Nina Simone: I Loves You Porgy (1962)
People can rightfully argue over the racial politics of Gershwin’s musical Porgy and Bess but I’ll just put this out there: whatever “I Loves You Porgy” was meant to convey to Broadway audiences, once Nina Simone got her hands on it, it has, for me, become one of the most devastating performances of love and terror I’ve ever heard performed. The lyrics – “I loves you Porgy, don’t let him take him, don’t let him put his hands on me” – are about the relationship between Bess and her pimp, Crown but I inevitably always read an underlying reference back to slavery as well. Either way, this song, in Simone’s hands, is unspeakably affecting in the same way I get around Billie Holiday performing “Strange Fruit” or Coltrane blowing the opening lines to “Alabama.”
I had never seen this live version before (thanks to the Clutterer) and while I still like her original recorded version the best, just seeing Simone, so young and vibrant, is a blessing unto itself. Ella Fitzgerald, for many years, has been my favorite female vocalist (not to mention my daughter’s namesake) but as I get older, I find a poignancy in Simone’s career and character that resonates as richly as her voice.
By the way, not like I’m not the billionth person to say this but YouTube is simply incredible. I don’t want to make light of the copyright controversies that plague the site (more so now that Google money has made it even more attractive for the litigious) but in terms of as a resource for finding these miracles of cultural moments formerly lost to the dustbin of history, it’s really been one of the most amazing resources I’ve seen. I think now that we’ve crossed this threshold, we’re never going back: even if YouTube gets shut down, there will almost certainly be others to take their place (just look at what happened post-Napster and Audiogalaxy…assuming you have a memory that goes back far enough to actually remember Napster and Audiogalaxy).