Folk music, in particular, invokes an emotional response from its listeners. The music shows itself to be raw at times and can often express emotions and deep thoughts better than any orator or author. Nina Simone is one of the twentieth century’s best examples of consistent producers of thought-invoking music. In the footsteps of Quiett Jenkins, an analysis into Simone’s 1966 tune “Four Women” or as Quiett Jenkins puts it, “An Ode to Mammies, Tragic Mulattas, Whores & Angry Bitches” is presented here. In Simone’s 1969 performance of “Four Women”, she speaks directly to the soul of the listener with just her unique voice accompanied by few instruments.
Simone, a jazz artist turned political activist, assimilated into the white world and produced chart-topping hits before being shunned by those who once uplifted her. Simone is most notable for writing songs relating to events in the Civil Rights Movement such as the murder of Medgar Evers in “Mississippi Goddam” and the 16th Street church bombing in Birmingham in “Four Women”. After being shunned by the American people, she retreated to France where she gives this live performance. The first observation I made occurred before Simone even began to sing. I noticed her appearance: dark skin, a large, flat nose, dangling earrings, and her hair and body wrapped in what appears to be a traditional cloth.
In Verse 1, Simone introduces a figure many of her Black counterparts can relate with. The first woman describes herself having black skin, long arms, woolly hair and a strong back. Simone embodies the spirit of each woman she portrays. When singing the lines “My hair is woolly/ My back is strong,” she gestures to her hair and her back respectively. Additionally, her voice aches when she sings “Strong enough to take the pain” and she has a tired demeanor throughout the verse. She ends the first verse by revealing herself as “Aunt Sarah”. Aunt Sarah is the caretaker of the family. She is the one everyone looks to for strength when they struggle to find it within themselves. Aunt Sarah is a mother, a grandmother, an aunt, and every other maternal figure in the lives of Black men and women.
In Verse 2, Simone introduces the plight of biracial women and Black women who feel like outsiders in general. The second woman describes herself as having yellow skin and long hair. When singing the line, “Between two worlds/ I do belong”, Simone embodies the spirit of the second woman and has a lost look on her face demonstrating a woman of mixed-race descent not knowing if she belongs to a black world or a white one. She ends the second verse by revealing herself as “Saffronia”. Simone gives creditability to biracial women through Saffronia, which is often not recognized in black or white communities.
In Verse 3, Simone relates to the hyper-sexualized aspect of Black women. The third woman describes herself as having tan skin and fine hair. Simone embodies the spirit of the third woman by moving away from her piano and moving her hips to the beat of the music. Additionally, she sings the line “My hips invite you/ My mouth like wine” in a whispery, seductive tone. Simone ends the third verse by revealing herself as Sweet Thing. Sweet Thing embodies the fantasy men have towards Black women. Simone also recognizes the reality of Black women much like Sweet Thing that have to cater to men’s sexual fantasies as a way of securing work.
In the last verse, Simone invokes the inner activist in the listener. The last woman describes herself as having brown skin and a tough manner. Simone embodies the spirit of the last woman by aggressively playing her piano keys and having a slight fire in her eyes. Simone reveals the identity of the last woman while simultaneously reaching a tipping point when expressing her anger at the world around her as she sings “My name is Peaches.” The last woman portrays a feeling when descendants of the Diaspora are reminded of their ancestors’ plight when singing “I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves”. It’s the feeling I had leaving the movie theater after watching Selma. Peaches symbolizes the feeling of anger towards those who have oppressed us as we still feel the effects of feeling inferior.
Upon a first listen, particularly to a non-black male listener, it appears as though Simone presents these negative stereotypes as a representation of black women as a whole. Upon deeper analysis, Simone shows that these stereotypes are equally a part of our community and should not have their voices diminished.
Quiett Jenkins, R. (2008). The songs of black (women) folk: Music, politics, and everyday living. Retrieved February 15, 2021, from https://blackmusicscholar.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/The-songs-of-black-women-folk_-music-politics-and-everyday-l.pdf
“Four Women.”YouTube, uploaded by Nina Simone, Retrieved February 9, 2022, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgoRc3GoXo8.