Nina Simone – To Be Free (review)

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It’s Sept. 15, 1963. The radio plays in the background as Nina Simone sits in her apartment, preparing for a weeklong stint at New York City’s Village Gate. Her mind is heavy. A couple of months earlier, civil rights worker Medgar Evers was shot dead in Mississippi, and Simone’s friends are beginning to ask what she’s doing to further the cause of her people.

Suddenly the radio crackles with news: Four little girls attending a Bible study were killed when someone pitched dynamite through the window of an Alabama church. Nina is furious. She gathers tools and assorted pieces of metal and starts banging stuff around. Her husband, hearing the racket, rushes to her and finds that she’s well on the way to making a homemade pistol. Simone explains that she wants the blood, the blood of anyone in the way of black folks. Her husband listens at first, and then speaks words that foreshadow the rest of Simone’s career: “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.”

The new box set To Be Free: The Nina Simone Story stirringly captures Simone’s journey from a reluctant cabaret performer (who only started singing pop tunes so she could afford to continue her classical-music studies) to one of the most powerful voices of the Civil Rights era. Consisting of three CDs and a bonus DVD documentary, the collection spans Simone’s career from her first recordings in 1957 to her final studio album in 1993, 10 years before her death. It beautifully documents the mysterious wonders of Simone’s rich voice and her quirky yet emotional phrasing. The set also illustrates how the civil rights movement gave Simone an artistic purpose, influencing her choice of songs and the way she delivered them.

You can hear this in her approach to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” Simone slows it to a funereal crawl and sings it less as a generational dispatch than a battle cry, even changing the lyrics “it’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls” to “we’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.”

But Simone is no mere polemicist. Part of her appeal is the way she exposes her ambivalences. One moment she’s “building castles in the shifting sands” (the hopeful “In the Morning)” and the next she’s pronouncing, “I ain’t ’bout to be nonviolent, honey” on a live recording of “Mississippi Goddam,” the song she wrote to commemorate Evers and the four slain schoolgirls.

Live performances were one of Simone’s strengths because they provided a relatively unbounded showcase for her musicianship, which developed back in North Carolina when she still went by her birth name, Eunice Waymon, and spent Saturdays practicing Bach with her British piano teacher and Sundays playing spirituals at church revivals. This mix of classical discipline and gospel fervor made for inspired shows, and the box set wisely includes several concert recordings, including her nearly 20-minute take on George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.”

More great live material—such as the heartbreaking “Don’t You Pay Them No Mind”—is included in the 1970 documentary. Photographed in sepia-toned splendor, the short film depicts both the magic of Simone’s artistry and the burdens she carried because of it. At one point, she states: “I think 19 people depend on me for their livelihood. … Now I would like some freedom, somewhere, where I didn’t have to feel those pressures.”

Simone’s words hint at the poignance behind her political songs. For her, the ability to live autonomously was both about the plight of her people and the battles she waged in her own life. Perhaps for this reason, the documentary ends with Simone seated alone at the piano, singing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” She’s in the foreground, set against the blurry brown-skinned faces of her adoring audience.

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