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.


‘Faculty of generalizing’ trumps mountain reality

“At precisely the same moment that Southern Appalachia was being irrevocably altered by widespread industrialization and immigration, social reformers and travel writers insisted on depicting the region as a remote outpost inhabited only by rawboned and coon-capped Anglo-Saxon Celtic (today’s Scotch-Irish) mountaineers.

“Harding Davis published a short story in 1875 in Lippincott’s Magazine that excoriated these fulsome travel writers of her age…  ‘The Yares of Black Mountain’ tells the story of a Northern Civil War widow and her ailing baby and their journey to the North Carolina mountains. Arriving near Asheville, where a tourist from Detroit establishes the outsider’s view that ‘civilization stops here,’  they are joined by… the hilarious Miss Cook [from New York], who is working on a book, ‘Causes of the Decadence of the Old South.’

“Instead of the picturesque…  Cook finds mountaineers dressed in ‘dirty calico wrappers’ and the panorama lacking grandeur. After a short tour of the town, she has ‘done the mountains and the mountaineers.’ She adds in the wonderfully affected parlance of the travel writers of her era that she doesn’t need to do any research or backwoods journeys, because she possesses the ‘faculty of generalizing.’ Cook’s story is over; the stereotypes for her readers will remain intact.”

— From “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America”  by Jeff Biggers (2005)