“Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (traditional, 19th C, Appalachians, based on an 18th C English folk song) covered by Patti Waters on Sings (ESP, 1966)

This lovely devotional folk song, first written down by the great Kentucky song collector John Jacob Niles was given a decisive twist in the late 1950s by Nina Simone, who brought out the civil rights era politics contained in celebrating the word “black”. Patty Waters’ version, recorded in 1965, is something else again. A crude biographical reading – that Waters, who is white, is singing about her lover and father of her child, Sun Ra Arkestra drummer Clifford Jarvis, who was black – only scratches the surface. Waters’ epic thirteen minute take on the song, accompanied by mystical sub-Cecil Taylor piano, bass and drums sounds like a kettle slowly rising to a boil. You can hear Albert Ayler, who recommended her to ESP, and his extraordinary take on standards like “Summertime” in Waters’ voice, as she moves from an achingly slow, erotic take on the words, individual syllables turning into pulsating drones, to a wordless moan, then an incantatory, stabbing repetition of the word black. It all builds to a crescendo containing not just a proud erotic celebration of Waters’ love for a black man, or a political act of solidarity with African American or global blackness, but the fully unleashed feminine power of darkness. Waters becomes black Mother Kali as universal force of embodied divine energy, joyfully tearing apart the known universe and rebuilding it as a space of manifested freedom into which women like Linda Sharrock, Yoko Ono, Patti Smith and Diamanda Galas would walk and develop their own voices and styles. And she doesn’t even get beyond the first verse of the song. Thirteen minutes. Imagine what might happen if she sang the whole song.

Originally published in The Wire, 2005 in a feature on mutant song.

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