(Dorian Lynskey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/22.)
Nina Simone’s album Black Gold, recorded at New York’s Philharmonic Hall on 26 October 1969, concludes with a deeply moving performance of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. The song took its name from a hit play about Lorraine Hansberry, the celebrated playwright who had converted Simone to political activism before dying young in 1965. As she spoke about Hansberry, Simone’s voice creaked with emotion. “I think that very soon now, maybe four or five weeks, I won’t be able to sing it anymore because each time I do it she comes a little bit closer and I miss her a little bit more.”
In Liz Garbus’s new Netflix documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? we see rows of black students enraptured by the song she called “the Black national anthem”, her biggest hit since I Loves You, Porgy a decade earlier. It had the pride and optimism of the cover versions she had alchemised into civil rights anthems: Feeling Good, I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, Ain’t Got No/I Got Life. But her Philharmonic performance revealed the undercurrents of pain and loss that were slowly dragging her under.