The unexpected musical roots of Nina Simone

“On a warm September evening in 1959, a young African American pianist and contralto dazzled a packed crowd at the Town Hall in New York City with her improvised versions of jazz ballads, folk songs, spirituals, pop tunes Broadway musicals and piano riffs with a Bach motif. Her recordings earlier that summer had take the industry’s breath away with her riveting performance of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ from the Broadway musical ‘Porgy and Bess’….

“The 26-year-old woman’s repertoire defied categories. It signaled the arrival of a modern diva and an innovator on the piano, not simply a jazz crooner….

“As always , she introduced herself with a conjured show-name: Nina Simone. When she launched into a haunting version of the traditional ballad ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair,’ no one in the hall knew that she had first learned this appropriated ‘mountain ballad’ in her native Southern Appalachian town of Tryon, North Carolina.”

— From “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America” by  Jeff Biggers (2007)

Her Town Hall performance came two years before Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) made a far less satisfactory visit to Chapel Hill.

Dept. of Coincidences: Tryon, the hamlet where Simone was born in 1933, is where DuBose Heyward, author of the seminal novel “Porgy,”  died in 1940.


In 1914, you needn’t smile when you said ‘hillbilly’

“The most fascinating example of the term’s mid-1910s usage, and the one that best illustrates the still unformalized nature of the term ‘hillbilly,’ is the monthly literary magazine written and published beginning in 1914 by students at Asheville High School in North Carolina, simply entitled ‘The Hillbilly.’

“One might expect a cartoonish mountaineer with a slouch hat and rifle as the cover illustration. Instead, the title page of the first several years’ editions feature a highly stylized female visagein the manner of Aubrey Beardsley with flowing tresses and exotic neckwear. The use of gothic print for article and poem titles, the high quality of the paper, and the lack of any discussion of the meaning or significance of the magazine title all indicate that ‘hillbilly’ had not yet developed the stereotyped meaning that it later would but instead was used as a nearly apolitical regional marker….

“More than 10 years would pass before this publication began to adopt more standardized mountain imagery.”

— From “Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon” by Anthony Harkins (2003)


Spice things up for International Hot and Spicy Food Day.

Hot and Spicy Mexican Dip - Mountain Elegance

Hot and Spicy Mexican Dip from Mountain elegance : a collection of favorite recipes.

Fried Okra with Indian Spices and Hot Tomato Relish-Cooking in the Moment

Fried Okra with Indian Spices and Hot Tomato Relish from Cooking in the moment : a year of seasonal recipes.

Hot curried fruit - Good Eatin' from Duke Memorial

Hot Curried Fruit from Good eatin’ from Duke Memorial United Methodist Church, Durham, North Carolina.

5-Spice Chicken - Mario Tailgates NASCAR Style

5-Spice Chicken from Mario tailgates NASCAR style.

Spicy Toasted Pecans - Outer Banks Cookbook

Spicy Toasted Pecans from The Outer Banks cookbook : recipes & traditions from North Carolina’s barrier islands.

Hot Hots - Peace Cookbook

Hot Hots from Peace cookbook.

Jalapeno Hot Rice - Supper's at Six

Jalapeno Hot Rice from Supper’s at six and we’re not waiting!


Artifact of the Month: Ice skates, 1860s

When freezing temperatures dig in, as they did last week and undoubtedly will again before this winter is through, it’s helpful to remember that we’re not the first generation of North Carolinians to know what ice looks like.

Our January Artifact of the Month is a pair of ice skates that belonged to Pittsboro native Henry Armand London, UNC Class of 1865, when he was a student.

ice skates

The skates have fastening rings for attaching leather straps, which the wearer used to tie the skates to his feet. The straps are missing and the iron skates are rusted, but the bent toe guard hints at at least a few days skating. A look at London’s student diary (catalog record here) confirms this assumption.

journal excerpt

(If anyone knows what London means by having a snap, please chime in in the comments!)

After graduating, London went on to become a prominent merchant in Pittsboro, as well as a lawyer, journalist, historian, state senator, and trustee of UNC.

You can view other artifacts that belonged to UNC students in our digital collection Carolina Keepsakes.

Campus was no place for ‘Student Body’

On this day in 1991: Paul Hardin, chancellor of UNC Chapel Hill, announces that “The Student Body,” a bronze sculpture labeled racist and sexist by some students, will be moved to a less conspicuous site after being vandalized.

Four of the seven figures have provoked heated opposition: a black man in a basketball uniform spinning a ball on his finger, a black woman carrying books on her head and a woman leaning against her boyfriend as they walk together.

The sculpture by Julia Balk of Westport, Conn., was donated by the Class of ’85 and installed in front of Davis Library.

