Nina Simone in 1970
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns
'Black Gold' At 50: How Nina Simone Refracted The Black Experience Through Reinterpreted Songs
When Black lives and needs are highlighted on the world stage, contrarians tend to crawl out of the woodwork in response. "Why can’t we celebrate White History Month?" they ask each February. "Don’t all lives matter?" they ask the rest of the year. This line of questioning is nothing new. More than 50 years ago, Nina Simone offered a rejoinder to bad-faith ideas of reverse inclusivity while onstage at Philharmonic Hall (now David Geffen Hall) in New York City.
"[This next song] is not addressed primarily to white people,” the singer-songwriter deadpanned. "It does not put you down in any way; it simply ignores you." The crowd burst into laughter, but Simone wasn’t joking: "My people need all the love and inspiration that they can get." Simone then laid into "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," a song meant to elevate and encourage Black intellects. "We must begin to tell our young / There’s a world waiting for you,” she appealed, abetted by the male vocal duo the Swordsmen.
That version of "Young, Gifted and Black"—which she co-wrote with lyricist Weldon Irvine in memory of A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry—appears at the end of Black Gold, Simone's album pulled from that 1969 concert. It was nominated for a Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female at the 13th Annual GRAMMY Awards and turns 50 this year. Aside from that song, the live album consists of canon-crossing covers Simone curated to refract her own meaning, such as "Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair," "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life," and "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?"
These songs are not typically associated with social issues; respectively, they’re an Appalachian folk song, a Sandy Denny tune and two cuts from the musical "Hair." But true to her skill as an interpreter, Simone turned these apolitical songs into unlikely vehicles for radical self-expression. "This is a quest that’s just begun," she sang on "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," but Simone was in the center of her own personal and political struggle that dovetailed with the nationwide struggle for racial equality.
Four years earlier, she'd hollered her incendiary classic "Mississippi Goddam" in front of 10,000 people near the end of the Selma to Montgomery March. Just one year prior, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a hotel balcony. "We can’t afford any more losses," Simone said shakily while performing "Why? (The King of Love Is Dead)" three days after Dr. King’s murder at Westbury Music Fair. Her voice grew tremulous: "Oh my god, they’re shooting us down one by one."
"As the civil rights movement really swung into high gear, she swung into high gear with it," Simone’s musical director and accompanist Al Schackman said in the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? "To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people," she stated in an interview clip shown in the film. "My job is to make them more curious about where they came from, and their own identity, and pride in that identity. That’s why I try to make [my songs] as powerful as possible—mostly just to make them curious about themselves."
Black Gold shows how Simone not only made her songs powerful, but others' as well. She doesn’t offer specifics about her choice to open with "Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair," a traditional ballad that can be traced back to Scotland. But given the themes interwoven throughout the rest of the album—and its cover, in which Simone proudly sports an Afro—it's arguable she meant to cast natural hair as a crown of beauty. Simone wasn’t always magnanimous about this topic.
"You used to be talking about being natural and wearing natural hairstyles," Simone tartly told a Philadelphia audience in 1979, chiding Black women for making what she considered to be stereotypically Caucasian fashion choices. "Now you’re straightening your hair, rouging your cheeks and dressing out of Vogue."
Simone didn’t only address the topic of hair—she reinterpreted songs from "Hair." In 1968, when the musical first hit Broadway, she picked up on "Ain’t Got No" and "I Got Life" and she added them to her repertoire. Her mash-up of those two "Hair" tracks, one a lament ("Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture / Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schoolin'") and the other an affirmation ("Got my hair, got my head / Got my brains, got my ears") is charged with connotations of Black oppression and liberation.
The resulting "Ain’t Got No, I Got Life," which originally appeared on 1968’s ‘Nuff Said!, was a major hit in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The following year, the 5th Dimension’s "Medley: Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)" would embed "Hair" further into public consciousness. But Simone, as usual, was ahead of her time: "I did that tune ‘Ain’t Got No’ just when the show came out," she said on a promotional interview LP that accompanied Black Gold. "Long before ‘Aquarius’ and all of that."
Black Gold also features a cover of psychedelic folkies Fairport Convention's "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" from their 1969 album Unhalfbricking. Sandy Denny wrote the wise-beyond-her-years ballad ("So come the storms of winter and then the birds in spring again / I have no fear of time / For who knows how my love grows?") when she was only 19; Simone was attracted to the song’s theme of self-examination.
"It’s a song not meant for me," she explained of "Who Knows Where the Time Goes?" on Come Together With Nina. "I sing it to make people reflect about their lives. I know what I’m doing and why I must do it. And so time does not exist for me as it does for most people."
Simone certainly didn’t live like most people following the release of Black Gold. In 1970, believing that "Mississippi Goddam" and its ilk hurt rather than helped her career, she fled what she later called the "United Snakes of America" for Barbados. Then, in 1974, she relocated to Liberia, where, as What Happened, Miss Simone? lays out, her daughter Lisa Simone alleged she experienced physical and mental abuse from her mother. In the mid-1980s, Simone lived in various European cities, where she experienced a brief career resurgence before her death in 2003 at age 70.
Black Gold remains a nexus point in Simone’s life and career—between her early innovations and later provocations, between her incisiveness as a songwriter and her genius as an interpreter. "There’s a great deal of rapport between the audience and myself that has been missing in so many of the previous albums," she said of Black Gold on Come Together With Nina, adding, "There’s a great deal of electricity in this album."
Without a handful of brilliantly chosen, left-field covers as a conducting agent, that current may never have been transferred, her alchemy unachieved. But as usual, Simone made black become gold.