Friday, May 20, 2011

Show Tunes: Pirate Jenny

Nina Simone: Pirate Jenny


Most of the songs this week have come from Broadway, and, in a sense, Pirate Jenny is no exception. The song comes from The Three Penny Opera, which debuted in the original German in Berlin in 1928. However, the lyrics heard here are the English translation that was done for the first Broadway production of the show. In the show, Polly Peachum is a maid in an inn by the harbor in London, and she takes abuse regularly from the patrons. Pirate Jenny is Polly’s fantasy of revenge for this abuse. Some productions of The Three Penny Opera have given the song to a different character, the prostitute Jenny, but this is not what Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, who wrote the original book and music, intended. Nina Simone’s performance clearly belongs to Polly. Simone gives the song a spare arrangement, and she speaks rather than sings many of the lyrics. This gives her performance a raw power which suits the song perfectly.

Incidentally, there is a recording of this song by Steeleye Span, with the title The Black Freighter. Ironically, there is no black freighter in the German. The corresponding lyric in the original describes a ship “with eight sails”. However, since that doesn’t scan properly in English, it was replaced by “the black freighter.”.

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