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James Baldwin / Nina Simone - The Black Experience in America /Four Women (part III)

from A Raised Voice by James Baldwin/Nina Simone



From a 1960 Canadian television interview, broadcaster Nathan Cohen talks to author James Baldwin about race relations and the black experience in the United States...

Four Women
The song was first released on the 1965 album Wild is the Wind (1965), although its reputation prior to the album’s release deemed it significant enough to be featured as the main title of the record, the font for the song being larger than that for the album title. Simone described ‘Four Women’ as follows:

The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair … and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever – that was the point the song made.

‘Four Women’ opens with a stately repeated piano figure accompanied by light percussion. Simone portrays the first woman by describing her black skin, long arms, woolly hair and strong back – “strong enough to take the pain / inflicted again and again”. As she will do for all the women depicted in the song, Simone closes the verse by naming the subject: “What do they call me? / My name is Aunt Sara”. Joined by Rudy Stevenson’s gently insistent guitar, Simone repeats the name before going on to describe the second woman: yellow-skinned, long-haired Saffronia, the daughter of a black woman raped by a rich, white man. A few brief piano trills precede the description of Sweet Thing, a prostitute whose seductive charms are emphasized by a keening flute (played by Stevenson). The voice adopts a harsher, grainier tone for the final verse, which introduces a more assertive, militant figure, a brown-skinned woman whose “manner is tough” and who claims she will “kill the first mother I see”. As all the instruments move together, Simone brings the song to a rousing climax, her voice rising to a shout: “What do they call me? / My name … is … PEA-CHES!”


My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia
My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing
My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I'll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I'm awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES


from A Raised Voice, released June 12, 2020


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