Jun 272023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Nina Simone Just Like A Woman

Today’s One Great Cover post is a guest post written by Graley Herren, and is excerpted from his post “Just Like Nina Simone’s Blues” on his Substack Shadow Chasing with his permission. We’re grateful for the opportunity to present it here.

When Bob Dylan was named the 2015 MusiCares Person of the Year, he delivered a thoughtful acceptance speech in which he reflected upon his musical inspirations, including “The High Priestess of Soul”:

Nina Simone. I used to cross paths with her in New York City in the Village Gate nightclub. She was an artist I definitely looked up to. She recorded some of my songs that she learned directly from me, sitting in a dressing room. She was an overwhelming artist, piano player, and singer. Very strong woman, very outspoken, and dynamite to see perform. That she was recording my songs validated everything that I was about. Nina was the kind of artist I loved and admired.

The admiration was mutual, though it was tempered by Simone’s acute awareness of Dylan’s comparatively privileged access to the star-making machinery of American pop culture. In a 1966 interview, Simone lamented,

I have no faith that the greatest talent in this country will get any recognition while they’re alive. Perhaps Bob Dylan, but me, and Billie [Holiday] before me, and [John] Coltrane—in the jazz circles, yes, but not the general public. I don’t believe that the talent that would be considered artistic in this country is going to get any recognition, and that includes me.

Simone numbered Dylan among “the greatest talent in this country,” but her main point was to decry the biased inequity with which respect for such talent was granted or denied.

That said, Simone paid Dylan the highest compliment one musician can give another by performing several of his songs, and doing so with profound sensitivity. Late in life, her esteem for Dylan was unequivocal. In Princess Noire, biographer Nadine Cohodas points out that Simone kept a picture of Dylan on the wall of her French home in Bouc-Bel-Air, hanging next to a photo of Little Richard. Her friend Precious Williams visited there in 1999, and as she was leaving Simone told her, “Please tell my public that there aren’t many of us geniuses still living. Hardly any of us left at all. It’s down to Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Frank Sinatra, except Frank’s already dead.”

Simone and Dylan’s musical paths intersected most directly when she covered five of his songs during a five-year span: “The Ballad of Hollis Brown” on Let It All Out (1966); “I Shall Be Released,” “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on To Love Somebody (1969); and “Just Like a Woman” on Here Comes the Sun (1971). All of these performances are noteworthy, but for this post I want to focus on “Just Like a Woman” as a comparative case study in the artistry of Simone and Dylan.

Simone’s “Just Like a Woman” has to be on anyone’s short list of the greatest Dylan covers ever. Like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Simone’s “Just Like a Woman” is so damn good that it threatens to eclipse Dylan’s original, so thoroughly does she absorb the song and make it her own.

First, it’s worth remembering that this is one of Dylan’s more controversial songs. In 1971, the same year Simone released her moving rendition, Marion Meade published a column in the New York Times titled “Does Rock Degrade Women?” There, she singled out this song as quintessentially misogynistic: “There’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs than Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman,’ in which he defines woman’s natural traits as greed, hypocrisy, whining, and hysteria. But isn’t that cute, he concludes, because it’s ‘just like a woman.’ For a finale he throws in the patronizing observation that adult women have a way of breaking ‘just like a little girl.’” However, the song is more complicated than that, as feminist critics like Laura Tenschert have taught me to recognize.

A selective reading of the lyrics is pretty damning, particularly in the chorus:

She takes just like a woman, yes, she does
She makes love just like a woman, yes, she does
She aches just like a woman
But she breaks just like a little girl

Hard to defend those remarks on the page, which read as condescending paternalism. But songs are written to be sung, not read. Listen to Dylan sing “Just Like a Woman” and you probably won’t hear hate or smug superiority. He has sung his share of sneering putdowns, but this doesn’t sound like one of them.

The word “aches” carries a lot of weight in this song. We’re told about a woman who allegedly aches, but what we actually hear is a male voice in pain. By the end, it seems Dylan has been setting us up all along for a reversal. The singer finally admits that he’s the one hurting. He sings in an increasingly frantic tone:

It was raining from the first
And I was dying there of thirst
So I came in here
And your long-time curse hurts
But what’s worse
Is this pain in here
I can’t stay in here

He can’t handle it. He’s been putting up a tough front, but it’s all been an act. He accuses her of being weak and wounded, when in fact he’s the damaged one–he is broken like a little boy.

Songs are meant to be sung, and it matters who does the singing. “Just Like a Woman” becomes a different work when interpreted by talented women artists like Roberta Flack, Carly Simon, Stevie Nicks, Norah Jones, and Ren Harvieu. No singer channels the song’s fragility more effectively than Simone in her achingly beautiful performance for Here Comes the Sun.

