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Nina Simone: The High Priestess of Jewish Soul

There’s this video that’s been floating around for a few years of Nina Simone covering the Israeli folk song “Eretz Zavat Chalav u’Dvash” (Land of Milk and Honey), but there has never been an adequate explanation as to why the “High Priestess of Soul” decided to cover the song in 1962. After a few listens, I realized like most of Simone’s work, it didn’t need an explanation, because most everything the woman did was golden.

Enter Nadine Cohoda. Her recently released, stunning biography on Simone, Princess Noire- The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon), was wonderful, but couldn’t explain why Simone covered that Israeli song.

Here, Ms. Cohoda sheds a little light on the subject, and also gives us more insight into one of the most celebrated and misunderstood artists of the 20th Century.

Nina Simone, known to many as the High Priestess of Soul, known, too, for her fierce advocacy of racial justice, must seem an unlikely interpreter of an Israeli folk song. Yet in 1962, as her career was taking off, she incorporated “Eretz Zavat Chalev” – “The Land of Milk and Honey” – into her repertoire.  The song provided an early example of Nina’s  eclectic musical taste and her interest in moving beyond the sounds and makeup of the  traditional jazz combo – piano, bass, and drums.

One of her first performances of “Eretz” came on the CBS program Camera Three in the fall of 1962, barely two months after her daughter Lisa was born.  Nina had just brought a new percussionist into her combo, Montego Joe, and the song gave her a chance to feature him. He opened her rendition of the “Eretz” beating out a crisp rhythm,  the camera focused on his fast hand work as he moved up and back  on the dumbeq, his specially made hour-glass drum.

A few months later, in the spring of 1963, Nina presented the song again at Carnegie Hall, pairing it with another Israeli folk song performed as an instrumental, again featuring Montego Joe. The song was listed in the program as  “Vaynikehu,” but Nina candidly told the audience that “since we don’t know how to pronounce the name, we call it a  tune in 5-4 rhythm.”

Later in the year, Nina sang “Eretz” during one of her more unusual concert dates, as part of the nationally syndicated folk-music television program, Hootenanny.  Nina was booked for the show that was being taped at Salem College in Clarksburg, West Virginia.  Judging by the many smiling photographs during her set, Nina enjoyed herself. In retrospect, this performance of “Eretz”  would help define  a coda to the first chapter of her career.  Within months she  would focus her music with increasing urgency on the cause of civil rights.

Nadine Cohodas is the author of Princess Noire- The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon), which was released last month. Her previous book was Queen- The Life and Music of Dinah Washington (Pantheon). She lives in Washington, D.C.

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