Nina’s voice is a voice for the ages, speaking boldly
to all who will hear and speaking soulfully for all who can understand. Her artistry, vocal and instrumental, is unique–subtle shadings of the divine in harmonic black and white. Her auditory canvases range the spectrum of human experience. That experience—at times, illuminating, private and beautiful, and at others times, damning, public and raw—apprehends the infinite possibility of human interaction filtered through a talent anguished by the hard realities of an imperfect world.
That the American Songbook has been enriched by Nina Simone goes without saying. So, too, have the lives of her many first-hand fans who knew her, who experienced her, who loved her. Having coursed her life, Nina now lives as memory, in the telling and re-telling of her powerful story by new generations of musicians and listening fans. She remains iconic, one of the rare stand-out figures, hard to categorize, her legacy broad-scoped, influential and powerful.
Some nearly eighty years after Nina’s birth, I find myself daily walking in her footsteps in a most literal way—tracing the patterns of her early life where I now live in Tryon, North Carolina, her birthplace, a yet small village on the first rise of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, among other things, I coordinate the Nina Simone Project, a grassroots memorial effort containing three elements: a scholarship, a sculpture and a music festival. www.ninasimoneproject.org
My first introduction to Nina came from my father, a classically-trained musician who had little real appreciation for most popular music. He did however have great appreciation for musical excellence, and that is what he had perceived in Nina, I suspect.
As I was then, I am, to this day, filled with emotion when hearing Nina’s piano solo cover of You’ll Never Walk Alone from Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s popular 1945 musical Carousel. From that initial hearing, my interest in and appreciation for Nina Simone grew exponentially day by day, fueled certainly by her local connection to Tryon, but sustained by an impassioned search for understanding of how a small town North Carolina daughter came to achieve international recognition for her unique talent and her formidable contributions both to the musical arts and to civil rights activism.
Nina’s meteoric rise to fame can’t be separated from her unique personal history. Her career, though not the one she had anticipated, began during one of our nation’s most volatile periods of civil unrest. What emerged from her and from that time was change, slow in coming, but change nonetheless, moving us ever forward and ever closer to a better day and a better world.
Nina’s creative part in that shifting ideology was significant and can be read in most of her protest music. But there was in Nina, a parallel shift as well, more introspective, and perhaps universally familiar—one that also confronts each of us almost daily throughout the unrelenting progress of our own lives. It is a matter of profound, but simple recognition, that point when all things, great and small, begin finally to fall into the larger scope of human history.
For this reason, I find myself coming back time and time again to a tune some twenty years into Nina’s career, Everything Must Change from the 1978 album Baltimore. Here anger is diminished. What remains, beyond a consummate artistry, is left for the listener to decide. Painful recognition, and unnerving melancholy, yes, but there is something more, too. And in that interactive space we confront the mythic, unadulterated Nina, the legendary voice illuminating what it means to be fragile, to be impermanent, which is to say, what it means to be human.
Crys Armbrust, Ph.D.
Founder & Director of the Nina Simone Project