Portrait of a Queen

This piece traces the evolution of black people in America through the lens of the black woman. Using one figurative character who represents strength, courage, and selflessness, this “queen” will transform from her journey as a leader in Africa to a slave on an American plantation, to a disenfranchised citizen subject to Jim Crow laws and finally to the strong matriarch found in many churches presently. Dramatic spoken word, written by Courtney D. Ware, poetically explains the thoughts and feelings of her character, while a musical portrait is revealed of her.


Women have always played vital roles in African American communities. I have known women to have strong but warm, caring temperaments. Queen is elegant and prideful. She carries herself with distinction and class. Her guidance is given with both tender love and firmness. She is the backbone and cornerstone of her community. She gives wise instruction to those of all ages, especially the younger generations. She teaches the girls how to be women and the boys how to treat women. Her character does not change with the ages but is passed on from generation to generation. With every struggle and change presented, she is there providing support and direction to her community. Courtney Ware writes: “It was imperative that the story of Queen be told from her perspective, in her voice, with her words. Although Queen represents black womanhood in America and in Africa, she is not one dimensional. Her story is a mixture of pain and struggle, hope and triumph.”


As each section encapsulates a different time period, the musical themes reflect that by drawing on melodies, textures, and rhythms from that particular era. The “Prologue” develops out of the Ghanaian song Mo mmra ma yengoro (Come and let us play) transforming the orchestra into a West African drum ensemble with its floating, polyrhythmic texture. “A Crown Forgotten” makes reference to the Negro-spiritual, Oh, Freedom by using the syllabic stress of the word “freedom” as a musical basis for the section. Slow glissandi in the woodwinds mimic the cries of captured slaves against nauseating swells in the lower strings. The tumultuous and violent character of the third section “Jim Crow” is undergirded by the quotation of the gospel song, Don’t You Let Nobody Turn You Around, as it served as a protest song during many Civil Rights Movement marches. There are many references to gospel music as the style acted as the musical soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement. Elements such as call and response, extended use of the blues scale, and syncopated rhythms make up the aggressive, unsettling tone of the section. In the final section “Church,” the piece concludes reflectively with the melody of Great Is Thy Faithfulness, a favorite hymn of my mother and grandmother, played lyrically by the string section over a recording of a prayer led by a “church mother” out of a black Pentecostal church.


Portrait of a Queen was commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra with the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Underwood. As my mother, Lisa Simon, and grandmother, Bertha Simon, have wholeheartedly displayed the portrait of a “Queen” by their unselfish and loving character, this piece is solely dedicated to them.



by Courtney D. Ware

~Carlos Oliver Simon, Jr. (2017)


I am Queen.


Strength rests upon my head: a gold-dipped crown adorned with jewels of Patience, Kindness, and Wisdom that shine diamond


Like a baby wrapped on my back in swaddling silk. I first nurtured it in my womb.


And created a Love so deep.



Through blessed pain, I birthed a nation. An agony that followed me across the sea.


The stench of blood... sweat... tears... permeated my skin.


Royalty replaced with rags. Silk exchanged for shameful nakedness. Iron chains heavier than my forgotten crown.

I cannot protect the life I bore, the nation I nurtured.

So I closed my eyes just to block the pain.



We marched and our bodies swung. They tried to silence my sons and daughters with fists of hatred and nooses ‘round their necks. From whips and chains to hoses and handcuffs.


Jim Crow is a hypocrite and separate ain’t equal.

So I tell my children to hold their hands up high. I tell them to comply. Say, “Yes ma’am.” Say, “No, suh.” But still... They’ll be shot in the back, left to bleed out in the streets like animals. But they’re my children. And their lives matter... their lives matter. I said, THEIR LIVES MATTER!



I am Queen.

Strength rests upon my head: a white wide-brimmed hat glittering with jewels of Wisdom, Kindness, and Patience.


Oh the tears I’ve shed, the prayers I’ve cried, the songs I’ve wailed to make it through. How I danced and shouted my way out of despair.

I speak the tongues of our ancestors. Their spirits intercede for us yesterday, today, and forever.



