“Ain’t Got No. . . I’ve Got Life” song analysis

Written by Will Sherwin, MFT

One of the songs that I use as a touchstone in my life is Nina Simone’s cover of “Ain’t Go No. . . I’ve Got Life”, originally written for the 1960s musical Hair.

In the first part of the song, Nina sings a list of things she doesn’t have: no home, shoes, money, class, skirts, sweater, perfume, bed, mind, mother, culture, friends, schooling, love, name, ticket, token, or God. Can you imagine not having any of these things? Can you imagine living your life as a list of things you don’t have? What effect do you think this would have on you?

If you can imagine living like that, I don’t think you are alone. Kenneth Gergen writes, “the vocabulary of human deficit has undergone enormous expansion with the present century [the 20th century]. We have countless ways of locating faults within ourselves and others that were unavailable to even our great-grandfathers.” Gergen writes that with the increase in the vocabulary of human deficit “a spiraling cycle of enfeeblement is set into motion.”

When people are recruited into living their life as a list of things they don’t have, they can get disconnected from what they can do and ways of living that give them “alivenessness”.

Are there alternatives to this deficit-lifing of people to death?

In the bridge of “Ain’t Got No. . . I’ve Got Life”, Nina Simone asks three questions: “But what have I got? Why am I alive anyway? What have I got nobody can take away?”

She answers these questions: her hair, head, brains, ears, eyes, nose, mouth, smile, tongue, chin, neck, boobies, heart, soul, back, sex, arms, hands, fingers, legs, feet, toes, liver, blood, life, laughs, headaches, toothaches, bad times, life, freedom, life.

I hear her taking a stand for what she does have rather than sing only about she does not have. Deficit-lifing can disqualify as insignificant all the things she sings about but Simone takes a stand that these things are why she’s alive. These are things that nobody can take away. She takes a stand and sings them to significance.

“The point of life is to know what’s enough.” – Gensei, 17th c.