So much was going to happen, but before any of it did, there was a little girl in Tryon, North Carolina, who wanted to be a concert pianist. Her name was Eunice Waymon; she was black. This was in the late 1930s, when the daughters of poor African American families in the small-town South were not routinely embraced by the classical-music establishment. Not that they ever have been. There was a woman named Florence Price, from Little Rock, a composer who’d had a piece premiered by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; there was the great contralto Marian Anderson, whose father sold ice in the Reading Terminal in Philadelphia and who became an internationally famous concert singer. Mostly, though, classical music was for privileged people, people with connections. White people.1
Anderson, one of the greatest classical singers of the last century, was turned away as a young woman from the Philadelphia Music Academy with the explanation, “We don’t take colored.”
The 1930s, keep in mind: not a bad moment for African American musical talent in general. The year 1933, when Eunice Waymon was born, was also the year John Hammond first saw Billie Holiday perform at Covan’s on West 132nd Street, the year Duke Ellington released “Sophisticated Lady.” Black blues and jazz musicians were rewriting the story of American music on a weekly and nightly basis, but the ones who brushed against the classical world tended to be treated as quasi-novelties, not quite serious. Composers who arranged spirituals for symphony orchestra, that sort of thing. Little Eunice, the child of a revivalist-preacher mother and a jack-of-all-trades father, wanted to play Bach at Carnegie Hall.
It says something about both the intensity and the talent of this child that people around her actually thought she could do it. “We knew she was a genius by the time she was 3,” her brother remembered later. As a baby, she’d clapped along in rhythm to the hymns at church. As a toddler, she could play tunes on the organ by ear. By the time she was 6, she was playing piano at her mother’s revival meetings, her feet barely reaching the pedals. Mrs. Waymon cleaned house for a white woman in Tryon, and this woman, hearing Eunice play one day with what you can only imagine was a nova of disbelief, offered to do what Eunice’s family couldn’t — pay 75 cents a week so that Eunice could take lessons. Her teacher was another white woman, Mrs. Mazzanovich. Eunice walked two miles to her lesson every Saturday morning, crossing the railroad tracks.
Mrs. Mazzanovich was herself a sophisticated lady, an English emigrant and the wife of a painter, and she realized what she had. She set out to make Eunice a great classical musician. The girl practiced six hours a day, seven hours, eight. Bach, Chopin, Beethoven; etudes, arpeggios, scales. She’d later describe the loneliness of these years, the feeling that she was not only special but remote, separate. Still, she learned. Tryon, white and black, came together to support her. Miss Mazzy, as Eunice called her teacher, got together a fund to help launch her star pupil’s career, and with the help of that fund she made it to New York, to Juilliard, where she studied in the summer of 1950. Her teacher was an elderly German pianist named Carl Friedberg, who as a youth had studied with Clara Schumann — that’s how far she’d come, from the Jim Crow South to almost the living memory of Brahms. She must have felt as if her dream were opening up to receive her.
Friedberg helped her prepare for what they believed would be the pivotal moment of her career, an audition at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. Eunice had chosen Curtis carefully: It offered scholarships to all of its students, a necessity as Eunice’s fund from Tryon wouldn’t cover long-term study. Curtis would remove the constant worry about money, the labyrinthine grind of that. It would make her an insider. It was where she would become what she knew she was meant to be.
She auditioned in the spring of 1951. She was rejected. The pain she felt — how do you even start to categorize that? She’d given her childhood to this ambition. She’d come this close, and she’d failed. She was split open. She heard a rumor that she’d been rejected because she was black, and she seized on that, although people close to the situation at Curtis later denied it.2 She tried to work out a plan for re-auditioning, but now she needed work, too. There was pressure to help her family. After knocking around in various accompanist- and teaching-type jobs for a couple of years, studying when she could, she wound up in Atlantic City, playing piano at a working-class bar called the Midtown. Sawdust on the floor, that kind of place. A far sight from Juilliard and Clara Schumann.
Curtis had admitted African American students before, including George Walker, who won a Pulitzer Prize; still, in light of everything, it’s not an implausible suspicion. Interestingly, another black female pianist who’d been at Juilliard at the same time as Eunice, Natalie Hinderas, did go on to have a successful concert career.
