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.

 

‘Nation’s most famous leper’ sought refuge in Tryon

On this day in 1938: John Early, referred to in newspapers as “the nation’s most famous leper,” dies at the federal leprosarium in Carville, La. Early, 64, was born near Weaverville. He contracted leprosy (later known as Hansen’s disease) while serving in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. On his return he was captured and quarantined — leprosy was widely feared, though only slightly contagious.

After the first of many escapes, he took refuge on a small farm near Tryon. Neighbors objected, however, and he admitted himself to the Carville leper colony, then operated by the Catholic Church. In 1921 he escaped to Washington, where he walked in on a startled congressional committee and spoke for a bill that would put the Carville facility under the U.S. Public Health Service. In large part because of his lobbying, the bill passed.

In 1927 Early again fled to Tryon. This time his neighbors petitioned the surgeon general to suspend the federal law mandating segregation of lepers and to let him live in isolation on his farm. Their effort failed, however, and Early was returned to Carville for the last time.