By Steve Bergsman
When I arrived in Tryon, North Carolina, populated by 1,700 souls and located on the South Carolina border, my GPS directed me along the hills and gullies that formed the outskirts of the hamlet. Here I encountered a work crew from the National Trust for Historic Preservation hard going on the stabilization and preservation of Nina Simone's childhood home — in fact, the house where she was born.
One of the most important singers in the mid-20th century, Simone bridged jazz, folk, R&B and pop. Of her most famous songs, "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," has been called an anthem for African-American children, while "Mississippi Goddam" was a powerful protest against segregation in this country. In the popular music world, Simone took Screamin' Jay Hawkins' raucous and indelicate "I Put a Spell on You" and turned it into a haunting ballad of love. It became one of her most popular recordings.
Tryon had already started embracing its most famous daughter when Nina Simone Plaza was dedicated with a beautiful bronze statue of the singer by renowned sculptor Zenos Frudakis. Crys Ambrust, Tryon's economic development director, is the founder and director of the Nina Simone Project, probably the largest archive of primary material and ephemera about the singer. At some point, a small empty lot across from the statue will become the home of the project's archive. Ambrust is so well known in the Simone world that he boasts a sisterly relationship with her daughter, who gave him some of her mother's ashes. A portion of those ashes are in the bronze heart within the core of the Frudakis sculpture. An interactive kiosk is also being added to the plaza.
"Every month Tryon has experienced increased visitor numbers, and it's about people coming to do some kind of homage to Nina," Ambrust said. "Adding her childhood home will increase that exponentially."
While I was at the property a small crew led by a woman named Molly was diligently at labor, hammering, sawing and drilling boards. Her HOPE Crew, Molly said, was working on six projects across the country celebrating African-American history, including playwright August Wilson's home in Pittsburgh and jazz couple John and Alice Coltrane's home on Long Island, New York.
The Nina Simone house, all 660 square feet, was home to Eunice Waymon (Simone's original name), three siblings and her parents. Two more siblings came later. Locals always knew the structure was her house, but it was in such disrepair that it was slated for demolition. Then at the very last minute someone with capital realized it was the home of the famous singer and bought the property. Eventually Adam Pendleton, a New York artist, and his friends acquired the house specifically for preservation. It is considered a national treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
At the turn of the 20th century and up until the Great Depression, Tryon was a tourist town. In the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains the climate was salubrious, at least compared to the coastal south. Three first ladies visited — Eleanor Roosevelt, Lou Henry Hoover and Grace Coolidge. Lady Astor, the first female in the British Parliament, and numerous creative types including F. Scott Fitzgerald and George Gershwin also visited. Nineteenth-century poet Sidney Lanier lived down the holler, and William Gillette stayed in town long enough to write the first play involving Sherlock Holmes, which made him a very rich man.
Simone wrote about her hometown: "Over the years it had become popular as a resort. Tryon lay in the shadow of what the locals called Hogback Mountain, which sheltered it from the worst weather so it was cool during the summer and pleasant in the winter."
Later this year visitors to Tryon will be able to visit five important stops on a Nina Simone loop: the Nina Simone Plaza for the statue and soon-to-be kiosk; her home; St. Luke's church, where she first played publically (it has been rebuilt, so it no longer looks the same as it did in 1940); the piano studio of Muriel Mazzanovich, her piano teacher, who taught generations to play before dying at the age of 102; and the Lanier Library, built in 1890 and to this day a bastion of Tryon's cultural history.
The library is on the loop because at the age of 12 (14 according to Ambrust) the talented child performed her first recital here. Her parents came and sat in the first row, but were told they needed to sit in the back. She refused to play until her parents were reinstated to the first row. Being a civil rights firebrand wasn't a stretch for Simone. She started climbing that mountain early in life.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.ninasimoneproject.org.
Tryon is about 90 miles east of Charlotte. Closest chain hotels are in Hendersonville.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A bronze statue by Zenos Frudakis is the centerpiece of the Nina Simone Plaza in Tryon, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of Steve Bergsman.