(by Susan McNabb)
I’d never heard of Nina Simone when I moved to Tryon, but when I looked her up online, I realized I knew and loved many of her songs. I was still new to Tryon when I saw Geoff Achison play one of her songs at a concert at TFAC and heard him marvel at discovering her statue on a walk around town. Like Mr. Achison, I thought it was very cool that she was Tryon’s native daughter, and I wondered why we didn’t honor her more. At that time, the house she grew up in was in a state of disrepair and for sale at an extremely low price.
Other than the statue in her plaza, I saw no other evidence that she was born and raised here. I wrote a letter to the Bulletin about how moved I’d been when I heard Geoff Achison play her song, and commented how sad it was that her house sat in ruin. Little did I know I was tiptoeing along the edge of an already open can of worms. When I asked local friends about Nina Simone, I learned she was controversial in Tryon circles. On the surface, newcomers like myself and Geoff Achison saw a town that could claim a remarkably talented music icon, but we both also sensed there was something not quite right between Ms. Simone and Tryon.
At a later concert, I spoke to Geoff Achison afterwards about the subject and he said he got the feeling that people here weren’t as enamored with Nina Simone as the rest of the world, and I’m afraid he might have been right. Beneath the surface of the public persona, Ms. Simone was a troubled woman. Her daughter, Lisa, paints a picture of a mother who suffered from depression, bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and whose abuse of her only child ranged from neglect to beatings. She describes her as “angry with the world.”
A friend who saw her in concert in the 70s called her “confrontative” to the (mostly white) audience and conceded that “prejudice, hatred and the confinements of racism are all enough to twist a person.” I heard on the rumor mill that as a child Nina Simone was assisted financially by local whites to develop her musical talent and not only “didn’t appreciate the help,” but later shunned her hometown. I’ve also read that she had to witness her parents being seated at the back of her concerts because they couldn’t sit with the white people.
I’m not going to attempt to delve further into the issue of race, especially during the time of Ms. Simone’s upbringing, but I can see why she was angry and fought so hard for civil rights, having been raised in a small Southern town in an era when blacks did not have equal rights. She lost a scholarship to study classical music—her life’s dream–because she was black. Her music was boycotted in some Southern states in the 60s. Even after her death, she causes turmoil. Her family members still fight over her estate. A film about her life is currently embroiled in a lawsuit.
There is no denying her life and legacy are thorny. But there is also no denying she was a musical genius, is a national treasure and happened to be from Tryon. If the only people we revered were those with pretty lives, our museums and history books would be barren and boring. If Nina Simone had been a compliant, grateful, peaceful woman, she would have also been unlikely to produce soul-wrenching music and to impact so many people with her gift. It’s tragic that there was such turmoil in her life, and that her daughter had to suffer because she had such a troubled mother.
But flawed and controversial, Nina Simone is still ours. Her ill treatment by the town, the region and the times fueled her anger and made her who she was, and to shun her now is to deny Tryon had any part in shaping her—all of her. No matter how we feel about her life, she’s a part of our history. And generations from now, her music will still live. We owe it to future residents to claim as ours both the genius of her music and the tragedy of her personal life. Like most people, she embodied both good and bad, but unlike most, she was a brilliant star and was from our town.
When out-of-town guests come to see me, I take them to the Nina Simone Plaza downtown and show them her statue. Most people already know who she is, and if they don’t, I tell them about her life and music. I also tell them how proud of her we are here. And I hope I’m right.