Recorded in 1969 and released in 1970, Black Gold was one of the final albums released before Nina Simone’s time in the United States came to an abrupt end. The recording captures a performance given at New York’s Philharmonic Hall, in front of a sold-out crowd. Simone had released numerous live albums during the ‘60s, most of which were recorded in New York City at Midtown venues such as Carnegie Hall and The Town Hall. This concert found Simone at the very peak of both her fame and political passion, reflected in the incredible quality of the performance and her inspired choice of material.
Black Gold features a mixture of traditional folk songs, original compositions, and cover versions upon which Simone puts her own spin. She opens the performance with ‘Black Is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair’ a song with roots in Scotland, where it was first played as a ballad with lyrics referencing the River Clyde. It later found its way to the Appalachian Mountains and was reworked by musicians such as John Jacob Niles, who transformed the traditional melody into a new tune played in the modal manner. The song had since been covered extensively by artists including Jo Stafford and Joan Baez, and eventually found its way into the standard repertoire of Simone, who revitalised the song’s mainstream popularity.
This is swiftly followed by arguably Simone’s most widely beloved song ‘Aint Got No – I Got Life’. It had originally been released just a year prior to the performance, in 1968, as a single from her album ‘Nuff Said, and was an instant success charting at number 2 in the UK and number 1 in the Netherlands. The song appealed greatly to a younger audience and was in fact a medley of two numbers taken from the Broadway musical Hair. Its infectiously upbeat attitude marked it as one of the most joyous moments in Simone’s discography – a radical statement of self-love and acceptance which was predictably co-opted by countless advertising agencies. Her soaring and rapid rendition on Black Gold is buoyed by the rhythm section’s vibrant energy, bristling with a percussive movement that only heightens the song’s life-affirming message.
The rhythmic thrust continues on ‘Westwind’, a song which Simone learned from her friend, the South African singer Miriam Makeba. Nicknamed “Mama Africa”, she was a fellow civil rights activist and a United Nations goodwill ambassador who had used her fame as a singer, songwriter, and actress to fight the apartheid regime in her country. It was Makeba’s belief that activism and popular culture could support one another when the two were entwined, and she held friendships with Marlon Brando, Lauren Bacall, Louis Armstrong, and Ray Charles during her time in the US..
Simone’s sharp and dry sense of humour on Black Gold creates a contrast which imbues its most melancholy moments with an even greater potency. ‘Who Knows Where the Time Goes’ is perhaps the most viscerally moving song of the entire performance, possessing a simplicity and universality which resounds with incredible power. Inspired by another folk composition (this time written by Sandy Denny of the British band the Strawbs), she performs the song with a sparse arrangement accentuated by flourishes of late-night jazz from her piano.
But Black Gold is especially notable for its performance of one of SImone’s finest civil rights anthems, ‘To Be Young Gifted And Black’. Recorded and released in 1969 it was written in collaboration with the composer and multi-instrumentalist Weldon Irvine, in memory of Simone’s late friend Lorraine Hansberry – author of the play A Raisin in the Sun. She was admired by fellow creatives and activists, such as James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr., as one of the most insightful writers on the experience of African Americans in modern society, and became the godmother to Simone’s daughter Lisa. Simone is joined on stage by a chorus of singers, reinforcing the song’s message of communal uprising and the elevation of marginalised black talent. Her forthright introduction explains that “It is not addressed to white people – it does not put you down in any way, it simply ignores you… For my people need all the inspiration and love they can get.” Simone’s performance of the song ranks among her finest, reaching moments of ecstatic release which rival the joyous energy of a gospel choir, its inspirational message hammered home with an insatiable passion. Many decades later it remains a touchstone of soul, hip hop, R&B, and the entire post civil-rights diaspora.
Black Gold offers a brief snapshot of Simone performing at a definitive moment in her career, and is a testament to her undoubtedly deserving the title “High Priestess of Soul”. The magisterial elegance of her music, both formidable and beautiful, is heard not only in the proficiency of her playing but the rapturous reception she receives from the crowd in attendance on that early autumn evening. It’s a reminder that her talent was backed up by a singular personality – one that was in equal parts difficult, divisive, bold, and uncompromising. Black Gold offers us the privilege to hear this persona in all its unvarnished, raw and powerful glory, keeping the restless spirit of an incredible woman alive in the hearts of those she inspired.