Nina Simone & the Civil Rights Movement: Protest at Her Piano, Audience at Her Feet

Article excerpt

Abstract

American pianist, vocalist, songwriter, and activist Nina Simone (1933-2003) played a major role in the Civil Rights Movement and yet many historical accounts of the area have snubbed her. Bringing into clearer focus the intense and problematic commitment of Simone's identity as a musician to the protest identity of the Civil Rights Movement, this essay will examine Simone as an icon, her songs in historical context, and her audiences over the years. Her concerts, which continued until the last year of her life, make for a fascinating public record of her turbulent relationship with fans during and after the turbulent 1960s.

Keywords: Nina Simone, Civil Rights Movement, Protest, African-American Women, Songwriting, Classical Piano, Black Consciousness, Soul, Essentialism, Racism, Appropriation, Mental Illness, Fan Culture, the 1960s

Introduction

A naive 21-year-old in 1954, Nina Simone took her stage name because she did not want her religious family back home to find out she was playing piano in an Atlantic City bar in order to pay her bills. She herself did not want to play bars, nor did she want to sing as the gig required, but it is as a singer that she is remembered. Nina Simone was a pianist first, born Eunice Waymon in 1933. A child prodigy, at age two she could play "God Be with You 'til We Meet Again" on the family organ. Her mother, a local minister, committed her to the role of church accompanist by age six and, soon after, to the pioneer task of becoming America's first black concert pianist. "Ironic," writes Simone in her autobiography I Put a Spell on You (1991), "that Momma's ambition was so tied to race when she spent her whole life trying to ignore the reality of her color. At home we never talked about race, ever" (32).

Such race-denial may have been less difficult to maintain in their hometown of Tryon, North Carolina--a tourist resort atypical among southern towns in there being no black side and white side but, instead, a checkerboard layout. "Black and white townspeople mixed together all the time," Simone writes, and relations between them were "always cordial" (3-4). Once Mrs. Massinovitch, an encouraging white tutor, taught her Bach, Eunice knew she "never wanted to be anything other than a classical pianist" (23). As noted, other than a classical pianist is what she became. Her allegedly race-based rejection from a Philadelphia music school prompted her to sing for her supper and, in due course, to sing for record companies and the Civil Rights Movement.

Even with the release of the third and best-researched biography Princess Noire--The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Cohodas 2010), a slew of compilation CDs, rare live footage now available online, and a controversial new biopic, Nina Simone cannot be fully comprehended by post-CRM generations. It's true for any longstanding artist: the artist as an icon, like the meaning of the music she makes, will change with changing audiences. This is a truth that Simone struggled against, especially as it overlapped with the passing of the CRM. Her concerts, which continued until the last year of her life, make for a fascinating public record of her turbulent relationship with fans during and after the turbulent 1960s. By examining Simone as an icon, her songs in historical context, and her audiences over the years, this essay will bring into clearer focus the intense and problematic commitment of Simone's identity as a musician to the protest identity of the Civil Rights Movement.

Simone claims to have been unaware of racism until her first town recital, at age eleven, when her parents were asked to give up their front row seats to a white family. "Like switching on a light," her innocent assumption that all white people were like Miss Massinovitch was crudely disproved (Simone 26). And so Eunice Waymon at the piano stood up, refusing to play. Intersecting in this story of her first concert for a largely white crowd are three factors--being a classical pianist, protesting racism, and confronting her own audiences--that, at everlasting odds with each other, compelled Nina Simone's career. …