This is going to seem like too great a stretch, but there is a very real connection between the New Orleans Saints, the Stoics of Ancient Greece, and Nina Simone.
What brings them together? Compassion.
Nina Simone’s short hymnal “Compassion” is actually Paul Laurence Dunbar‘s poem “Compensation” set to music. Dunbar also wrote a vaudeville song “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd” which would, over a century, develop into that now-familiar chant Who Dat Say Dey Gonna Beat Dem Saints.
The word compassion comes from ecclesiastical Latin meaning “to suffer with.” It is from the Greek sumpatheia which referred to the affinity between different parts of the body such that if one part of the body hurts another might also suffer. The Stoics of Ancient Greece developed the idea to also include a cosmic sense – that the universe is composed in a manner not unlike the body: all the parts contributing to make a whole. Aristotle, in the Politics, similarly states that the statesman can feel the suffering of his fellows and so compelled to act to reduce the suffering.
There is no way to consider Nina Simone without having to call upon and develop an intensive compassionate vocabulary. No other musician that I can think of has ever been a better exemplar of compassion. In Chinese Buddhism the name of the buddha of compassion is Guan Yin 觀音 and while it may seem indecent at first to compare this immortal with Simone, it will become more appropriate as these ideas develop.
Central to making this comparison work is the non-representational nature of music. As Susanne Langer states, “[Music] exhibits pure form not as an embellishment, but as its very essence….” Music does not represent something, it simply presents. Music, unlike language, is free from the problems of signification (in this sense it is an empty signifier, like Paris Hilton, capable of selling perfume, or cheeseburgers). But, music, like language, does have a call to the listener, music can be a source of meaning and it can structure and transmit meaning as well.
Try as folks may, music must exist concretely or it vanishes completely, unlike abstract ideas. It’s for this reason that Kant placed music at the bottom of his aesthetic hierarchy. Music lacks form and so cannot be trusted to establish a universal sensibility, it cannot provide a “common sense.” What makes good music is fundamentally a question of taste and perhaps hopelessly lost in the particulars of the individual’s experience, fundamentally anti-universal.
She is typically recalled with the epithet “the High Priestess of Soul” but this is not only limiting her music to a particular genre (which she disliked) but also it smacks of advertising agency lingo. Nina Simone’s music, perhaps like no other, is difficult to comprehend totally. Her oeuvre cannot be expressed in such pithy descriptions; perhaps the only way to begin to describe Nina Simone’s musical career would be to quote poetry:
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.
– Wendell Barry “The Country of Marriage”
No one was as compassionate a listener as Nina Simone – look what she did to the Bee Gees’ “To Love Somebody.” Some might want to categorize her songs neatly, saying something like, “here are her songs about love, over here are songs about civil rights…” but to do this would be to miss an opportunity to develop a core appreciation in the cultivation of compassion. At some point, when cultivating compassion within the boddhisattva path, one must come to understand compassion in the opposite sense promoted by the Stoics.
The Stoics saw many parts that were imperfect because they could not be autonomous (all the parts have to exist within the body, unlike the Form, which is eternal and perfect in its abstraction). With this in mind, the focus has been to save one’s soul in religious practice, understanding that while we might temporarily suffer in this corporeal experience it is only temporarily. We must reduce suffering as much as possible (this is being merciful), but at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of each to protect their unique, individual soul – separate. The boddhisattva vows the opposite – to suspend their own liberation from suffering until all others can be liberated.
Not unlike a holy book or canon, there is not one song that epitomizes Nina Simone. There is not one quintessential album that will deliver the good news of her work.
Each song is a holographic entry point into her meditations on the nature of love (eros: “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” and agape: “Nearer Blessed Lord”), the need to be recognized politically (as a Black person: “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black” and also as a woman: “Four Women”), and the transience of life “Wild Is the Wind.” The virtuosity of Nina Simone is completely opaque to future musicians unless those that would follow her example also meditate on these themes. The mania that is present in her interpretation of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Pirate Jenny” is necessary in order for us to understand how she can be the same person to perform “Don’t Explain” or “The Other Woman.”
Certainly there are songs that will serve well to give a taste of her talents and that exquisite piece of the sublime that passed away in 2003, and they are found, here and there. But this selective sampling, as rewarding and evocative as they may be, cannot convey the absolute pathos of Nina Simone’s lived experience that we begin to appreciate as we listen more. Because music is nonrepresentational, presenting us always with a facticity that is more immediate than The Truth, Nina Simone’s music is a singular pedagogical vehicle. You want to know what life in the United States during the last half of the 20th century was like for someone that was not white and male – listen to Nina Simone.
So here is the lesson of Nina Simone: this life is significant. No matter how bleak, how lonely, how little others might want to hear your voice – living is the development of responses to these conditions. We see this best in her face-melting-nearly-psychotic performance of “Feelings” at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976 (below).
The clip is 10 minutes long but those that will watch will be handsomely rewarded. The performance begins oddly, we have to wonder to what degree her battle with depression might have played in her talk about being a robot. Some report that she is aloof. I think that a more useful interpretation is that she is centering here. “Feelings” is a pop song: it will become widely lampooned at around the same time that she performs it and remain the butt of jokes for nearly a decade – emblematic of everything uncool and lame about that music called Soft Rock. And it’s no wonder that the song has been so ridiculed: it’s melodramatic, it’s kitschy. But Nina Simone, being the compassionate listener that she is, takes the song seriously – she does not treat it as though it is a song representing what it feels like to lose love.
Rather, she presents to us that sense of incompletion that comes with the loss of love. One minute in, she sighs, and says, “God damn it. I mean, what a shame to have to write a song like that. Uhn. I’m not making fun of the man: I do not believe the conditions that produce a situation that demanded a song like that!” Watching her performance is terrible at points, to be presented with such a serious heartache is too traumatic to view and so it must be covered over by the viewer with statements like, “but this is that stupid song, I can’t take it seriously.” Or else the criticism of her performance starts. But in these instances, they are only responses to the horrible truth that anyone that has loved knows haunts the back of their minds: that one day we will have to depart all that we love, we will have to kiss our loved ones only one last time, if we are lucky to even have them present to us in our final moments. Nina Simone, in this performance is terrifying in the way that the sublime is terrifying.