The man who hired her told her she’d have to sing, too. Eunice had no vocal training, but she agreed because she needed the money. He asked for her name, and that was scary, because Eunice didn’t want her Methodist mother to find out she’d set foot in a place like the Midtown, much less gone to work there. She thought for a second, then said to call her Nina Simone.
The story of Eunice Waymon takes up only a few minutes of Liz Garbus’s powerful new documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, which is out today on Netflix. But it’s important, because it’s here that we see the first iteration of the conflicts that play out over and over across Nina Simone’s astonishing career. For instance, in her name. In the archetypal pop-genius narrative, she’d have chosen it in an act of creative invention, as the assumption of a kind of ideal identity: Think of Norma Jean Baker becoming Marilyn Monroe. Nina Simone becomes Nina Simone in an act of shame. Her whole life, she’s haunted by a sense that she’s on the wrong track, that she’s lost her real self. The more she succeeds, in a way, the more she feels she’s failing, because she’s not playing classical music. When she finally plays Carnegie Hall, she’s delighted, but also and in a deeper way depressed, because she’s playing pop songs, not serious music. And there, too, is the kind of mind-roiling contradiction that only an artist of her stature could sustain. Because Nina Simone is one of the towering figures of African American music, which is in turn the towering category of 20th-century American music. And what she really wants to be doing is playing Bach.
Bach is what she hears in her soul. Not in the way Charlie Parker heard Bach, not as an echo of something already present in the art she’s driven to create, but as a beauty sufficient to itself. “I think I would have been happier,” she says in old age to an interviewer, imagining the life she didn’t have. “I am not very happy now.” Curtis rejects her, and everything after that is an attempt to cope with a fallen world, a world that had already failed her. She is open about this, mostly: She never felt she had any choice. She started playing bars for money, and when she built a following she recorded a single, a version of Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy,” as a favor to a friend. When the single became a top-20 hit, she recorded an album, 1958’s Little Girl Blue, and then another, and so on, until she became a legend, feeling all the time angrier, more despondent, more lost.
What did the audience hear, that first night at the Midtown Bar? If you’re a writer, you think about describing Nina Simone’s voice and you just shake your head. It’s deep, deeper than some men’s voices, almost a baritone. But it doesn’t sound like a man’s voice. It can be booming and harsh, it can be airy and slight. It can be as hollow and clear as a flute, or it can twist into nasality, into a kind of deliberate half-strangulation, as though it is fighting itself. I have thought about this more than anyone probably should and the best adjective I can find is comfortless. Not merely inconsolable; not believing in consolation. As Simone’s career was taking off, Sam Cooke was on the radio crooning, “Soothe me, baby, soothe me.” But Simone knows that soothing is a lie. Or if it isn’t, it’s still of no use to her. The thorn is inside her, out of reach.
That isn’t to say she can’t be funny, sexy, vivacious, sly. She can be, and often is, all those things. Her charisma as a performer turns out to be volcanic, her shows so overcharged with energy that even the recordings can actually feel dangerous. But there’s always that note of hurt. Not beneath the rest but coloring it, like the tint in stained glass. It’s what fuses genres and styles together, why she can move so seamlessly between pop, jazz, blues, and folk: It’s because she has the chops to do it, yes, but also because the wound inside her is huge and dark and strange enough to contain them all.
If you read song lyrics literally, you’ll often find that they describe emotional states far more extreme than they can really be intended to evoke, emotional states verging on insanity. Life can’t mean anything when your lover, when your lover has gone. I’m half-alive and it’s driving me mad. I would wander around, hating the sound of the rain. Probably you take these, most of the time, merely as gestures. Maybe once every great while, when heartbroken or grieving, you feel that earthquake-in-the-cells pain that upends your whole existence while you feel it, and then you listen differently.
The great and impossible secret of Nina Simone’s voice is that it almost always lives on that literal level. It short-circuits your ability to hide from a feeling by taking the feeling as a metaphor. When she sings, “With gloom everywhere, I sit and I stare, I know that I’ll soon go mad,” you don’t hear, “I’m lonely.” You hear I am in such sorrow that I am about to lose my mind.
