Monday Notes

Nina Simone, Feeling Good. A song to explore soul music

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[Monday Notes No. 144] Feeling Good is a soul piece made famous by Nina Simone in 1965. The song appeared the same year in a musical starring Cy Grant, but it was Nina Simone who made it popular. Her version is certainly more successful and intense, let us try to analyse it also to better understand what soul music is.

Soul music is a musical genre that emerged in the 1960s from the meeting of the rising rock music and the tradition of older black music, in particular spirituals and blues. The most important performers of soul music were Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles.

Feeling good is an excellent example of this musical genre. The melody has a strong blues feel to it, not least because it is based entirely on the pentatonic scale, which is used extensively in blues and spirituals. We also find in the piece other elements typical of African-American music, such as the shuffle tempo and the use of the riff.

Nina Simone was a jazz singer and pianist, Feeling Good begins however without accompaniment, performed a cappella with just her voice. Here is the song’s introduction.

Nina Simone’s a cappella introduction

Nina Simone declaims the phrases without time, just as it happened in traditional spirituals. The entire melody is built on the notes of the G minor pentatonic scale, which is composed of G Bb C D F. At the end of the sung part, the orchestra enters, with a classic riff.

The riff played by the brass section

A riff is a simple musical phrase with a mainly rhythmic content, which is used as accompaniment in big band pieces. In particular, riffs were introduced into the jazz repertoire by the Kansas City big bands around the 1930s. The most famous of these orchestras was Count Basie’s.

After the horn riff, the song itself begins, and consists of two very similar verses. The first, which we have called [A], begins with a descending movement of the bass playing the notes G F Eb D in sequence. This movement is also called a descending tetrachord and is typical of soul music. We find it for example in another classic of this genre, Hit the Road Jack by Ray Charles.

The first part of Feeling Good

The descending tetrachord G F Eb D recurs frequently throughout the song, starting with the horn riff. In the second line of verse [A] we also see a longer descending movement performed by the bass, which plays the notes G F E EB D C Bb.

The second verse [B] presents some differences in melody and chords, but is very similar to [A] in that both use almost exclusively the pentatonic scale previously mentioned. In both, the descending pattern G F Eb D recurs frequently. Here is the score of the second verse of Feeling Good.

feeling good seconda strofa
The second part of Feeling Good

Despite the song being so uniform and repetitive, Nina Simone manages to turn it into a very interesting piece. Nina Simone sings Feeling Good with great intensity and gravity, her very serious and emotional interpretation contradicting the lyrics of the song, which seem to have a positive and optimistic character. In fact, the lyrics of the song read:

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feelIt’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life for me

Nina Simone has been at the forefront of African American rights activism, and as she sings ‘I’m Feeling Good’ she seems to contradict her own words and imply that things are not fine at all.

Blues and spirituals are often ambiguous songs, speaking of sad things with apparent lightness, or vice versa speaking of positive things but suggesting the opposite. Feeling Good can also be interpreted in different ways, and in this too it respects the tradition of blues and spirituals.

Although Nina Simone’s interpretation of Feeling Good remains unsurpassed, there are many covers of this song. Among the most famous are Michael Bublè’s, well performed but a little tasteless, and one by Muse, with a decidedly rock flavour but however interesting.

Until next Monday!

Download the lead sheet of Feeling Good

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