By Anna Fahlstrom
Elementary school talent shows. A time where kids can sing off key or dance off beat and everyone finds them adorable. Tryouts don’t mean a thing because every act gets in. Everyone in the community and their family comes out to watch and laugh at jokes told by the comedian, tap their feet to the song being sung, and of course, make sure to record their child perform just so they can embarrass them later in life with the video. The talent show during my third grade year was going on just like every other talent show I had been to. The same teacher emcee as previous years had bright pink over accentuated lipstick, magicians, dancers, and family skits all took to the stage. Everything was going to plan and quite frankly, the acts were just like the years before. That is until the final act. After being introduced by the emcee, a student walked very slowly from side stage to center stage. Standing awkwardly in the spotlight they started moving their lips, but the words were inaudible. Mumbling the words, they started to sway back and forth to an absent beat. Slowly they began to gain confidence and sang louder. The line before the music started to play marked the first discernable words, and “Feelin’ Good” by Nina Simone became clear as day. This was the first time I remember hearing the song, and also the first time I ever got chills from a performance at my school talent show. Every note was sung in perfect pitch and as cliché as it sounds, the message of the song was seared into my head.
Written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse in 1964, “Feelin’ Good” was composed for the British musical The Roar of the Greasepaint, The Smell of the Crowd. It was sung by Cy Grant who played the character know as The Negro. The play, based on the different social classes in 1960s England, is about the game that people play every day, or as we know it, life. It shows how one person comes out on top, while everyone else struggles to keep up and win. During a part of the play two characters, Cocky and Sir, are fighting over the ever-changing rules of the game. Cocky challenged The Negro to play him when Sir, the winner in every challenge against Cocky, decided to change the rules up a bit. It is during this moment of conflict The Negro is able to step into center stage and win the game. When this happens, he sings, “Feelin’ Good” to express his emotions (Harris). In the song, Grant has a sorrowful but hopeful tone that depicts the struggle he endured due to the class system within his community.
While the musical didn’t become popular in Britain, an American adaptation of it a year later became well liked. Nina Simone, a classical trained pianist, singer and Civil Rights activist from Tryon, North Carolina, covered “Feelin’ Good.” While she won a scholarship to train at Julliard, the money soon ran out and she was forced to leave. She was then turned away from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia because she was African American (Editors). Kellylee Evans perfectly represents Nina’s singing when saying it was “strong. Sweet. Sharp as ice. As gentle as falling snowflakes. Sometimes frightening. Always nourishing” (Evans). Simone took the song and re-mastered it to fit in with her experiences as an African American woman in 1965.
1960s Britain was experiencing a similar Civil Rights Movement against racism and the poor treatment of Blacks that the United States was. As W.E.B. Dubois said in 1903, “The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line (Pittman 2015).” Nina Simone was one of many who experienced the racism due to “the color line” within the United States first hand.
“Feelin’ Good” allowed The Negro to express his emotions of being constantly beaten down by society and treated as an “other.” Not only did it affect people in Britain, African Americans were able to associate themselves with “Feelin’ Good” when Simone introduced it to the United States. The Civil Rights Movement in America was in full swing by the time the song came out in America in 1965. With sit-ins, bus boycotts, lynching, and rape being a common part of African Americans’ lives, music became an outlet and a rally cry. “Feelin’ Good” was both of these. The lyrics of the song take things in nature that hold beauty, such as a “bird flying high” or a “river running free,” and personify them in a positive way (Feeling Good – Nina Simone lyrics). They have positive associations that illustrate the feelings of freedom and being on top rather than being denied opportunities to accumulate wealth and possessions or achieve upward mobility (Pittman 2015). The actions of the Civil Rights Movement and America’s view of the possessive investment in whiteness were far from allowing African American’s to be free, but they were striving for that freedom. Songs were a way for to encourage and confirm actions that people were doing in order to win this freedom, much like the Negro was trying to win the game. In this way, the song influenced the Movement. It allowed for a bit of the feeling of freedom to be felt by the oppressed people, to help them understand what they were fighting for; housing not located in the least desirable areas, better jobs, equality, was a reason worth fighting for (Pittman 2015).
However, the Movement also influenced the song. Listening to the original and to Nina’s version, the song has a bluesy feel. That isn’t surprising due to the fact that African American’s created the blues genre, which stems from field hollers and slave songs. The blues became a way for African Americans to express themselves; especially for African American women were trying to figure out where they stand within society. By using the events going on around them, the blues emerged as the first form of American music (Pittman 2015).
Although “Feelin’ Good” was originally written for a British musical, the circumstances in which it was sung is symbolic of the events occurring within the United States at the time. The lyrics and tone of the song allow the artist and listener to escape oppressions that were upon them, as well as validate the reasons for fighting for equality. Lyrics such as “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good” give a sense of what winning “the game” is like. Today, the fight for rights against racism within the United States still occurs. Outside of the United States wars with foreign countries and terrorist groups are occurring every day. The song that was originally meant for a musical still applies to the daily battle people face. That is why people of multiple genres decades later, such as Muse and Michael Bublé have continually covered it. This song allows the musicians and listeners to relate to the music as well as providing an outlet from the struggles that encompass the world at home and abroad. While time goes on, the meaning of the song continues to ring true for many different situations and people. “Feelin’ Good” truly is a timeless song.
Editors, Biography.com. “Nina Simone Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2015.
Evans, Kellylee. “Jazz Columns: Nina Simone: Strength & Bravery – By Kellylee Evans – Jazz Articles.” Jazz Columns: Nina Simone: Strength & Bravery – By Kellylee Evans – Jazz Articles. JazzTimes, 18 Nov. 2010. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
“Feeling Good – Nina Simone Lyrics.” Google Play Music. Google Play, n.d. Web. 05 Dec. 2015.
Harris, Judy. “The Roar Of The Greasepaint–The Smell Of The Crowd.” The Roar Of The Greasepaint–The Smell Of The Crowd. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
“Nina Simone Feeling Good.” YouTube. YouTube, n.d. Web. 02 Dec. 2015.
Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). The Urbanization of a Rural People [PowerPoint slides]. University of Washington
Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). Possessive Investment in Whiteness [PowerPoint slides]. University of Washington
Pittman, LaShawnda (2015). The Great Migration [PowerPoint slides]. University of Washington