Song of the Week: “Ain’t Got No/I’ve Got Life” by Nina Simone

by Douglas Cowie on 27 October 2017

Each Friday I pick a song–new, old, borrowed, blue–that’s been on my mind and in my ears, and write a short post about it.

This is “Ain’t Got No/I’ve Got Life” by Nina Simone:

One of my students, Lucy, played this a couple of weeks ago in a class I teach about writing about music, and I’ve been kicking the song, and what Lucy wrote about it, around my head off and on since.

First of all, Nina Simone and her band have put together a superb arrangement of this medley of songs from the musical Hair, a cassette of the soundtrack for which I practically wore thin when I was a teenager. The vocal performance is particularly something: she sings with rage and resentment but also with irony and a real sense of celebration.

In the essay she presented in class, Lucy talked about Nina Simone performing in the Netherlands, where this song reached number one in the charts, and also at a festival in Harlem, which is the version I’ve posted here.  The festival featured not only Nina Simone, but also Stevie Wonder, among others, and was filmed, though turned down by broadcasters on the grounds that there wasn’t wide enough interest (NB: this is my paraphrasing of Lucy’s presentation and omissions and errors are mine, not hers).

Not wide enough interest: yeah, right.  I haven’t been able to shake the image and sound and idea of this black woman singing about and celebrating her black body in a park filled with an audience of black bodies, and a trio (or larger group) of white network executives denying the interest or value of that black woman (and the other black performers) and those black audience members, because of their blackness.

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