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NYC Artists Unite to Preserve Nina Simone's Birthplace

The home of Tryon’s most celebrated native now has new owners. Four artists from New York recently bought the house where legendary singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone was born.  BPR news’ Helen Chickering has details.

Perched on a hill in the crook of a windy road in the town of Tryon, sits a small wooden house, three rooms, a fireplace and a porch, unremarkable expect for the plaque near the front door that designates the home as the birthplace of legendary singer songwriter Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon, in 1933.  

(Simone singing My Baby Just Cares for Me )

“It’s where she began to play the piano and even perform publicly,” says Adam Pendleton. 

Adam Pendleton, who joined us by Skype,  is one of four New York based artists who went in together to buy the home. (Ellen GallagherRashid Johnson,  and Julie Mehretu)  The house was put on the market in December, after more than a decade of local preservation efforts that helped keep it intact.  Real estate agent Cindy Viehman worked with the seller to find just the right buyer.

HC: What was it like, showing a piece of history?

“The house sold itself,” says Viehman, “it was more of just trying to convey what we hoped would happen and that this would be a preserved piece of history. “ 

A message that resonated with Pendleton who learned about the house in an email from a Tryon art connection and quickly conspired with colleagues.

“I think on the part of all of us, all four of us,  there was a sense of urgency,” says Pendleton, “what a great opportunity to step up and protect something that has such a significant symbolic importance, that can serve to represent,  I think in a profound way, all that Nina Simone has meant and means for American culture.”

(Simone singing I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free )

Simone, who died in 2003, made her mark on the music scene in the 50s and 60s,  with her deep, forceful voice,  and a repertoire that included a mix of jazz, blues and folk music. 

“I remember seeing Nina at the Village Gate in New York, and boy could she cast a spell on an audience,” says Tryon native, Happy McLeod, President, “and at the time I didn’t even know she was from Tryon.”

Today McLeod is president of the Tryon Historical Museum, where work on a Nina Simone exhibit is in progress, part of an ongoing effort to document Simone’s connection to the community. 

“Because not only was she a fabulous musician, and vocalist, but was very active in the civil rights movement,” says McLeod.

Traits that have roots in her childhood, where her gift for music was discovered and nurtured by a supportive but segregated community.   In a 1984 interview, Simone recalls her first brush with discrimination. 

“It touched me the  first time I gave a recital, a concert and they wanted to put my mom and daddy on the back row,” says Simone, “and I remember standing up and saying, “Oh no, my mom and dad will sit on the front row!” 

Museum board member and curator Julia Calhoun grew up in Tryon. 

“ It was difficult growing up anywhere under segregation, for any person of color,  and Tryon was no exception,” says Calhoun.

After high school, Simone went to New York where she continued training with hometown funding help.   But her dreams of a classical piano career took a detour and she landed a job singing jazz in a nightclub, under the name Nina Simone.  The moniker stuck and fame soon followed. And like that first piano recital, Simone used the stage to speak out against discrimination.

Simone singing Mississippi Goddam

Woven throughout it all was a complicated and often troubled personal life, which would take its toll on Simone and her career.   She eventually moved to France, where she lived until her death at 70, far away, but not forgotten by her North Carolina hometown.  A life size sculpture of the Tryon’s famous native sits in the Nina Simone Plaza downtown.   The Simone museum exhibit is almost complete, boosted by the buzz of the recent sale.

“ In fact, I’ve just ordered a new guest book, because  I’m anticipating a lot more people coming,” says Happy McLeod. 

Tryon’s town manager, Zach Ollis says a Nina Simone app is also in the works.

“ It will be a walking app, it wil have  little bits and pieces of Nina’s life, different locations.”

(Simone performs Little Girl Blue )

A tour, that in the future, may include a stop by a small wooden house,

“This is a complicated question.  How do you preserve or seek to highlight a significant aspect of someone’s story of someone’s biography?  Honestly, Helen, I think it’s still sinking in.  Now we’re homeowners.  We have to mow the grass, fix the roof, the day to day things,” says Pendleton.  

And that is the challenge now facing 4 new homeowners from New York, who are committed to keeping the Nina Simone legacy alive, but need a bit of time to figure it out. 

For BPR news, I’m Helen Chickering

Helen Chickering is a host and reporter on Blue Ridge Public Radio. She joined the station in November 2014.