to share it with readers of Shadow Chasing.
I love this poem! The poet praises the singer’s talent for penetrating “deep into the marrow of the marrow of the story.” Yalie digs deep, too, excavating buried layers in the song. Her primary focus is on Simone’s performance, but she also winks in Dylan’s direction a couple of times. Readers of this newsletter will immediately recognize the “subterranean homesick blues” reference as the opening track of Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home. I also like the contrast Yalie draws between Simone’s sugar & spice and Dylan’s snips & snails: “How you rub chalk maple over / the head of a screech and even / make a sweet thing of the acrid.”
Dylan directs the song toward an unnamed “you.” Yalie adopts this form of address, too, but in her case the “you” is “Aunty Nina.” The poet establishes an intimate kinship bond with the singer. Culturally, artistically, and spiritually, Aunty Nina serves as ancestor, mentor, and healer. Yalie calls the singer “Polaris” and “Meta-raconteuse.” I take this to mean that Aunty Nina is more than just a storyteller: she is a guiding light who leads the song’s lost characters—and by extension the song’s listeners—out of darkness and back home.
Take the sex worker Saint Annie for instance. As Yalie reminds us, Anne is the patron saint of sinking ships and miners, as well as the divine protector of women in labor, “the boat / of a woman pushing the head of a storm / through her own middle earth.” Yalie senses another kind of passage taking place in this song, from the subterranean to the interstellar, leading characters and listeners toward “some sort of ascension”:
Aunty Nina, aren’t these all metaphors
for reaching skyward?
And wouldn’t you say that
this is your work?
It’s a compelling interpretation. I don’t think I would have arrived there on my own, so I’m grateful to the poet and the poem for guiding me there.
Much as Simone inserts herself directly into the song, Yalie is also an entity within the poem. “Listening to Nina Simone Sing ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’” isn’t just about the singer and the song, it’s also about the effect both have on the poet. She foregrounds her presence from the start: “Under the comfort of Cincinnati fog / I listen to your voice.” The act of listening isn’t passive here. When she hears a part of the song she likes, the poet reaches for the turntable and replays it: “I slow-scratch the record just / to hear the way you stretch the word ‘ghost’ into six syllables.” [I read this poem a dozen times before it occurred to me that the spaces frequently inserted within lines serve the same stretching effect.]
The communion between singer and poet culminates in the last section. Aunty Nina dances off the record, through the speaker, and into the sky, piercing through the Cincinnati fog and ascending into the heavens:
A spirit pushes
its way through the busted geometry of
the record player.
You: floating, floating, up to the North Star.
It’s a brilliant conclusion, integrating earlier images of childbirth, flight, and resurrection. But it also displays Yalie’s careful attention to the lyrical trajectory of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues”: from the opening descent down south into madness, debauchery, and death, to the final journey in reverse, an ascent “up to the North Star.”
Simone reinvents “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” turning it into something new and identifiably her own. The poet accomplishes a kindred metamorphosis with her poem, creating an amalgamation that is part Dylan, part Simone, and yet wholly and distinctly Yalie. Reading and writing about the song and the poem has me thinking about how art gets continually renewed through creative adaptation. I’m reminded of the stirring conclusion to “Sonny’s Blues” by Simone’s good friend James Baldwin.
The story’s narrator bears witness to his brother Sonny playing the blues at a downtown jazz club [the Village Gate?]. The experience sparks a life-affirming epiphany about how music gets passed down:
Sonny's fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, and what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did. Yet, there was no battle in his face now, I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth. He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever. (47)
Baldwin might just as well have been writing about Simone. In the performances discussed above, she takes songs associated with Dylan, refracts them through her distinct genius, guides them through the darkness and beyond the shadow of death, breathes new life into them, and gives them wings. She makes the songs her own—“Just Like Nina Simone’s Blues.”
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Baldwin, James. “Sonny’s Blues.” The Jazz Fiction Anthology. Ed. Sascha Feinstein and David Rife. Indiana University Press, 2009, pp. 17-48.
Cohodas, Nadine. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. The University of North Carolina Press, 2012.
Dylan, Bob. “2015 MusiCares Person of the Year Award Acceptance Speech.” Rpt. in Rolling Stone (9 February 2015). https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/read-bob-dylans-complete-riveting-musicares-speech-240728/.
---. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon & Schuster, 2004.
---. “House of the Rising Sun.” Bob Dylan. Columbia, 1962.
---. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Bringing It All Back Home. Columbia, 1965.
---. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” Highway 61 Revisited. Columbia, 1965.
---. “Just Like a Woman.” Blonde on Blonde. Columbia, 1966.
Holiday, Harmony. “Black Swans.” Black Music and Black Muses (27 February 2023).
Kamara, Yalie Saweda. “Listening to Nina Simone Sing ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.’” JuxtaProse 24 (Summer 2020), https://www.juxtaprosemagazine.org/listening-to-nina-simone-sing-just-like-tom-thumbs-blues-by-yalie-kamara/.
Light, Alan. What Happened, Miss Simone?: A Biography. Crown Archetype, 2016.
Powers, Ann. “First Listen: Rhiannon Giddens, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn.’” NPR (1 February 2015), https://www.npr.org/2015/02/01/382372052/first-listen-rhiannon-giddens-tomorrow-is-my-turn.
Simone, Nina. “House of the Rising Sun.” Nina at the Village Gate. Colpix, 1962.
---. “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” To Love Somebody. RCA Victor, 1969.
---. “Just Like a Woman.” Here Comes the Sun. RCA Victor, 1971.
---. “Little Girl Blue.” Little Girl Blue. Bethlehem, 1958.
---, with Stephen Cleary. I Put a Spell on You: The Autobiography of Nina Simone. Pantheon, 1992.