I’ve loved this song for as long as I can remember - certainly long before I understood what it was about.
There’s so many ways to appreciate it - from the gorgeous melody to Nina Simone’s stunning delivery, to the whiteness of its writers and how Porgy and Bess continues to force us to look at systemic inequities in American life: race, gender, disability and poverty.
But the perspective that most aptly fits this playlist is through the lens of grief - and for once - the classic Elizabeth Kübler-Ross model could actually be applied. While we’ve covered this point many times, it’s worth repeating - the 5 stages of grief were derived from a study of people who were diagnosed with a terminal illness - who were told they were going to die - not people who have suffered a loss.
When I was young all I could hear was the music - how the piano moved underneath the vocal to deliver such exquisite beauty that the hairs on the back of my neck would stand up. The only words I remembered were the reassuring ones - “I loves you Porgy” - “I’ve found my man” - as far as my childhood memory was concerned, it was a particularly beautiful love song.
And yet over time, I became more aware of the middle section - the section that I conveniently glossed over as a child but which now haunts me. Dark and complex, the melody diving down to obscure notes and changing keys without notice, the words so terrifying - “it’s going to be like dying” - “but when he comes I know I’ll have to go” - that I was forced to reevaluate the track, to do the reading, to learn more about the protagonists and the troubled opera itself.
But I can’t help making the comparison between Clara’s state and those with a terminal diagnosis: neither have control over their futures. While the terminal group knows they’re going to die, and soon - to Clara it feels no different. And yet - as I look and listen to the track now - with over 5 decades on the planet - I see this as a track of hope.
I have no doubt that Clara went through the 5 stages - denial of the situation she finds herself in, anger about the injustice of it all, bargaining in an attempt to make it better, depression when she believes that things aren’t going to change and finally - acceptance of her state. It’s that final stage - acceptance - that resonates so powerfully with me.
Regardless of how awful, how terrible, how imminently close to ending, life on this planet is - we’ve always been able to find some solace, some hope, some peace - and music seems to be particularly good at facilitating that process. Terminal patients, on reaching the state of acceptance no longer need to worry about the future - they know what it holds and - while they’re not OK with that - there’s nothing they can do - acceptance is a far more comfortable state And I know I’m treading a dangerous line with the analogy here but, - in Clara’s case - as a black woman in America during the 1930’s - she too knew what the future held - it’s just as unpalatable and yet, why wouldn’t she be able to use the same cognitive reasoning to create at least some moments of peace?
And so it’s the final verse that shatters me. The beauty of the melody that somehow feels sweeter because it stands in contrast to the preceding section - Nina Simone’s impassioned delivery that ensures you hear every ounce of despair - and yet… and yet… it’s still beautiful - still gorgeous, still a moment of respite in a world of hurt.
That’s what music can do - that’s why I do this - that’s why it’s important to bring people’s attention to the power of this amazing form. Whether you’re dying literally or metaphorically - whether you're part of a group that is being systematically abused - whether the love of your life has gone unexpectedly and you have no idea what tomorrow looks like,...
Go find a song.
Go find a track.
Go listen to some music, because - if you’re human - you were designed to be able to cope with anything - and music can help you remember that.
you can learn more about nina simone here
About the Curator - Andrew McCluskey
The first visual memory I have is that of the white upright piano in Singapore, Hell and the Dark Forces lived at the bottom, Heaven and the Angels at the top, they would play battles through my fingers and I was hooked.
As a psychology graduate I studied how sound affects human performance.
As a musician I compose instrumental music that stimulates your brain but doesn't mess with your language centers, leaving you free to be creative and brilliant without distraction.
As the founder of musicto I’m on a mission to inspire a global audience of music lovers and artists through the development of people powered playlists.