Call them siren’s songs or melodies from the muses. From a favorite perch, a wicker swing aloft in a metal frame, any given day it might be Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, Donna Summer, Tina Turner whose voice spun from the record’s grooves. Their voices and songs became a soundtrack to my youth, as familiar to me as my own voice, if more beautiful and more self-assured than mine would ever be. While some people never really feel at home in their own skin, I never felt right about the way I sounded.
If Tina was the muse of choice for the day, you could bet it would be “Proud Mary.” Before she sang she spoke: we never ever do things nice and easy.
I wouldn’t understand the sexual innuendoes for some time. What translated for that girl nestled in in the wicker swing—not unlike a birdcage—a sense of confidence that she surely lacked. Tina Turner, for me, sounded like the essence of empowerment itself had been distilled into the notes she sang. Her voice radiated from large, dark speakers husky and sure, reverberating off the cathedral ceiling of our living room as if it was an actual place of worship.
While I have listened many times to the original Creedence Clearwater Revival version of “Proud Mary,” the twangier southern rock version never embedded itself into my listening consciousness the way Tina’s version did. To my young ears, and perhaps still to those ears today, “Proud Mary” spawned in chord progressions from Tina’s prodigious lungs. Truth is, the song belongs first to CCR, and Tina’s cover a beautiful shock, like her wild, rock-n-roll hair. Perhaps refracted through the voice of Tina Turner, “Proud Mary” takes back music appropriated by white musicians from black traditions. Although CCR’s John Fogerty claims the song uses the chords from Beethoven’s Fifth to start the repeated “rollin’” that opens “Proud Mary.” Beyond the song’s conception, it’s been covered over and again, indicating that there’s something in it that draws in other singers and musicians, as if a piece of music could exert its own gravitational pull.
Tina ended her rendition rocking out with funk-style, or as she put it, nice and rough. I should probably credit Ike, her ex, with the arrangement and his own vocals, but I just can’t bring myself to write about Ike Turner.
My house filled with music, as a kid, I listened to a multitude of Motown and jazz. Besides Tina Turner, there would be Four Tops, Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, all the aforementioned muses, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. Thus, the music I was raised on largely came from a culture not mine as a white, middle-class kid with an Appalachian lineage. We weren’t listening to bluegrass or country, genres more associated with that region. At the same time I could never forget my family’s roots in West Virginia, the music that infiltrated my young life—outside the constant stream of classical music from ballet classes, its own pervasive soundtrack—came from predominately non-white artists not from Appalachia. I preferred, and still do prefer, Tina to CCR. I wonder what that means for me, especially during these times where racial tensions play a pivotal role in what America is and what she might strive to be. Can we appreciate music without appropriating it?
I don’t know.
When I think about my musical upbringing, I suppose it makes sense that I ended up loving Prince. A fusion himself of rock, funk, new wave, pop—maybe a fusion of all of the musical genres—Prince’s influences run the gamut in a way that I find familiar yet I can’t quite articulate. Here, I need to bring it back around to “Proud Mary,” which he covered from his infamous rain-drenched Super Bowl halftime show.
“Can you make it rain harder?” Prince said, or something like that, when the Super Bowl folks expressed concern about the show because of the persistent rain. Big wheels kept on turning as Prince, wide-collared and cocksure, rocked us all.
And so too, the girl in the birdcage-like chair, listening to the sultry-voiced vixen would come to know the same song by the wily cultural fox. When she lacked the confidence in herself, perhaps it would be the sonic memories of a single song, one that allowed the persistence of a steamboat chugging down the muddy river to rise to the surface time and again. What does music give us if not a sense of solace when we most need it?
On his VH1 special, The Art of Musicology, Prince claimed that “Proud Mary” was the first song he played on guitar. Honey-voiced, he crooned the opening, stopping to assure us 4 real he learned it first. “Once you could do that,” he said, “You could impress folks.”
He used it to transition to an acoustic version of his heartbreaking ballad “Snow in April.”
Tina would go on to record a version sans Ike, proving again the enduring legacy of the song and her voice. For my father’s birthday we would see her perform it in her show in Columbus, Ohio. A grown woman by then, for an evening I felt like a girl, reveling in the music my dad had played during the carefree days of my youth. Music can transport us across the gulf of time, if only temporarily, if only we let allow the windswept reentry into our current being. Maybe that’s what I’ve been looking for in the covers all along. I am searching for the next Tina, that person who breathes her own life into something already there. Or maybe it’s just confirmation that from the old will continue something new, exciting. That which endures, the greatest magic trick of all. That’s how we do “Proud Mary.”
Renée K. Nicholson is the author of two collections of poems, Roundabout Directions to Lincoln Center (Urban Farmhouse Press, 2014) and Post Script (Urban Farmhouse Press, forthcoming 2020) and co-editor of the anthology Bodies of Truth: Stories of Illness, Disability and Medicine (University of Nebraska Press, 2019). She was the past Emerging Writer-in-Residence at Penn State-Altoona and is Associate Professor in the Programs for Multi- and Interdisciplinary Studies at West Virginia University. Renée’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Bellevue Literary Review, River Teeth, Poets and Writers, The Gettysburg Review and many other publications. She is the 2018 recipient of the Susan S. Landis Award for Distinguished Service to Arts from the West Virginia Division of Arts, Culture, and History.