The year 2020 marks the tenth anniversary of an article series I wrote called 5 Notable Women of the Past and Present and which was first published by AXS Entertainment. Included in the series were profiles of: musician and actress Abbey Lincoln, comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley, author Octavia Butler, social justice advocate Dr. Abigail Jordan, and Ms. Simone. It is an honor to recognize Ms. Simone’s brilliant legacy and extraordinary life at this time with two new works of art––titled Ode to the Genius and Good Intentions of Nina Simone Numbers 1 and 2–– and republication my article about her ongoing influence on contemporary musical artists. That influence remains as true now as a decade ago. Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 1 starts now:
Getting to Know Ms. Simone
Many modern audiences first became familiar with the name Nina Simone in 2005 after Canadian singer Michael Buble’ recorded her 1965 hit song, “Feeling Good,” and which finalists on the popular American Idol television show sang before world audiences in 2007.
However, long before Buble’ or American Idol finalists sang “Feeling Good,” Nina Simone made a lasting name for herself on several continents as one of the great singers, composers, and performers of the twentieth century. The fact that at least a dozen books document her life and work illustrate just how great she was and how enduring her music remains. Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, by Nadine Cohodas, is one of the latest such titles just published in February 2010.
The singer herself published in 1991 (the first London edition) an autobiography titled I Put a Spell on You. Describing just how Simone went about working her musical magic, author and former Ebony Magazine music editor Phyl Garland wrote in her in her own book, The Sound of Soul, The Music and Its Meaning, that:
“She casts her spell with the fluid but frequently complex patterns of notes she etches on her piano and with the distinctive sound of her richly reedy voice.”
Another way to gauge the impact of Simone’s life and legacy is to look at it like this: whereas the great Aretha Franklin earned, and has worn with dignity, the title “Queen of Soul” for at least four decades, Nina Simone earned and wore for decades the title “High Priestess of Soul.”
North Carolina Beginnings
She was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina. Both her parents, John Divine Waymon and Mary Kate Waymon, were entertainers when they met but later settled into more stable professions to raise their eight children. Her mother became a devoted Methodist minister, which later prompted Eunice Waymon to adopt the name Nina Simone when she began performing in night clubs and bars.
Simone’s talents as a pianist were recognized early and her family supported her goal to become a world-class concert pianist. She was good enough to study for a time at the renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York but her application to attend the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia was rejected. This rejection, she felt, was based more on her race than her abilities and it has often been cited as a major source of the political fury that characterized some of her music. The planned career in classical music took off instead in the direction of more popular genres. Recording her first album, Little Girl Blue, in 1957, she enjoyed a hit with the George Gershwin song, “I Loves You Porgy.”
While she was quickly labeled and marketed as a jazz performer, Simone had actually developed into a mistress of diverse musical forms that included not only jazz, but gospel, blues, Broadway show tunes, Black folk songs, and other styles in classic American modes. She could have easily carved out a successful career for herself in popular music and simply enjoyed the wealth and fame that comes with such success. But in addition to her musical sensibilities, she also possessed a social/political consciousness that was magnified by friendships with individuals like the playwright Lorraine Hansberry, author James Baldwin, and author Langston Hughes, all of whom at various times lent their artistry to the struggle for racial equality.
It was Hughes who said, “Nina Simone is as different from other singers as beer is from champagne.” While he contributed liner notes to at least one of her albums, she in turn wrote with him the hit song “Backlash Blues.”
Commitment and Consequences
The singer once stated that as far as she was concerned, the job of a creative artist was to address the pressing issues of her times. Towards that end, she wrote and recorded a number of songs that addressed individual moral responsibility as well as the civil rights and women’s rights movements of the 1960s. Following two events in particular––the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers in Mississippi and that of four Black girls in a Birmingham church–– she recorded the now classic “Mississippi Goddamn.”
