Remembering Nina Simone’s 1968 Tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

Nina Simone with her daughter, Lisa, in 1968Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty

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There’s a moment in Nina Simone’s tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., performed three days after he was killed, in 1968, when you can hear her exhale an under-the-breath “hm.” (Listen at the 1:34 mark.) It’s a sound of many things. It’s a note of contemplation, commemoration, exhaustion, and anguish. It’s also a sound of resilience and strength, a single syllable that reflects some of the history of ’68. Much has changed in the intervening decades, but her echoes continue.

As she began to sing, she told the audience, “This whole program is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. You know that anyway.” Her bassist had written it hours earlier. It’s not just “a performance,” she added. “Not microphones and all that…but really something else.” In one verse she asks, “Will my country stand or fall? Is it too late for us all? He was for equality for all people, you and me. Full of love and good will. Hate was not his way…Folks you’d better stop and think, and feel again, for we’re headed for the brink.”

In commemoration of MLK Jr. Day this year, Healdsburg Jazz streamed a resounding celebration of his life by the bassist and artistic director Marcus Shelby, pianist Tammy Hall, and vocalist Kim Nalley, who performed Simone’s song with a topspin that lifted melodically what, for Simone, was a mournful ballad. “Now more than ever we are compelled to use music as a healing force,” Shelby said.

Listen for Simone’s “hm” at 1:34 and “oh yeah” at 1:53. Here’s a second by Simone, with video, and, after, a jolting 2018 coda by the Surinamese Dutch singer Sabrina Starke.

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