Simone’s most daring artistic intervention comes at the end of the song, when she switches from third- to first-person:

I take just like a woman, yes I do
And I make love just like a woman
And I ache just like a woman
But I break just like a little girl

Over the span of that final chorus, she crosses entire continents of emotion, from an explorer planting her flag on the highest mountaintop, to a scared little girl shivering at the bottom of a well. She takes a song sometimes derided for perpetuating shallow gender stereotypes and finds a foothold for a complex woman’s perspective.

The line “I break just like a little girl” assumes an extra layer of meaning when sung by Simone. Her first album was Little Girl Blue (1958). She recorded the title song multiple times throughout her career, and “Little Girl Blue” was a mainstay of her concert setlists for many years. If you’re familiar with Simone’s oeuvre, it’s impossible to listen to her sing “I break just like a little girl” without hearing echoes of “Won’t somebody send a little tender blue boy / To cheer up little girl blue?” Furthermore, in the present context “Little Girl Blue” reverberates with Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”: “Strike another match, go start anew / And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.”

Simone begins her reclamation of “Just Like a Woman” in 1971, but she emphatically completes it with an earth-shattering performance in São Paulo, Brazil, on April 13, 2000. She sings in first-person from the start in this rendition. Despite having been in poor health for several years (she died of breast cancer three years later), she summons every fiber of vitality for this magnificent performance. It’s the conclusion where she creates something magical and transcendent. She dives down to the bottom of the pool, touches the floor, and then launches herself skyward. Go to the 4:45 mark of the video and witness this miracle for yourself.

Simone heads into the final chorus as you would expect:

I take just like a woman
Mmmmm, I make love just like a woman
And I a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ache just like a woman
But I bre-a-a-ak . . . .
[Long pause.]
I used to break
I don’t break anymore
They can’t do anything else bad to me anymore
Anything worse than they’ve done before
So I don’t ache
I’m not a little GIIIIRRRRRRRL!

So much for fragility, eh? Simone takes a sledgehammer to the song and shatters it to smithereens. Harmony Holiday writes a Substack called Black Music and Black Muses. In “Black Swans,” a recent piece on the “elegant belligerence” of Nina Simone, Holiday captures the animating tension that drives some of Simone’s most powerful performances: “There’s a thrashing quality to Nina Simone’s virtuosity–it extends beyond her sensibility almost violently, in sudden bursts and languid retreats. Her tonal palate is where vulnerability and vengeance meet and stare one another down until either sentiment cracks and unburdens the other.” The convergence Holiday describes, “where vulnerability and vengeance meet,” perfectly encapsulates Simone’s fierce “Just Like a Woman” in 2000 São Paulo.

After blowing the audience away, Simone rises from the piano bench, takes a deep bow, drinks in the adulation from her awestruck fans–and then she sits back down and finishes the song again! Hey, she just completely reinvented “Just Like a Woman,” and that was so much fun she decides to reinvent it again at 6:42 and following:

I take just like a woman, yes I do
I’m gonna take me a yacht soon just like a woman!
And I a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ache just like a woman
And I don’t break–NO!
I don’t break like a little GIIIIRRRRRRRL!

Here comes and there goes the rising sun that outshines all others. Simone takes what Meade heard as “a complete catalogue of sexist slurs” and turns it into a blazing feminist manifesto.

Simone’s reinterpretation of “Just Like a Woman” is more than a cover: it’s an artistic intervention and a powerful political act. NPR music critic Ann Powers explains how this re-creative process works. She begins by asking, “What does it take for a work of art to become an intervention?” Powers tells us precisely what it takes:

In music, any reinterpretation alters the original, if only because different fingerprints touch it. But certain lineages — folk music, for example — are built on the bones of those retellings. Whoever owns a song for a period of time connects it to her lived experience and the world in which she lives, and it changes. It might also change the world, or a small part of it. This is the political power of the single voice: not to dictate or even necessarily cajole, but to state truths from a different perspective that shows earlier tellings to be shockingly incomplete. The song opens up and receives this new information; listeners hear it and realize something fresh about their own lives. They may even be compelled to act.

Powers was referring specifically to Rhiannon Giddens’s Tomorrow Is My Turn, but she might just as well have been writing about Nina Simone’s 2000 performance of “Just Like a Woman.”

Read Graley Herren’s entire essay at his Shadow Chasing newsletter.

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  One Response to “One Great Cover: Nina Simone’s “Just Like a Woman””

Comments (1)
  1. Gawd, what an exquisite piece of writing, not just about this song and Nina, but also about the art and profundity of the best cover versions.

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