Songs for Sound Minds #26 – ‘I Got Life’ by Nina Simone
‘I ain’t got no home, ain’t got no shoes
Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no class
Ain’t got no skirts, ain’t got no sweater
Ain’t got no perfume, ain’t got no bed’
Why is it that we often focus on the negative side of things? Glass half empty, not half full. Counting our tribulations, not our blessings. Sometimes we seem stuck in a rut imagining all the things that might go wrong and all the things that we believe are ‘wrong’ with our life.
This melancholy outlook on life is exhibited perfectly in the opening lines of this Nina Simone classic. Focused on the negatives and downsides of life, she sounds like a women concentrating on the things to be upset, scared or worried about.
I got life… for now, says the caveman
One explanation for this behaviour offered by psychologists and sociologists is that it is a primitive instinct.
The caveman that was vigilant to danger was more likely to survive than his ever-optimistic friend. While the former considered rustling in the bushes a reason to be on guard, the latter headed towards them in wide-eyed anticipation. In that situation, expecting the worst – a sabre-tooth tiger perhaps – was a necessary element of survival.
Thankfully these days we only need to avoid overly-pushy double-glazing salespeople or high-street ‘chuggers’. But the mind-set remains for many of us.
In maintaining such an outlook on life, we risk falling into a life of constant pessimism and, potentially, isolation and depression. There is a reason Eeyore – from AA Milne’s much-loved Winnie the Pooh stories – was always alone.
Forget the bad things, I got life
Simone’s song takes a sudden positive turn however and we realise that it is not about darkness after all but rather it is about the opposite:
‘I got my arms, got my hands
Got my fingers, got my legs
Got my feet, got my toes
Got my liver, got my blood’
The song is encouraging us to acknowledge the simple things in life, to appreciate what we already have and to stop worrying about what we don’t have or might never have.
Nina Simone was a prominent activist in the US civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. She experienced first-hand the segregation and discrimination of the time. Despite her natural musicality and training as a classical pianist, she failed to gain entry to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia due to the colour of her skin.
Simone’s personal experiences and that of African-Americans throughout history give added meaning to another of the song’s verses:
‘Ain’t got no mother, ain’t got no culture
Ain’t got no friends, ain’t got no schooling
Ain’t got no love, ain’t got no name
Ain’t got no ticket, ain’t got no token
Ain’t got no God’
But in spite of all of this, she still proclaims the virtues of maintaining that positive attitude to what life throws at you.
Celebrate life today
‘I Got Life’ is a real celebration. There are always reasons to choose the positive side of life, no matter how bad things seem or how difficult the way ahead looks.
Nina Simone’s exuberant response to adversity brings to mind the words of poet Maya Angelou, another civil rights activist:
‘My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humour, and some style.’
Songs For Sound Minds – music tracks written as an anthem to overcoming the storms of life. The songs that give hope in those times when we are struggling.