Episode 5: Emergency Ward! (Nina Simone, 1972)
It’s 1971 at the Fort Dix army base. The impassioned crowd has grown impatient, and who could blame them?
“We want Nina! We want Nina!,” they chant.
“Nobody has taught us any patience,” Nina Simone laments in song, 6 minutes and 45 seconds into her nearly 19-minute cover version of George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." But of course by this moment, in this room there is nothing but patience: all within earshot hang on her words, and she leads by example, taking her sweet time.
Both the audience and the inhabitants of the crowded stage—packed with members from the Bethany Baptist Church Junior Choir of South Jamaica, New York—are dead silent, thrilling to Simone's sublime piano and improvised interleaving of themes from both "My Sweet Lord" and the David Nelson poem "Today is a Killer” before she brings the band and choir back for another round.
In a lovely bit of text-painting, each time the lyric "but it takes so long" is sung, the groove is suspended, the choir holds, and all wait—longer than you'd think—until, when she’s ready, Simone cues everyone in again with “my lord”—BAM.
Patience, patience, patience.
Simone had been including cover songs on her recordings from the beginning—her first hit being a version of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" in 1958. On the nine records she made for RCA between 1967 and 1974—with this album, Emergency Ward!, being the penultimate—one finds an astonishing breadth of covers, including many songs by her contemporaries. Along with Bob Dylan—four of whose tunes she'd released between 1969 and 1971—George Harrison was a main wellspring of material for her in the early 1970s. Two of his songs appeared on Emergency Ward! alone, and his Beatles hit "Here Comes the Sun," was the title track on her previous record.
Harrison's original version of "My Sweet Lord" featured the "Hare Krishna" mantra alongside the gospel-y "hallelujahs." The “Hare” of the chant, according to one interpretation, represents an alternate name of Vishnu, translated as "he who removes illusion."
In Simone's covers of pop songs, on this record and elsewhere, she has a fourth-wall-breaking penchant for disabusing songs of their illusions, often by interjecting allusions to her own feelings about the words. In the third and final track on the original pressing of Emergency Ward!—a quiet but fiery version of Harrison's "Isn't It a Pity"—she approaches Harrison’s lyric "and because of all their tears their eyes can't hope to see the beauty that surrounds them." But Simone turns the "theirs" into "ours" before interrupting herself to sing "though I don't think it's applicable to me." Then she does it again the second time around, adding, "that's not quite true." Hell, even her subconscious can't contain itself, slipping up and redirecting as she sings: "Because we cried so much our eyes can–can't hope to see."
She also appends Harrison’s “we’re all the same” with “we’re all guilty.”
In "Let It Be Me,” the bonus track that concludes the re-released album Simone and her brother Sam Waymon sing together, "Say that you love me only," after which she comments, "not quite, but almost."
Simone takes the songs she loves and tells her truth with them by folding their lyrics back on themselves, and by considering those lyrics in the moment to ensure that what she is singing is the truth, however much it might complicate or contradict the intended meaning of the song.
Back at Fort Dix, the second of the three break-downs within the "My Sweet Lord"/”Today is a Killer” medley provides a space for a more substantial reading of the poem, with all its talk of the grimy realities of the day. The combination of these two pieces itself draws back the veil of pop sentimentality. By nesting the gritty poem within the frame of "My Sweet Lord," written as it was with the gospel gem "Oh Happy Day" as its inspirational foundation, Simone doubles down on the idea that the Lord is refusing to show his face to those in need, and, like it or not, it's gonna be a while before he does.
This idea is played out most clearly in the final moments, which find Simone wailing "WHO ARE YOU LORD? YOU… ARE A KILLER," followed immediately by the choir's full-throated interjection of "Hallelujah!." The tag is powerful and glorious enough as it is, but, as it turns out, they were holding back. Thank patience you held out, because suddenly you're lifted to the heavens when the rest of the choir joins in for a final iteration of the chord.
Do yourself a favor and exercise the patience Simone claimed was so lacking—even back in the 1970s—and go listen to Emergency Ward! in its entirety. Then go on and check out the rest of Nina Simone’s catalog.
It'd be a pity not to.
I'm Josh Rutner, and that's your album of the week.