“As an artist,” Balk says in a letter responding to the criticism, “I am particularly sensitive to the issues of racial inequality, sexism and social discrimination. To denounce these figures with the terms ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ and ‘-ism’ is to see the sculpture with one’s eyes closed. This work is a celebration of student life and the act of learning.”

Interesting details here, plus photos of the vandalism.


Harbinger of South’s reaction on race? Not exactly

“As North Carolina Democrats go to the polls this Saturday to pick a candidate for United States Senate, the politicians here will be looking for the first clue to the political impact on the South of the Supreme Court’s ruling against public school segregation.”
— From “North Carolina Poll Will Be First Hint of South’s Reaction” in the Wall Street Journal (May 27, 1954)
That “first clue” to response to Brown vs. Board of Education turned out to be misleadingly positive: In the Democratic primary, incumbent Sen. Alton Lennon, a hardline segregationist, narrowly lost to moderate former Gov. Kerr Scott. 
In Triumph of Good Will: How Terry Sanford Beat a Champion of Segregation” (2000), John Drescher casts the race as both a rematch of Frank Porter Graham vs. Willis Smith in 1950 and a precursor to Sanford vs. I. Beverly Lake in 1960.

Polk ‘yielded,’ let Mathew Brady take his picture

The first president to have his picture taken in the White House was Mecklenburg native James K. Polk. The photographer could have caught him on a better day.

In his diary for February 14, 1849, Polk complained about having to deal with office-seekers all morning: “I have great contempt for such persons and dispose of their applications very  summarily. They take up much of my time every day. I yielded to the request of an artist named Brady, of New York, by sitting for my daguerreotype likeness today. I sat in the large dining room.”

Mathew Brady, then 27, would later earn wide fame for his Civil War photos.


When Cadet Ted Williams Came to Chapel Hill

The Cloudbuster Nine, major league veterans on Naval Pre-flight baseball team
The U.S. Navy Pre-Flight School at UNC was about a year old when Cadet Ted Williams arrived in Chapel Hill in May 1943. The campus was the second stop in his year long effort to earn the wings of a Marine aviator. As Williams biographer Leigh Montville writes, Williams and his Boston Red Sox teammate Johnny Pesky had already spent several months at Amherst College in western Massachusetts in a civilian pilot training program, logging time in the classroom learning about navigation, radio code and aerology and in the cockpit mastering flight in Piper Cubs. Pesky described the duo’s time on the UNC campus as “like basic training.”

Up by the light of the moon, double-time all day, to bed with the owls….Drill till your tongue bulged. Sports, hikes, inspections. We played all games to test us for versatility—boxing, wrestling, swimming, soccer, and baseball. The object was to find if we had a nerve-cracking point. Some did.

Williams and Pesky also found time to crack the bat. They were among the members of the UNC Naval Pre-Flight program’s baseball team. In addition to Williams and Pesky, the 1943 lineup for the Cloudbusters, as they were known, included several other cadets with Major League experience. John Sain and Louis Gremp played for the Boston Braves and Joe Coleman pitched for the Philadelphia Athletics. The team also included officers who were Major League veterans. Lt. John “Buddy” Hassett had played first base for the New York Yankees. Ensign Joe Cusick was a catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. And Lt. Pete Appleton had spent time on the mound for the St. Louis Browns.

The Cloudbusters competed against university teams, service teams and all-star teams from the minor leagues. In the “Ration League,” which included UNC, Duke and N.C. State, the team finished the 1943 season with a record of 3 wins and 6 losses. UNC took first place and Duke, second. But many of those games were played prior to the major leaguers’ arrival.

With Williams, Pesky and the other big league veterans, the Cloudbusters took on service teams at Camp Butner and at Norfolk. The team at the Norfolk Naval Training Station (there was also a team at the Norfolk Naval Air Station) included one-time Yankee shortstop Phil Rizutto, former Red Sox outfielder Dominic DiMaggio, and former Brooklyn Dodger outfielder Don Padgett. The Cloudbusters played the Naval Training Station team several times during spring and summer 1943. When the teams met at Emerson Field in Chapel Hill in July, the major league veterans posed for photographs for Cloudbuster, the UNC Naval Pre-Flight program’s weekly newspaper (back issues are now available online through the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center).

Former Red Sox teammates Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams in Chapel Hill.
Former Red Sox teammates Johnny Pesky, Dom DiMaggio and Ted Williams together in Chapel Hill in July 1943.

Buddy Hassett (l) and Phil Rizzuto at Emerson Field.
Buddy Hassett (l) and Phil Rizzuto at Emerson Field.

