WHY SAVING A 600 SQUARE FOOT SHACK IN THE NORTH CAROLINA HILLS IS SO IMPORTANT
NINA SIMONE: THE TROUBLED LIFE OF A CREATIVE GENIUS AND CIVIL RIGHTS WARRIOR
Every once in a while, in fact rarely in these day of The Donald, I stumble across something that warms my heart and makes me think that maybe, just maybe, once we get through the disaster of the Trump years we can return to a more compassionate nation, a nation that upholds civil rights, adheres to it’s founding principles and embraces the Constitution. Such was my feelings while reading a New York Times article about the rescue of the childhood home of Nina Simone in Tyron, North Carolina. I’m fairly certain that many younger Americans have no idea who Nina Simone was much less have a clue about her magnificent songsmanship nor her tortured “journey” through her difficult life.
Nina Simone crafted some of the most poignant and memorable “popular” songs of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s. Combining the verbal fierceness of an H. Rap Brown with the literary eloquence of a James Baldwin, Nina’s music ripped through the niceties of race relations of the time and exposed the hypocrisy of the age for all to see. She did it with a voice so unique as to be immediately recognizable from any of her song’s first bar and with a tortured heart whose blood spilled into her razor sharp lyrics. “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” “Baltimore,” and “Mississippi God Damn” are not just songs but paeans to the centuries of African American history and the resilience of those who overcame immeasurable constraints to succeed. Nina was not only a musical genius but a civil rights icon who’s voice was simply not to be denied.
Nina Simone’s life was not one of your typical famous singer’s life, full of publicity, wealth and adulation. Miss Simone’s life was a tortured one dogged by physical abuse and mental illness from childhood until her death in a small hovel of an apartment in France on April 23, 2003.
The good news is that four African America artists joined forces to save her birthplace home in the hills of North Carolina. Alerted to the impending demise of Simone’s childhood home at 30 East Livingston Street in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, performance artist Adam Pendleton, sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, filmmaker Ellen Gallagher and abstract painter Julie Mehretu pooled their resources and purchased the 600 square foot house where Nina was born and spent her early years. You might think that saving some clapboard shack in the mountains is not such a big deal but when it comes to African Americans, unlike say Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and Elvis Presley, it is often the case that such cultural artifacts are simply lost to history.
These four New York African American artists, none of whom are connected to the music industry, did, however, recognize the extraordinary contributions that Nina Simone has made to the music industry, the Civil Rights Movement and to American culture in general. And while a house with no running water or indoor toilets may not seem as vital to America’s history as Jackie Kennedy’s successful campaign to save Grand Central Station, it is Nina’s story of her life combined with her music that is at once glorious and tragic involving unquestioned genius, life long struggles, fantastic highs and deadly lows that is so much a part of what we call the American story. Those of us who followed Miss Simone’s career back in the day, celebrated her every success and wept at every tribulation such was our heartfelt admiration for her.
Personally, I think Nina Simone deserves a place in the highest ranks of our cultural icons. A woman, a fighter, a genius and in the end a terribly vulnerable human being struggling to simply keep on creating and living from day to day. It was difficult choosing which of her songs to feature here. When I took to YouTube to (hopefully) find one or two of her songs that weren’t co-opted by copyright restrictions, I suddenly realized that culling two or three selections from the dozens upon dozens of her brilliant, passionate and eloquent creations was truly challenging. As I called up song after song and heard a few lines from each one, I realized what an impossible task it was to not choose every single one of her creations. I’m hopeful that the younger generation will discover Nona Simone is these difficult times. She has a way of cutting though the crap and connecting with us that few – very few – artists can.
If you are interested in leering more about this extraordinary woman, recommend the documentary “What Happened Miss Simone?” that is available on Netflix.
Now go out and celebrate the day!