Today we welcome a guest post from Nadine Cohodas, author of Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, available in paperback from UNC Press.
Born Eunice Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina, Nina Simone (1933-2003) began her musical life playing classical piano. A child prodigy, she wanted a career on the concert stage, but when the Curtis Institute of Music rejected her, the devastating disappointment compelled her to change direction. She turned to popular music and jazz but never abandoned her classical roots or her intense ambition. By the age of twenty six, Simone had sung at New York City’s venerable Town Hall and was on her way. Tapping into newly unearthed material on Simone’s family and career, Nadine Cohodas paints a luminous portrait of the singer, highlighting her tumultuous life, her innovative compositions, and the prodigious talent that matched her ambition.
Princess Noire is available in both print and ebook editions.
Reconstructing Nina Simone’s Earliest Days
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation declared the birthplace of Nina Simone a national treasure in June, the news brought back memories of my first research trips to Tryon, North Carolina 14 years ago for a biography of the singer, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone. As efforts to restore the house begin anew, what we know about the family’s time there can help foster an accurate recreation.
Late in her career, Nina had returned to Tryon to help with a documentary and pointed the filmmakers to what she thought was her birthplace. But from interviews with her older siblings, childhood friends and classmates, we determined that she had been mistaken. Her older brothers and sister helped explain the reason for the confusion.
Before Nina was born February 21, 1933, as Eunice Waymon, her enterprising father, J.D. Waymon, and his wife, Kate, an aspiring preacher, had rented two–possibly three–places in Tryon. A growing family and in one case a fire required the frequent moves. Eventually they and their five children before settled into a small wood frame house on the east side of town, and there Nina was born.
Nina’s birth house was on a curving hilly road that only years later, when Tryon officially established municipal boundaries, became known as East Livingston. Railroad tracks ran through the center of Tryon, but blacks and whites did not live exclusively on either side. Rather the two races lived near each other in checkerboard clusters. The arrangement fostered, depending on one’s viewpoint, an inchoate integration or an imperfect segregation. At the new Waymon house, their neighbors were largely other black families.
Though the house was not large for a family of eight, one advantage was a yard big enough for a garden, including enough space to keep chickens. A fence in the back separated the house from a pasture where neighbors kept a cow. A tennis court and small store were right across a dirt road, testament to the hard work and savvy investments of neighbors Fred and Blanche Lyles. He had been a dining car waiter and used his savings to build the court–which any nearby children could use–and the store.
The main room in the Waymon house had one of two stoves, and the children usually slept there. The other stove was in the kitchen. When evening bath time came, either J.D., Kate, or their oldest child, John Irvin, heated a tub of water on top of the living room stove, and the children took turns cleaning up. One chilly night John Irvin got so close to the stove that he burned himself, the scar a permanent reminder of the bathing ritual.
After J.D.s health prevented him continuing work at his dry cleaning store, he rigged up a barber chair at the back of the house to cut hair and even let John Irvin tend to a few customers. J.D. also used the big tub in the kitchen to take in laundry, and he did sewing, too, as the occasional garment required.
The small porch at the front of the house served as a gathering spot for Kate and her friends to visit. But when possible, her daughter Dorothy, born three years before Eunice, commandeered the space for a makeshift classroom. She would set her dolls on the steps just so and then stand facing them for their “instruction.”
Kate’s small pump organ, just like the one the given to her as a child, was a prized possession. And it offered the first clues of just how special Eunice was. When she was two and a half she could hoist herself onto the stool in front of the organ and pick out tunes, including, her mother said, “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.”
The Waymon house was barely a five minute walk down East Livingston to St. Luke CME Church, at the corner where Livingston joined Markham Road. The location was fortuitous given that Kate was about to be ordained as a minister, her devotion to religion only deepening. She insisted that the family devote Sundays to church. “We’d leave the house on Sunday morning and didn’t get back until Monday morning,” John Irvin remembered. “We had the children’s service, then go right in the main service, and then stand up and sing.” When the family finally returned well after midnight, “Mama would walk out of the kitchen to get a chicken, wring its neck, and while that chicken was a dyin’ out there, kickin’ and going, she would put water on the stove, make a fire, clean that chicken. We’d have chicken and gravy at one in the morning.”
St. Luke’s parishioners were among the first outside the family to witness young Eunice’s talents when she occasionally played the church piano. Most concurred with another older brother, Carrol. “We knew she was a genius by the time she was three,” he said. And her sister Dorothy remembered that Eunice was exempt from many household chores, especially washing the dishes. “She was preserved,” Dorothy said. “ Her fingers were protected. She was always special that way. Nobody was jealous. We adored her.”