Nina Simone was always ahead of her time. And in the mid-1960s she found a fellow musical innovator and ideal feminist collaborator in the jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln, whom she teamed up with to write the song “Blues for Mama.” When Simone performed it at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1966, she introduced it as “a gutbucket blues.”
“It will appeal to a certain type of woman,” she said, “who has had this kind of experience.”
That experience was domestic violence, a trauma that the titular Mama endured and that others blamed her for causing. “They say you’re mean and evil/Don’t know what to do,” Simone sang. “And that’s the reason that he’s gone/And left you black-and-blue.”
I’ve been intrigued by “Blues for Mama” since I first heard it on Simone’s 1967 album “Nina Simone Sings the Blues.” And now, thanks to Verve Records’ recent issue of the previously unreleased recording of her Newport performance — packaged as the album “You’ve Got to Learn” — we have an even earlier version of the song out in the world.
“Blues for Mama” signified a new moment. Rather than accept the abuse and the negative rumors, Nina tells Mama to set the record straight: “It wasn’t you that caused his bitter fate.”
The track appears at the album’s midpoint, before the politically trenchant “Mississippi Goddam,” a song Simone wrote in response to two tragedies in 1963: the assassination of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the murder of four African American girls in a church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.
Her fans are likely to have appreciated “Blues for Mama” as further proof of her musical dexterity and ability to seamlessly move across genres. And it stands out as one of few songs from the era to explicitly take on gender-based violence, actively refusing to blame the victim. “They say you love to fuss and fight/And bring a good man down,” Simone narrated. “And don’t know how to treat him/When he takes you on the town.”
At the time, Lincoln, too, was known for both her vocal virtuosity and her radical politics, including her collaboration as the lead singer on “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” the civil rights jazz album from the bebop drummer Max Roach, whom she later married. Though “Blues for Mama” is one of Lincoln’s earlier songwriting credits, it isn’t so surprising that she and Simone chose to embed their critique of sexism within a blues format.
“Violence against women was always an appropriate topic for the blues,” the activist Angela Davis wrote in the book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.” Davis goes on to say that this is because the blues, as a genre, often blurred the boundaries that separate the “private sphere from the public,” making the violence that Black people experience in their homes as lyrically and politically relevant as what happened to them outdoors and on the road.
Lincoln and Simone were, in some ways, extending a tradition that dated back to the early 20th century, when classic blues singers recorded songs about domestic violence, among them Ma Rainey in “Black Eye Blues” (written by Thomas A. Dorsey) and Bessie Smith in “Outside of That” (by Jo Trent and Clarence Williams).
Later, Billie Holiday sang, “Well, I’d rather my man would hit me/Than for him to jump up and quit me” in her cover of the blues standard “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business if I Do.” (It’s worth noting that Dianne Reeves changed those lyrics in her 1997 take on the song to, “I’d rather my man quit me/Than for him to even rear up and think about how he might even try to hit me.”) Except for Rainey’s “Cell Bound Blues,” about a woman jailed for shooting her violent lover, most blues songs presented abuse against women matter-of-factly and as one of many experiences that led to their feeling the blues.
“Blues for Mama” was the rare protest song that could galvanize multiple social justice movements — civil rights, women’s liberation and Black Power — at once. It would take a quarter century for Simone to reveal in her memoir, “I Put a Spell On You,” that her marriage in the 1960s to Andy Stroud was rife with violence, while Lincoln would later allude to the tumult in her relationship with Roach.
“He was a great big drummer, but he was a gorilla,” Lincoln told The Chicago Tribune. “I got tired of him ‘gorilla-ing’ me and telling me what I had to do.” She also revisited the themes in the later part of her career when she, divorced from Roach, established herself as a consummate songwriter. She recorded “Blues for Mama” as “Hey, Lordy Mama” in 1995, and addressed abuse in the ballad “And It’s Supposed to Be Love” (1999).
Perhaps Simone sensed even back then that “Blues for Mama” would have to be rediscovered to be more fully appreciated. That July evening at the Newport festival, she broke midsong to admonish her audience and declared, “I guess you ain’t ready for that.”