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.

 

Nina Simone: A day of contrasts in 1961

“After [Nina Simone’s 1961 concert at Memorial Hall, UNC Chapel Hill student] Frank Craighill arranged for dinner at one of the area’s newest steak houses, the Angus Barn. Craighill [president of the social club that sponsored the concert] had picked the restaurant with care… and when Nina and the trio walked in as guests of the university, a big round table was already set and waiting for them. It was easily one of the most elegant meals any of them had eaten on the road….

“[But] an encounter later at the train station in Raleigh left no doubt they were in the South. As they waited for the train to New York, a white woman claimed she had lost her purse. The station manager found the purse in the men’s restroom. One of the waiting passengers asserted that [drummer Bobby Hamilton] had been the last person to use it, and in a flash police… zeroed in, all but accusing him of theft. But Nina leapt to his defense. ‘She just went crazy,’ [bassist Chris White] remembered. ‘She read them the riot act…. She was just as black as she could be with these guys and they left us alone.’ ”

— From “Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone” by Nadine Cohodas (2010)

A footnote: Frank Craighill went on to become a pioneer in the field of sports marketing.