One morning in June 2018, Yolanda Rabun parked her car at 30 East Livingston Street in Tryon, North Carolina, where a modest clapboard house sits on a grassy slope. She didn’t know why she’d been asked to come sing on the porch of jazz great Nina Simone’s childhood home, but Rabun—a musician who also works as a corporate attorney at IBM—wasn’t about to pass up the chance.
This, after all, was the very home where Simone, the daughter of a Methodist minister and the sixth of eight children, was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in 1933, and where it became apparent, even before the age of three, that she had a prodigious gift for music—that she was, in her older brother’s words, a genius.
Inside, the house was in disrepair, the ceiling crumbling, the floorboards moldering, the rooms mostly empty. Nevertheless, the structure was still standing.
“When I walked in, I knew this is exactly where I’m supposed to be,” Rabun says.
Organizers revealed the occasion that Rabun, along with three other African-American musicians from North Carolina, had been asked to sing for: a surprise press conference announcing that the house had been designated as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This was a big deal: Fewer than one hundred sites in the U.S. hold that title. (The announcement, incidentally, was held on Juneteenth, the day that marks the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.)
“They’re always talking about preserving folks’ homes, but you never hear about black people being honored for what they stood for,” Rabun says. “That they chose Nina Simone, who fought all her life—it’s very important.”
The announcement held particular significance for Rabun: Like Simone, she is a jazz musician who comes from a family of preachers. She has also spent a lot of time trying to get into Simone’s head: In 2012, she starred in Durham playwright Howard L. Craft’s one-person play Nina Simone … What More Can I Say?, a role that she will reprise later this month in a new version of the show, in PlayMakers’ PRC2 series.
At the press conference, when Rabun got up to sing, she could feel the eyes of one particular audience member trained on her.
“When I finished, I came down the steps and she touched me, and was like, baby,” Rabun says. “And then she told me who she was, and oh, I melted. Not only am I at [Simone’s] home, singing in honor of her, but now, I’m meeting her blood.”
It was Nina Simone’s younger sister, Francis Waymon Fox.
The effort to preserve Simone’s Tryon home has a long, winding history, but perhaps it’s best to begin by noting how remarkable it is that the house is still standing at all. Built circa 1930, the three-room, 660-square-foot house is the kind of threadbare construction battered by Southern storms that often blends into backroads, or otherwise disappears entirely.
If you go searching for the childhood homes of many other African-American artists and activists of the twentieth century—W.E.B. Du Bois, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X—you’ll find only a placard on a street corner. That Simone’s home has survived time and gentrification, a curtain of kudzu separating it from a panorama of the foothills and distant Hogback Mountain—well, that feels close to a miracle.
Over the years, the house has passed through many hands and rehabilitation attempts; in 2016, it went on the market, putting it in immediate danger of being destroyed. In 2017, four African-American visual artists from New York—the conceptual artist Adam Pendleton, the collagist and filmmaker Ellen Gallagher, the abstract painter Julie Mehretu, and the sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson—quietly purchased the property for $95,000.
Their timing couldn’t have been better: That same year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched a campaign to preserve African-American historical sites. With the help of the trust, Pendleton, Gallagher, Mehretu, and Johnson were able to secure the house’s National Treasure status, protecting it from demolition.
“It was really perfect timing. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason,” says Carly Jones, the music director at the N.C. Arts Council, noting that last fall, Governor Roy Cooper declared 2019 the Year of Music, rolling out Come Hear NC, a year-long series celebrating North Carolina’s musical heritage.
Numerous arms of the state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources have been involved in preservation efforts since then, including the N.C. African-American Heritage Commission, the North Carolina Arts Council, and the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Tryon-based Nina Simone Project has also had a heavy hand. This collaboration, according to Jones, is a model for state and federal cultural programming.
“I think it’s really important for North Carolina to be an example of how to be a good partner for this national campaign to preserve spaces that belong to African Americans,” she says.
Providence may mark the house’s purchase, but the cost of restoring it to its original condition—let alone to imagine a future for it—top out at an estimated $250,000. For those involved, it comes as a relief that the house is recognized as a treasure. The long work of making it look like one, though, is only just beginning.
In the short term, though, all of this is resulting in a flurry of Simone activity in the Triangle. August 16–18, NCMA hosts Nina Simone Weekend, with several events anchored to a performance by Simone’s daughter, Lisa Simone. And Craft’s No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone—an updated version of his play starring Rabun—will run August 21–25 at Kenan Theatre. Both events are part of Come Hear NC’s broader commemorative effort.
On Friday, August 16, What Happened, Miss Simone?, a documentary produced by Lisa Simone, screens at NCMA in conjunction with a performance by Duke professor and dance artist Thomas DeFrantz’s experimental dance troupe, SLIPPAGE. Saturday’s NCMA events include two masterclasses on Simone’s lesser-known works and her contributions as a composer.
