Nadine Cohodas is author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, which is now available in paperback from UNC Press. Read an excerpt from the book and catch Cohodas’s previous guest post, “The Power of Nina Simone’s Musical Versatility.” In this guest post, Cohodas discusses Simone’s incorporation of Israeli folk music in her early 1960s repertoire.
Nina Simone—the High Priestess of Soul to some, a fierce advocate of racial justice to others—would seem to be an unlikely interpreter of Israeli folk songs. Yet in 1962, as her career was taking off, Simone incorporated “Eretz Zavat Chalev” (“The Land of Milk and Honey”) into her repertoire. It proved to be an early example of her eclectic musical taste and one of her initial steps in moving beyond the traditional jazz combo—piano, bass, and drums—an evolution that would cement her place among world-renowned artists.
Not shy about trying out new material, Simone gave one of her first performances of “Eretz” for a national television audience on the CBS program Camera Three in the fall of 1962. Simone had just brought a new percussionist into her combo, Montego Joe, and she gave him star billing. He opened her interpretation of the song by beating out a crisp rhythm on the dumbeq, his specially made hourglass drum, as the camera homed on his fast-moving hands. Simone picked up the vocals, and her fellow musicians, heads bobbing, followed suit.
A few months later Simone presented “Eretz” at a spring 1963 concert at Carnegie Hall, pairing the song with another Israeli folk song performed as an instrumental. The program listed the song as “Vaynikehu,” but Simone admitted to the audience that “since we don’t know how to pronounce the name, we call it a tune in 5-4 rhythm.”
Simone was still featuring Montego Joe when she again performed “Eretz” later in 1963 in the unlikely setting of Salem College in Clarksburg, West Virginia. Even though Simone was hardly a traditional folk singer, the nationally syndicated television program Hootenanny invited her to tape a segment at the school for later airing. Judging by the smiles she flashed in photographs of the event, Simone enjoyed herself.
In retrospect, this performance of “Eretz” helped mark a coda to the first chapter of her long career. Within months, as the civil rights movement shifted into high gear, Simone would focus her music with increasing urgency on the cause of racial equality. And those well-scrubbed white college students in the audience now seemed like holdovers from another, more innocent era.
Nadine Cohodas is author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. See upcoming events at her author page on the UNC Press website.