Williams and Pesky took a break from Chapel Hill and the Cloudbusters on July 12 to join an all star team of former major league and college baseball players in a game against the Boston Braves at Fenway Park. The service all-star team was managed by Babe Ruth. Prior to the game, which the service all-stars won 9-8, Ruth, 48, took on Williams in a batting contest. Facing pitches from Braves bullpen thrower Red Barrett, Williams, dressed in a 1942 Red Sox traveling uniform, belted three balls into the right field stands. Ruth, however, showed his age and that his playing days were long behind. Newspaper accounts report that the Babe was unable to drive the ball off the playing field. Upon meeting Williams in the clubhouse, Ruth is reported to have said, “Hiya, kid. You remind me a lot of myself. I love to hit. You’re one of the most natural ballplayers I’ve ever seen. And if ever my record is broken, I hope you’re the one to do it.”

Williams and Ruth met again two weeks later at Yankee Stadium when the Cloudbusters were part of a charity event to benefit the War and Service Relief Fund of the Red Cross. A double-header on July 28 featured a match-up between all stars from the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees. In the second game, the Cloudbusters took on a combined team of Indians and Yankees.


With strong pitching from Cadet Johnny Sain, the Cloudbusters prevailed over the combined Yankees-Indians team, or “Yanklands,” as the Cloudbuster named the team.

Back in Chapel Hill, Williams continued his academic studies. Courses included “Essentials of Naval Service,” “Nomenclature and Recognition,” “Celestial Navigation,” and advanced Aerology. When Williams wasn’t in the classroom or on the ball field, he showed promise as a boxer. As Pesky recalled (and as related in Montville’s biography of Williams), the pre-flight program’s boxing instructor, a former professional fighter, called Williams into the ring on one occasion and told the ball player to hit him.

Ted was just swinging at first….Then Ted started to get the hang of it. He fakes! And then he unloads. Pow! He hits the guy. Then he fakes again. Pow. He hits the guy again. When the thing was over, the instructor says, ‘Hey, how would you like to have me help you make a fast million bucks?’ Ted says,’How would you do that?’ ‘I’ll train you as a boxer.’ Ted says,’Oh no, not me.’ [The instructor] didn’t even know who Ted was.

Williams, Pesky and other members of the Cloudbusters shipped out to Naval Air Station Bunker Hill, near Peru, Indiana in September 1943. There the cadets were taught how to take off and land airplanes. From Bunker Hill, Williams headed off to Pensacola, Florida. And there, on May 2, 1944, Williams received his wings as a second lieutenant in the Marine air corp.

Why you’ve never read a Reeves McCullers novel

“[Carson] McCullers’ first novel was written thanks to a pact with her husband, Reeves, whom she married in 1937. The newlyweds — she was 20, he 24 — both aspired to be writers, so they struck a deal: One of them would work full-time and earn a living for the couple while the other wrote; after a year, they would switch roles. Since Carson already had a manuscript in progress, and Reeves had lined up a salaried position in Charlotte, North Carolina, she began her literary endeavors first.

“She wrote every day, sometimes escaping their drafty apartment to work in the local library, taking sips from the Thermos full of sherry that she would sneak inside…..

“After a year, Carson had landed a contract for her novel, so Reeves continued to put his own literary aspirations on hold…. Despite the pact, he would never get to try his luck as the full-time writer in their marriage. When Carson’s first novel,’The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,’ was published in 1940, it vaulted her into the literary limelight; after that, there was never any question of her sacrificing her writing for a day job….”

– From “Daily Rituals: How Artists Work,” edited by Mason Currey (2013)


Feels like soup weather out there…recipes from the collection.

Waking up to 9 degree weather is not something we North Carolinians understand, but we do know the best way to combat this Polar Vortex.  Time to get out those crock-pots and dutch ovens.  Soup and chili, it’s what’s for dinner.

Winter warmup meal - Buffet Benny's

Winter Warmup Meal from Buffet Benny’s family cookbook : recipes, stories & poems from the Appalachian Mountains.

Vegetarian Chili - Supper's at Six

Vegetarian Chili from Supper’s at six and we’re not waiting!

Tomato Basil Parmesan Soup - Well, Shut My Mouth!

Tomato Basil Parmesan Soup from Well, shut my mouth! : the Sweet Potatoes Restaurant cookbook.

Potato Bacon Soup - Mountain Country Cooking

Bacon-Potato Soup from Mountain country cooking : a gathering of the best recipes from the Smokies to the Blue Ridge.

High Hampton vegetable soup - High Hampton Hospitality

High Hampton Vegetable Soup from High Hampton hospitality.

Hearty Soup - Carolina Cuisine

Hearty Soup from Carolina cuisine : a collections of recipes.

Chili - Granny's Drawers

Chili from Granny’s drawers : four generations of family favorites.

Chicken soup - Soup to Nuts

Chicken Soup from Soup to nuts : a cook book of recipes contributed by housewives and husbands of Alamance County and other sections of state and country.