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Future of Nina Simone’s childhood home? Ideas shared, votes cast at birthday party
Wednesday, 04 March 2020 00:28
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TRYON —  Tryon native Nina Simone’s 87th birthday was celebrated with a big party on Feb. 22 at the town’s Roseland Community Center.

While Simone’s birthday was celebrated a day late (as she was born on Feb. 21, 1933), the timing on an unseasonably warm sunny Saturday afternoon and evening made the event accessible for many who work regular jobs or didn’t want to brave frigid weather.

An estimated 100 people, including some town leaders, came and went during the three-hour celebration, sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded nonprofit.

Simone, the acclaimed musician, civil rights activist and Allen High School graduate, was born Eunice Waymon. She died at age 70 in her sleep of natural causes on April 21, 2003 at her home in the south of France.

During the celebration, participants learned more about the ongoing work to preserve Simone’s childhood home. Guests also were given the chance to register their viewpoints on what to do with the homesite.

The gala opened with Dr. Warren Carson, president of Roseland Community Center, welcoming everyone. Carson and others said the restoration of Simone’s childhood home has advanced — and that the event was an opportunity for attendees to “weigh in” on its possible future uses.

Next, Tiffany Tolbert, a senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, summarized the purpose of the birthday party celebration as follows:

• An information table was made available, explaining what is going on with the home’s restoration.

• She and others were seeking “concerns” about the future use of the home.

• Pictures were posted on the wall “on what’s going on physically” with the house.

• Also, surveys asking many questions about the house and its future uses were avalable for filling out and leaving with officials at the birthday party.

“We really appreciate y’all!” she said, with a wide smile, as some in the crowd cheered. “Again, this is Tryon history and Eastside’s history! We really appreciate y’all being here.” (Eastside is Tryon’s historically black area of town, where Simone grew up.) We are interested in getting to know you... We just want to celebrate Nina Simone’s birthday.” 

Tolbert mentioned future meetings that will be held to help chart the future of the house, including 4-7 p.m. March 21 at St. Luke CME Church, 462 Markham Road, Tryon and 5-7 p.m. March 21 at New Bethel AME Zion Church at 263 Forest St. in Forest City.

Dr. Joe Fox, a Tryon native and vice president of Roseland Community Center, noted that “big issues” regarding the house are that it is “very small” at around 600 square feet and located in the middle of a residential area, with other houses nearby.

Fox also said that “everyone thinks the house is ‘special,’ but what should be done with it?”

Another issue, he said, is parking, or the lack thereof. “The chuch (St. Luke CME Church) is the closest venue with parking, but it needs the space often itself.

He also noted that some people have suggested that Simone’s childhood home could be used as a gathering place for musicians to practice or perform — but again that could disturb the neighbors.

Others have proposed that it could be used as an artist’s retreat, inasmuch Simone was considered an artist.

Fox, who retired early from the North Carolina Community College system,  told the Daily Planet at the birthday party that “my very first teaching job was Mitchell Community College... And so my first week at this college, the president sent me a note, saying he wanted to see me. I was thinking,  ‘I’ve only been here a week’ and thought I’d screwed up,” somehow.

“He asked me, ‘I heard you’re from Tryon? Did you know Nina Simone?’”

“He said he just loved Nina and had seen a Broadway show in New York and, in the middle of the show, Nina stopped the show for 45 minutes (going off on a tirade) about how some black guy was cast as a servant. After she finished, she sat down. And the show proceeded” with Simone quietly watching it to the finish. “He said he felt sorry for the young actor cast as a waiter.”

Carson, a Tryon native and retiree from the University of South Carolina, as a professor of English and African-American studies and an administrator — senior associate vice chancellor for academic affairs, also had met Simone.

(In both cases, Carson and Fox were much younger than Simone when they crossed paths.)

Carson, who also has a musical background as a former choir director and student of piano, told the Daily Planet, “I think we’re great fans in the Eastside of Tryon (the traditionally African-America community of Tryon) — and so she (Simone) occupies a very important place in that community. Even though there are very few people left who actually knew her, we’ve gathered to celebrate the legacy that she left.

“I’m actually more interested in her music and how contemporary audiences have embraced her music  — more so than what she did in civil rights. And I’m not trying to diminish at all what she did” in civil rights. “It takes someone who is strong to stand up and speak truth to power as she did. I just think her music speaks volumes beyond that.”

