Nina Simone’s Most Beautifully Sad Songs

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Today would have been the great Nina Simone’s 80th birthday, and we’ve had her music on the stereo all morning here at Flavorpill central. In the spirit of commemorating her life and career, we thought we’d share some of the sounds we’ve been listening to. Simone was a singer able to capture many moods, of course — her range encompassed everything from the jittery portentousness of “Sinnerman” to the bruised, bleary-eyed optimism of “Feeling Good.” But we’ll be honest: we like the sad songs best. We always do.

“Plain Gold Ring”

We’ll start with a track that is a genuine contender for the coveted Saddest Song Ever Recorded prize: “Plain Gold Ring,” a mournful ballad about loving a man who’s married to another woman. Somehow it’s the fact that it’s a plain gold ring is the saddest thing of all. Nick Cave did a pretty great cover of this, by the way.

“Baltimore”

If you were a fan of The Wire, you’re probably already familiar with Simone’s take on Randy Newman’s sad depiction of Baltimore. The song’s underpinned by a deceptively jaunty bassline and reggae-tinged instrumentation, but Simone’s delivery is as emotive as ever — a fact made all the more remarkable by the fact that she apparently hated both the recording and the resultant song.

“I’ve Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”

Pretty much every jazz singer under the sun has recorded this Duke Ellington standard at some time or another, but few have imbued it with the soul that Simone did. We submit that plenty of today’s singers could learn a great deal from the way she renders emotion into every note — not with bombast, but with subtlety and restraint. The song’s lyrics are simple enough — “My baby never treats me sweet and gentle the way he should/ I got it bad and that ain’t good” — but the delivery is heartbreaking.

“Love Me Or Leave Me”

And, indeed, many of Simone’s saddest songs boil down to the simple equation of this song’s title — they’re ballads of unrequited love, lost love, and love that never was. This is perhaps the simplest of them all, a song whose impact is only heightened by its lyrical simplicity.

“Little Girl Blue”

An enduringly strange piece of work, this recording of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s classic counterpoints Simone’s mournful vocal with a tinking piano accompaniment that references “Good King Wenceslas.” The song gave its name to the very first album she ever recorded, way back in 1958, and Hart’s lyrics are some of the saddest Simone ever sang. This remains arguably the definitive version of a song that’s been recorded by many, many people over the years.

“Nobody”

You may be familiar with Johnny Cash’s version of this from American III, or one of the song’s other incarnations — as with “Little Girl Blue,” it’s an old, old song that’s been recorded a lot over the years — but again, it’s Simone’s version that just kills us. She imbues the song with a melancholy that belies its actually rather truculent lyrics (“Until I get somethin’ from somebody, sometime/ I don’t intend to do nothin’ for nobody, no time”) and leaves you with a sense of its abiding sadness.

“For a While”

This live recording comes from Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London, and dates back to 1985. Oh, to have been there.

“Mississippi Goddam”

Simone’s great civil rights song was banned in several Southern states, ostensibly because of the “goddam” in its title, but in reality because it was a coruscating howl of exasperation at the ongoing mistreatment of black citizens in the south. The song painted a portrait of “Hound dogs on my trail/ School children sitting in jail,” and came with a bitterly ironic midsection where Simone listed the stereotypes thrown at black people: “Washing the windows… Picking the cotton… You’re just plain rotten… You’re too damn lazy.” It ends with a simple appeal: “You don’t have to live next to me/ Just give me my equality.” Sadly, things were never going to be that simple.

“Ne Me Quitte Pas”

Nothing will ever be quite as devastatingly sad as Jacques Brel’s original version, but Simone’s comes close — and she sounds beautiful singing in French, even if her accent isn’t perfect.

“Trouble in Mind”

And finally, we’ll leave on a relatively upbeat note. Relatively, we said. Of course, this song isn’t exactly all smooth sailing: “I’m gonna lay my head down/ On some lonesome railroad line/ And let the two nineteen train/ Ease my troubled mind.” But still, thoughts of suicide aside, the song’s relatively upbeat instrumentation and its refrain’s insistence that “I’m blue, but I won’t be blue always/ ‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine/ In my backdoor some day” at least contains some sort of home that things might get better. One day.