John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Nina Simone for St. Patricks Day?

Her take on “Black Is The Color Of My True Love's Hair” is a haunting cultural crossover.

By - Mar 15th, 2019 12:55 pm
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Nina Simone. Photo by Ron Kroon / Anefo [CC0]

Nina Simone. Photo by Ron Kroon / Anefo [CC0]

Songs are fence jumpers. Why should they respect the boundaries small minded mortals erect when they can sail over walls and oceans? They sneak into places they’re not supposed to on radio waves and are carried in the hearts of weary travelers to new homes. Nina Simone singing “Black Is The Color Of My True Love’s Hair” is a good example of this super power. The song is claimed by the Irish although it almost certainly originated in Scotland. It’s been sung by women and men ever since and will continue to inspire anyone who hears it, no matter the version.

If songs behaved like people we’d be in big trouble. Luckily they don’t — they emanate from an unknown place where I assume millions more are waiting their turn to appear. They bring with them hope, joy, humor, honesty, comradery and the ability to change our stubborn little hearts. The best ones change lives, but it takes a lot of lesser ones to make these possible. Though those commercial annoyances dominate the landscape most of the time, they fade into the background when you hear an artist like Ms. Simone sing a great one.

Ireland is a country where few are shy about singing. I’ve never gotten there, but I know many who have and they describe a Utopia where songs break out in pubs or homes after dinner as casually as small talk. Will someone book me a date over there, please? The Irish brought their songs with them when they came to America and, along with other European tunes, they ran smack dab that other mighty immigrant, African music. After the smoke cleared we were all listening to rock and roll.

Tired old nationalism is now experiencing what we hope is just a temporary uptick. Its champions would like to to keep things pure and separate, but a good song laughs at their feeble attempts. There was no chance this unforgettable gem was going to stay put in the Scottish Highlands. It reached our shores and went in as many directions as the people who sang it. This version shows it’s equally spellbinding even in a non-traditional setting.

I assume you know Ms. Simone, I’ve written about her before. But if you don’t, go ahead and google her. Better yet, find her on Youtube and join the ranks of the converted. She was a unique talent, supremely confident in her own African skin. A schooled musician who started as a classical pianist, but found nightclubs much more welcoming than concert halls, which used to be much more segregated. But she was unstoppable and thank God for that.

Folk songs are the ultimate fluid art form, always being updated by the singer. Here are the lyrics she sang, but there are certainly many other versions:

Black is the color of my true love’s hair
His face so soft and wondrous fair
The purest eyes
And the strongest hands
I love the ground on where he stands
I love the ground on where he stands

Black is the color of my true love’s hair
Of my true love’s hair
Of my true love’s hair

Oh I love my lover
And well he knows
Yes I love the ground on where he goes
And still I hope that the time will come
Still I pray that the time will come
When he and I will be as one

Black is the color of my true love’s hair
Of my true love’s hair
Of my true love’s hair

Public Domain

You may find someone’s name at the bottom of a song like this, but keep in mind music publishing is a concept that wasn’t around when the anonymous Scotsman who wrote this went looking for the local copyright office. “Public Domain” might be the epitaph inscribed at the Tomb of the Unknown Songwriter.

One archaic construction I like in the lyrics is the clumsy but somehow formal sounding “I love the ground on where he stands.” This courtly turn of phrase gives the song a touch of timelessness. Nina’s classical training is obvious all the way through — a beautiful moment in the form of a surprise chord shows up at 1:23. Our brains and ears are wired to expect a minor in this kind of song. Why that is I can’t say, but when she plays a major chord instead, magic happens and the heavens open up. I’m not sure who to thank for that moment, the song’s author or Ms. Simone.

About halfway through, one of her guitarists, Emile Latimer, takes over. He plays the melody on his gut string guitar before singing the rest of the song. On the record it’s taken from, they are two separate tracks. It’s done with so little fuss you’d almost think this kind of thing is easy, but it isn’t. Notice how well the song works on both sides of the gender divide. Note to songwriters: lose pronouns and double your audience!

The Black Irish were descended from Spanish invaders on the western shores of the Emerald Isle. This song probably reminded countless Irish men and women of their dark haired crush. Over here it’s pretty much the same. Like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl,” or Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” it may have been code for crossing racial boundaries. And in this performance, you can read it as an anthem of Black Pride if you choose. Calling this song a fence jumper might be understatement, pole vaulter probably describes it better.

Note: Many thanks to Kenosha Homie and true Irishman, David Kennedy, for suggesting this song. For another much more Irish take on the song, here’s Christy Moore with his spellbinding version.

One thought on “Sieger on Songs: Nina Simone for St. Patricks Day?”

  1. Thomas Gaudynski says:

    In other traditions, there is Patty Waters singing the song on her 1965 ESP-Disk LP “Sings” where she pre-dates Yoko Ono with extended vocalise singing the song for over 14 minutes.

    Another piece of music, Jacques Bekaert’s ambient “Mon Petit Album” on his 1983 Igloo LP titled “A Late Lunch” has an unnamed vocalist in the last minute of this 11 minute piece plaintively sing the lyric while a few other people remark, “It was a beautiful day.” Indeed.

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