Saturday 2 April 2011
Dylan Jones: 'Nina Simone didn't enjoy recording 'Baltimore' but it was one of her strongest albums'
One wonders how big a city has to be, or how small a town, to have a song written about it. By now most US state capitals must have had a song written about them and even the most inconsequential conurbations have been celebrated by alt.country's finest minds.
Randy Newman's "Baltimore" appeared first on his 1977 album Little Criminals, the narrator being a disaffected citizen of the city, bemoaning the hard times that have resulted in a sharp decline in the quality of life there. It's vague social commentary, but it's beautiful. No, not everyone in Baltimore liked it – online message boards are full of withering insults still, my favourite being "Go sodomise yourself with a chainsaw, Randy Newman" – yet it's still regarded as one of Newman's very best songs.
Melancholy lyrics, a hypnotic piano riff and a plaintive vocal make for one extraordinarily maudlin travelogue, one that could easily be called "Chicago", or "The Bronx".
"Baltimore" was famously covered by Nina Simone, on her 1978 album of the same name. She recorded it when she was living in Paris, for Creed Taylor's CTI label (Taylor was famous for bringing bossa nova to the US, and inventing Astrud Gilberto), not that she ever much cared for it.
The high priestess of soul found nothing about the record to shout about, let alone eulogise – she thought she had been gentrified, tarted-up and given a 'jazz' finish: "Jazz is a white term to define black people," she once said. She complained that she didn't enjoy recording it, as she didn't have any creative control over the song selection, the arrangements or even the cover (where – shock! – she was actually smiling). Ironically, it was one of her strongest albums ever.
On YouTube, you can now find a video of Simone's "Baltimore" set to various scenes from The Wire. You can also find a dissonant remix complete with glockenspiel and flute. Not that Nina would have liked it, she was a purist at heart. "I do not believe in mixing of the races," she said once. "I married a white man one time, but he was a creep."
Dylan Jones is the editor of GQ
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