Saturday evening, the Paris-based Lisa Simone will perform in the outdoor amphitheater, accompanied by local big band ensemble The Tribe Jazz Orchestra. Lisa Simone is the only child of Nina Simone and, like her mother, is a renowned vocalist, with Grammy nominations and numerous Broadway credits to her name. She closes the celebration out on Sunday with an intimate discussion of her mother’s work.
“Nina Simone has made such an impact on so many women of color throughout the country. Being able to put this together with her daughter has been such an honor,” says Carly Jones, who spearheaded the weekend alongside Angela Thorpe, director of the N.C. African American Commission. “The whole time that we were planning this, we had ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ as our theme song.”
August 21–25 brings No Fear and Blues Long Gone: Nina Simone, directed by Kathryn Hunter-Williams for PlayMakers. The one-woman play melds biography with speculation about how Simone would have responded to our times. It’s an updated version of Craft’s Nina Simone … What More Can I Say?, which was commissioned in 2012 by the Sonja B. Haynes Stone Center for Black Culture and History and ran for one season. In the seven years since, Craft and Rabun, have kept up their prolific individual output, with Craft teaching and writing plays, while Rabun has put out three albums, toured, and starred in numerous area theater productions. Both characterize the revised production as almost entirely new.
“When we did it before, we didn’t have a big budget. We were creating on the fly,” Rabun says. “Over the course of the years, Howard has done something amazing to the script. And we have resources, we have music, we have a set.”
Of course, the years since 2012 have also seen the election of Donald Trump and a marked shift in political discourse and violence. When it comes to the question of how Nina Simone—an artist who always saw America for what it was—would respond to our times, the material is almost infinite.
Simone’s talent was “discovered” early, thanks to her performances as a toddler at her mother’s church. The Tryon community pooled money for piano lessons; by the age of seventeen, she moved to New York City to take lessons at The Juilliard School. Afterward, she was hired to play piano in a dingy nightclub in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she began performing under the name Nina Simone in order to disguise the gig from her minister mother, who disapproved of popular music.
Popular music, though, approved of Nina Simone, and she was able to make an early career—that is, to survive—by performing breezy, beloved pop standards like “I Loves You, Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me.” The civil rights movement (particularly the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church, in which four little girls were murdered) shook her into penning the anguished anthem “Mississippi, Goddam.” A long career of raw political music and activism would follow that dirge.
Simone had always been responsive to injustice. During a performance at a local library at age eleven, young Eunice saw her parents being removed from their seats in order to make room for a white couple; she responded by stating that she would not play until her parents were given back their seats.
It was an effective protest—her parents were returned to their seats—but a life that requires such unerring vigilance takes a toll. There is a particularly poignant moment of archival footage in What Happened, Miss Simone? in which an interviewer asks Simone if it’s the role of the artist to “alert America to the need for change.” Without skipping a beat, Simone responds, “It is my role. But sometimes, I wish it wasn’t. You see, I have to live with Nina. And that is very difficult.”
If you look to Spotify for contemporary metrics, Simone’s most popular song, by thousands of listens, is her 1965 cover of “Feeling Good.” In her hands, feeling good is an idea, and an elastic one, at that: The idea alone contains at least fifty distinct feelings. It’s dynamic and cellular and elegant and personal; the one thing it might not be called is intimate, because intimacy suggests an easy way in.
Simone’s pain is a reservoir located deep inside of her. Her delivery of certain lines of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood”—a song written for her, although it has spurred dozens of unsatisfying covers—is breathless, her voice so low it seems almost to be skimming the ocean floor. But then it swells upward in a charged plea: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good / Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” The husky, loaded pauses between each line are a painful magic.
It is telling that both Lisa Simone’s documentary and the original version of Craft’s play are titled with questions: For someone who offered so much of herself, Simone is still, in many ways, an elusive figure. Her struggles with mental illness and domestic violence didn’t fully come to light until her death in 2003, and many people are still unaware of her roots in Western North Carolina. But audiences have always wanted to better understand who she is. Recognizing the place where she came into herself is one way of closing the gap between Simone’s public and private lives; it also continues her tireless activism.
The future function of the house is still up in the air, although whole community workshops have been held to try and answer the question. The consensus is that it will resemble, as closely as possible, the actual home she grew up in. One idea being floated is to have the house used as a space for artist residencies. The story of the house is, after all, the story of the artists of color who have vowed to protect it.
Jones had joked that “To Be Young, Gifted and Black”—a song that Nina Simone composed in memory of her friend Lorraine Hansberry and performed for the first time in 1969—has been the unofficial theme song as she and Thorpe have worked on putting Nina Simone Weekend together. The song also proved symbolic for Rabun. When she’d stepped into Simone’s home for the first time last June, a piano was sitting in the front room. Propped up on it was the sheet music for “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”
“I just stepped in the house and was like, oh god, to have just been in a space where she walks,” Rabun says. “And that piece—I grew up with that, and that inspired me to keep on trying to be the best I could. Because somebody told me that it was good and beautiful to be young, gifted, and black.”
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