We have often posted about political situations without (we hope) resorting to soapbox demagoguery, because in the end our interest in this forum is to encourage enthusiasm for discovering the world through recorded sound. It is an unfortunate fact that sometimes discovering the world is an ugly process, and one is quickly found at a loss to feel otherwise reading the daily news, which so often inspires our approach to the countless archives of albums at our disposal.
In spite of this, its inspiring how often the expressions encapsulated in their grooves offers us encouragement. People have been struggling to live together since … well since we’ve been people. And we’ve likely been singing songs about one another all along as well. Sometimes one is so unmoved after reading the news at breakfast that the day could become a burden if there weren’t something to reintroduce the magic in this world (we are fortunate to have two wonderful children who do this every day). And sometimes a song from a half century in the past offers some solace.
While we have posted about police profiling in the past, we have not previously used the phrase “black lives matter,” and have not shared our opinions. People are, understandably, much more interested in what we have to say about something like our favorite local albums of the year or whether heavyweight vinyl LPs are really all they’re claimed to be. Our discomfort with the recent retort — “all lives matter” — has left us at a loss, and (as we always do) we turned to our record collection for an answer, which was found in the form of this 1967 album by Nina Simone.
Poet Langston Hughes wrote the lyrics to “Backlash Blues” for Simone, who recorded the song for her debut album for RCA/Victor, Nina Simone Sings the Blues. On the album she is backed by studio ringers (a pretty awesome band including Eric Gale and Bernard Purdie) instead of the musicians she worked with for most of her career. Still, RCA clearly recognized Simone’s immense potential in allowing a song like “Backlash Blues” at a time when it was likely a deal-breaker to most corporations. Simone’s albums for RCA mark a steady progression away from jazz but also some of the best whatever-it-is on album. Even her interpretations of overplayed Beatles songs are rewarding.
Hughes sent his lyrics to Simone during their correspondence late in his life. The inventive poet was in fact also a prolific songwriter, working with everyone from James P. Johnson and Kurt Weill to Duke Ellington. And we were so excited to collect his songs for you and started gathering up albums and singles and cd’s and things before we learned somebody had already done it. In fact, someone has done it exceptionally well. We encourage you to listen to David Brent Johnson’s program Hughes Blues: the Langston Hughes Songbook, produced for Indiana’s WFIU radio in 2011.
And also we encourage you to consider many proposals resulting from the “black lives matter” movement, especially the case for body cameras on law enforcement, but also the work on other issues, especially educational inequities. Here in what we truly believe is the best city in America, progress has been made in the achievement gap, but it has been slow and uncertain. If there is anything Simone expressed in her music, especially the albums she made for RCA between Sings the Blues in 1967 and It Is Finished seven years later, it is that we can do better. Right from the very beginning we can do so much better.