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Newly discovered 1966 Nina Simone recording is set for release this Friday

Verve Records
Universal Music

As part of a yearlong celebration of Nina Simone’s 90th birthday, a newly discovered recording from the Tryon, North Carolina-born singer’s performance at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival is set for release this Friday, called "You’ve Got To Learn." Shana Redmond is a writer and music scholar at Columbia University who has written extensively on Nina Simone’s life and legacy, including the liner notes for this new release. She spoke with WFAE Program Director Eric Teel.

Eric Teel: Shana Redmond, thank you for taking time to talk to me. How did you end up down the path of becoming Nina Simone's scholar and expert?

Shana Redmond: First of all, thank you for having me. But when I was in graduate school and doing research, I was interested in trying to bring together my two passions, which were political organizing and music-making. And so in doing that work, I came, of course, to Nina Simone, who at the middle century moment of the 20th century, of course, was one of the kind of political powerhouses not only as a musical artist or creative, but just as a political thinker. And ever since then, I've been hooked by this person who, as you know, and I'm sure all listeners can appreciate, is deeply, deeply enigmatic, but also profoundly significant for musical study in the 20th century.

Teel: How are we in 2023 still finding these unreleased performances and recordings, under couches, in vaults somewhere?

Redmond: It's amazing, isn't it? I don't know how we come to all of these recordings. I mean, you know, there's a lot to be said about that. I do know, right, that there's a long history of musicians being recorded often without their consent and these kinds of bootleg copies of their songs and their live performances floating to the surface. This happened differently, this recording that we're discussing today, but it's something that musicians are regularly concerned with and kind of have their senses open to.

Teel: Sonically, it's really good, isn't it?

Redmond: It's beautiful. Yeah, it's beautiful. Even just the more sentient elements or the more elemental elements, right? Hearing the wind, right? And she makes a comment during one of the songs where she says, ‘It's nice to be out here in this wind,’ right? And this is what is so magical or can be so magical about live performances, right? Is that you're getting all of the real-time interactions between the musicians, between the musicians and the audience, but also between the musicians and the earth, between the musicians and the environment.

Teel: The first song that was released from this new recording is a song that many jazz fans — and even many who aren't particularly fans of jazz — will know: "Mississippi Goddamn." This first came out a couple of years earlier, a recording that was made at Carnegie Hall. This was after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham. It was in reaction to Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, many things that had been going on, and it felt like the release of a pressure pot. This is now two years beyond. So it is after the Kennedy assassination. It is after Malcolm X's demise. What do you hear differently in this version of "Mississippi Goddam" that doesn't show up on the version that jazz fans have been listening to for 60 years?

Redmond: Yeah, I mean, this version is really stunning. And I mentioned this in the notes for the recording — that it takes a minute for the audience to catch on to what they're listening to — because she's reinvented it in real-time. The kinds of 'oompah' rhythms that originally attended to the recording in '64. That was hot with anger. This recording is more smoothed out. It has a deep swing behind it, and I think that that element signals a few things to me.

One is her constant investment and reinvention, right? That she never wanted her audiences to be perfectly comfortable with what they thought they knew. But it also reads a lot to me in relationship to what's happening in the world, as you've suggested, right? This is some distance from the church bombing that brought her to write the song in the first place. However, it's not far enough away, right? As you mentioned, Malcolm X had just been assassinated. The Watts Rebellion, which she mentions in the lyrics in this recording, had just happened, right? The world has not changed significantly enough for her to stop performing this song, right? This song is not dusty.

Teel: What emotion or emotions do you hear in her singing of it?

Redmond: I hear a lot of passion. I describe it as a love song in this moment, right? I think that the original recording had so much hot defiance behind it. This recording, what I hear in it, I hear her lovingly kind of coaxing people into relation with her in that moment, right? The best organizers are the people who can draw people to them, right? And draw people out and into conversation. And I think she's doing that in a very different kind of way with this rendition — that it is seductive in a certain way.

Nina Simone: 'Mississippi Goddam' Lyric Video (Live at Newport, 1966)

Teel: What are some of the other highlights of this record? I know that there's at least one song on it that was previously unrecorded — "Music for Lovers."

Redmond: Yes. So, "Music for Lovers" is the close of the sense. And this is an opportunity for her to return for her encore by herself without the other backing musicians. And this is following not only "Mississippi Goddam," but her song "Be My Husband," which is like all rhythm and all pulse, and very much reminds me of like ring shout, right? Because it's stomping her feet and all of these elements that, that draw her into these deeper orbits of Black musical tradition, jazz versus folk.

"Nina Simone continues to be revived again and again and again. And maybe it's actually not even a revival. It's that she never left."
Shana L. Redmond, writer and music scholar at Columbia University who has written extensively on Nina Simone’s life and legacy

Teel: You mentioned earlier that this recording, especially of "Mississippi Goddam" having been a couple of years after the version that that folks have known, had not become dusty. I think there's an argument to be made that it still has not become dusty. Can you speak to Nina Simone's lasting impact on activism through art and the musical art form?

Redmond: I mean, Nina Simone continues to be revived again and again and again. And maybe it's actually not even a revival. It's that she never left. The fact that I see many of her recorded interviews constantly showing up as memes on (Instagram) and Twitter, that she is quoted incessantly, that there continues to be a deep curiosity about this person, has everything to do with how she was able to live her political life and her creative life simultaneously — that she never understood them as distinct. And I think for the fact that she lived both of them so robustly.

She will always be present for people who are trying to understand and live through that conjunction, trying to live as genuinely and honestly in this troubled, deeply broken world as they possibly can, and recognizing that music becomes a tool, if not the tool by which it might be transformed.

"You've Got to Learn," the new album of Nina Simone, is out Friday on Verve Records or your favorite streaming platform.

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Eric Teel comes to WFAE with more than 30 years of public radio programming experience across a wide variety of formats.