The composition is in part satire, part social criticism, and part political outrage, which, given the real-world apartheid conditions and context of the times, makes a great deal of sense. She introduced the song by emphasizing its title and pointing out that she meant every word of it, then sang with fierce courage and intelligence: “Alabama's gotten me so upset/ Tennessee made me lose my rest/ And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam…”
Aside from expressing outrage, the singer also implored:
“Can't you see it
While many championed Simone for her courageous outspokenness at a time when passive endurance was considered the key to civil rights success for African Americans, others vilified her for it. Many radio stations banned the song and the impact upon her career would prove a lasting negative one. Other powerful protest songs, notably music legends Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” were also released during this period but apparently considered less confrontational or threatening than “Mississippi Goddamn.”
NEXT: Lessons from Nina Simone on Love, Music, and Commitment part 2
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
co-author of Encyclopedia of Harlem Renaissance
Harlem Renaissance Centennial 1919-2029
That the story of two chroniclers of the Harlem Renaissance should have had its beginning in Savannah, Georgia, in the early 1990s, might seem unlikely but it did. Sandra and I met as writers often do: in a bookstore. I was the manager at a now defunct Waldenbooks store interviewing for a part-time worker and she was interested. The interview turned into a two-person literary salon as, somehow, we started talking about writers of the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, and contemporary art.
Scheduling requirements would not allow me to hire her but neither did it bring our dialogue to an end. Long before either of us would consider working on Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, within a year she would suggest I consider writing poetry for a book of her then husband Luther E. Vann's art. We would for a time work together on the Savannah Literary Journal, and in her role as an assistant editor for the weekly Savannah Tribune, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country, she would publish a feature story on me. We would also team up for different literary programs, so when the time did come to tackle the encyclopedia we were ready, as a team, to answer history's call to duty.
Worthy of Our Ancestors' Legacy
Although we moaned, groaned, and outright blubbered over difficulties encountered completing Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the hardcore truth was we were two lit-geeks who would have been disappointed had there not been any major hurdles to overcome and thereby prove ourselves worthy of our ancestors' legacy. If ever any book was worth burning candles at ends we did not even have, it was the encyclopedia. Sandra trusted that I would pull through because I was somewhat younger and had energy enough to carry my multiple loads. I trusted she would pull through because she had one of the finest literary minds and most committed dispositions toward African-American literary culture I had ever encountered. Moreover, it was she who had invited me to join the project.
This is a framed news article titled "A legend’s place" written by Sandra L. West about Georgia civil rights icon W.W. Law. It hangs on the wall of the W.W. Law Center in Savannah, GA. The photo in the lower right corner is of West. The article was published in the Savannah Morning News Black History Month 1996.
The really big surprise was one that often stuns first-time authors. It was learning how much promotional work remained to be done after the writing was accomplished. That was also the fun part with Sandra taking on book signings and interviews up north while I did the same down south. Still, she emailed to remind me it was not enough that we had completed the history-making volume itself. We needed to record the history we were continuing to make through related activities:
"Aberjhani, we need to keep a running list of what we have done thus far. Especially since we have done a ton of public relations stuff ... I know you have been busy on your end and I would like to have at least one major list of things done ... because, you never know. Please plug in what you did... radio interview for Michael Porter and WBAI, the Gusby TV interview, signings, etc. We also need to plug in print reviews, and all those newspaper interviews of you.
By "line of defense" she meant irrefutable proof the success of the encyclopedia warranted additional printings and a revised, maybe expanded, second edition. The follow-up eventually would come in the form of InfoBase’s eBook of the title and its addition to publisher Facts On File's history database. Any plans on an updated edition to correspond with the current Harlem Renaissance centennial never surfaced. Given the significance of the 100th anniversary of the renaissance and the way numerous institutions are observing it around the globe, many thought an updated reissue was going to happen automatically. But the world of publishing in 2019 as impacted by social media and various Internet influencers is a far cry from what it once was. So in 2003 my co-author assigned herself the role of Team Encyclopedia scorekeeper and started recording notes like the following:
SEPTEMBER 2003, BOOK SIGNING. Aberjhani & Sandra L. West host Book
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.