So what does he hear in Simone’s music?

To that question, Carson told the Daily Planet, “Well, I like the way she brings to her own song the various musical influences from spirtual and gospel and blues and classical and it all ends up in some creation that’s quintessentially Nina Simone. I like some of her blues pieces. I like some of her covers,  (the Beatles’) ‘Here Comes the Sun’ and ‘House of the Rising Sun’”— the most well-known version of which was performed in 1964 by the Animals. 

(According to Wikipedia, “The oldest known recording of the song, under the title ‘Rising Sun Blues,’ is by Appalachian artists Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley and Gwen Foster, who recorded it on Sept. 6, 1933 on the Vocalion label.”)

Carson expressed his greatest enthusiasm about Simone’s “‘70s songs — when she was not so bothered by the past and not looking at the future in some foreboding way. She was in her element as a musician” during that era.

“When you hear Nina at the keyboard (in the 1970s), it’s something that’s so clear about the way she hits those notes... (with a) powerful left hand ... she makes the bass notes throb like African drums.”

With a grin, Carson added, “Also, her bawdy songs — ‘I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl.’ She’s clearly enjoying herself. Sometimes she could be so serious. ..So hearing her like that (having fun), is not typical Nina” — and that made such Simone songs noteworthy and special to Carson.

“Also,” he said, he loved “where Nina and some of her band members are in synch,” performing during certain songs.

Meanwhile, Fox said of his limited interactions with Simone, “Well, I’ve known the family for a long time. I met her (Simone) on a couple of occasions. She was much older than me.

“She was hard to get to know if you didn’t know her... Under the circumstances I knew her,” the age gap was wide, so they did not interact much. She knew my mother and so” that was that.

“One of the first times I actually said more than a few words to her, I greeted her as ‘Ms. Simone’ and proceeded to tell her who I was. She said, ‘I know who you are! very abruptly.”

Fox added, “The second time, her sister lived in Detroit, as did I. One time, Nina came to Detroit” and, in approaching her, he addressed her as “Ms. Simone,” to which she snapped, “You may call me Nina!” With a laugh, he said, “If I had called her that,” the ever-contentious Simone would have asked that she be addressed as “Ms. Simone.”

Fox also said his mother told him a story about Simone as a girl and her father, who was well-known for being very particular in about the way things were done.

He always mowed the grass at their home, but one day her father worked late somewhere else, so young Simone decided she would surprise her father by mowing the grass herself.

“So he drove in” to the driveway “and she came running up to him and said, ‘Dad, Dad, I cut the grass!”

Her father reportedly looked around grimly, observing the job she did that fell far short of his high standards, nodded and said, “Put it right back. Put it right back,” referring to the grass she had just cut.

Young Simone was crushed because she had been trying to impress her father, Fox said with a wry laugh, adding that it could not vouch for the veracity of the story as told by his mother.

As for Simone’s last visit to Tryon, Fox noted that she was living in France, but  “she was here (in Tryon) when her mother died” on April 30, 2001. She was here when one of her sisters died. (In subsequent research, the Daily Planet could not find any details on when her sister died, or the name of the sister who died.)

“I guess the best way to explain her relationship with Tryon is that it was ‘complicated.’ One never knows the residual effects… She may have gotten over it earlier, but it comes back... Many of her memories of growing up were with segregration… She had real difficulty reconciling” that.

So how much does the average person in Tryon today know about Simone?

“Little to none,” Fox replied. “Maybe one person left who was in school with her.

“So part of our whole reason for being here today is to try to generate some greater interest in Nina Simone’s legacy. She is a daughter of the Eastside and a daughter of Tryon. I think it’s important that we celebrate where we can.”  

As for the day’s discussion topic, he reiterated, “Principally, it’s around the house. The issue is restoration. They’re working on resolving any parking. They have full access to both church lots. They just have to ask for access. 

“The next informational program is actually being hosted by St. Luke’s CME church. The issue is what’s going to go in there, given that it’s a residential area. If it’s a studio, restricted hours” will be needed to avoid bothering the neighbors.

“They bought it and now the National Historic Trust has designated it as a National Historic Treasure. So that opens it up to great funding. That’s why we’re here. People are writing down what they’d like to see or not like to see.

“My understanding is what’ll be discussed at St. Luke’s will be what’s been discovered from the surveys completed today,” Fox said.




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