Elegy: A Cry from the Grave

This piece is an artistic reflection dedicated to those wrongfully murdered by an oppressive power; namely Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. The stimulus for this composing piece came forth after prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch announced that a selected jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson after he fatally shot an unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri.


The evocative nature of the piece draws on strong lyricism and a lush harmonic charter. A melodic idea is played in all the voices of the ensemble at some point of the piece either whole or fragmented. The recurring ominous motif represents the cry of those unjustly struck down in this country. While the predominant essence of the piece is sorrowful and contemplative, there are moments of extreme hope represented by bright consonant harmonies.

~Carlos Oliver Simon, Jr. (2015)




My patriarchal heritage shows three generations of preachers: my great grandfather, Bishop Henry C. Brooks, who began preaching in 1925; my grandfather, Bishop Charles W. Hairston, who began preaching in 1947; and my father, Bishop Carlos O. Simon, Sr., who began preaching in 1994.


I decided to use audio clips from their past sermons after discovering several of my great grandfather’s and grandfather’s sermons recorded on old LP and cassette tapes. The musical elements used enhance the message of each proclamation while giving a personal insight into each man.


Sow Good Seeds features several sounds that give the impression of something blooming or growing. The Last Days includes a processed Fender Rhodes that my grandfather bought in 1966 at the opening of his church and willed to me at his death in 2010. I used an ominous bed of dark textures to create “perilous times.” The Hammond organ is interspersed throughout Follow the Plan to create a realistic experience of actually being in a worship service.


A three-note (or sometimes chord) motif appears several times throughout both movements, which represents the passion my forefathers had for their vocation. The goal of this work is to recreate the moment at which the sermon was given and display a musical and cultural heritage worthy of celebration.



White Only. Colored Only

“White Only. Colored Only” is inspired by the works of Gordon Parks. Known as a legendary photographer, Parks documented many important aspects of American culture from the early 1940s through the better half of this century. He took several photographs in 1956 that showed real, everyday situations where signs were posted, “White Only. Colored Only.” My piece will musically represent this struggling duality with free flowing improvised lines against rigid, static rhythms.

~Carlos Oliver Simon, Jr. (2016)



I Feel It Some Way

I Feel It Some Way (lyrics)

Words and music by Carlos Simon and Christopher Terrell



Don’t we get tired of all the pain?

Don’t our bodies ache?

But we wait, and we wait for things to change.



Like birds sing songs up in the air

Or words being whispered by a pair

I hear it somewhere. I hear it some way.

Like a mother’s intuition ‘cause she cares Like the wind pulling gently at her hair

I hear it somewhere. I feel it some way.



Point a finger at the pain Is it our teachers?

What did they teach us? It’s a game

Waiting on a change



Like a mother’s intuition ‘cause she cares Like the wind pulling gently at her hair

I hear it somewhere. I feel it some way.



Lights of rain. Don’t you stare. Don’t stare

Go hand in hand

Just like your mother said Grow breath by breath Birds singing her song Grow breath by breath Got the world in my hands



Bonus: Lickety Split

As a young boy, I worked with my grandfather during the hot summers paving driveways in Rocky Mount, Virginia. He was a task master. Things had to be done the right way and with haste when he asked in his own playful way. He would say, “Pull those weeds up lickety split!” or “Shovel that dirt lickety split!” It was tortuous work but ultimately proved to be quite lucrative when my grandfather paid me in the end for the day’s work.


This piece, in its whimsical character, draws on inspiration from that colloquial phrase, lickety split, coined in the 1860s. It means to do something quickly or in a hurry. I used the rhythmic syllabic stresses of the phrase as a main motif for the piece (li-ke-ty split). To create a playful mood, I used bouncing pizzicato lines in the cello part over wildly syncopated rhythms played by the piano. Harmonically, the central idea moves in parallel motion in thirds between the voices. As the piece develops to an agitated state, both instruments relentlessly and rhythmically drive to a climatic ending––done so “lickety split!”

~Carlos Oliver Simon, Jr. (2015) CSJr. Music © 2015


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