In the mid-1960s, Simone found the civil rights movement. Garbus’s documentary focuses on this period in her life, when the quest for social justice gave her a sense of purpose she’d been lacking since her classical-music dream fell apart. In the wake of Ferguson and Charleston, this section of the film is wrenching. At one point, you watch Simone sing “Mississippi Goddam,” her landmark protest song, a song she wrote after the church bombing in Birmingham, to the marchers at Selma, and the yesterday-today echo is desolate. We see her befriend figures like Malcolm X — who was her neighbor — Langston Hughes, and Lorraine Hansberry. We hear about her meeting with Martin Luther King Jr., when she told him straight out, “I’m not nonviolent.” And she was not. Throughout these years, which also coincide with her marriage to an abusive ex-cop named Andrew Stroud,3 we hear her fantasizing about guns, about murdering white people. She asks an audience, “Are you ready to kill if necessary?” She wants black Americans to stage an armed revolution and build a separate state. A lot of blood will be spilled, she says, but it’s necessary. Anger, as it has since the still-hot injustice of the Curtis rejection, keeps her going and pulls her apart.
He also became her manager, in the manner of industry-proximate ex-cops everywhere.
This section of the documentary seems framed to give Simone’s life contemporary relevance, and it does; there are moments when her music seems to speak as much to the pain of 2014-15 as to that of the 1960s. (Missouri, goddam.) But in another way, what Simone’s art offers is deeper than relevance: It offers timelessness. That’s because what makes her music, including her political music, so overwhelming is not its sense of injustice but its sense of dread. Not everyone has experienced real injustice; everyone, or at least every type of person, has experienced dread. Injustice can be systemic; dread is personal. Dread runs beneath politics. Dread is the fear of being erased, abandoned, alone. The fear of having nothing to rely on. The fear that pain is arbitrary, that you have missed what you were supposed to have, that you have lost who you were supposed to be. That you are worthless. That you have no choice.
Serious art may or may not have an obligation to confront social injustice. It certainly has an obligation to confront dread. Or if not to confront, at least to be aware of. At least to say, I know this is out there, for all of us, and that is the universe I inhabit, too. This is why the art of historical winners tends to grow thin over time — why, say, so many white male American novelists of the 20th century curdle after the war years, when they start to fetishize pretty imagery and lose their fear of any fate worse than humiliation or disappointment. Think of the slightly forced obsession with sex in a lot of these writers. Doesn’t it often feel like an attempt to play up the one primal force with which privilege has left them in contact? No hunger anymore, no death, no real threat. But at least we can fashion a nihilism out of this.
What Nina Simone knows — as a black woman, as a genius, as herself — is just so, so much more terrifying than this. And so she can sing about systemic oppression in a way that hits you intimately, on the level of emotional pain. I don’t mean to suggest that oppression is ever not intimate for those who experience it. But protest songs tend to be impersonal by nature. They’re righteous excoriations (“Masters of War”) or calls to arms (“Ohio”) or determined anthems (“We Shall Not Be Moved”). Compare those to Simone’s stunning “Four Women,” a song that, true to its title, describes four representative black women through quick, first-person sketches. The music is simple, built on one repeated, incantatory riff. The claims in each verse are simple: I have a strong back to bear the pain. My white father forced my mother late one night. I belong to any man with money to buy me. The effect is — and OK, I get that these are tricky categories to conflate, but it’s a trick that testifies to the greatness of her art — to make you feel injustice as a form of heartbreak. To make you feel the dread underlying both. The song states a truth for the black audience for which Simone intended it while implicating white listeners through the force of their own captivated sympathy.
She faces demons whenever she sits down at the piano. And so her performances, political or nonpolitical or both, take on a quality of something like heroism. You can see it in the posture of her neck, in her straight frown, her wide eyes. You can see it, on a good night, in her ecstatic smile. She is summoning strength on the edge of the abyss. The problem, as her daughter Lisa says in the movie, is that she didn’t only act this way onstage. She was this brilliant and smoldering, this hideously conscious, all the time. She was intolerable to herself, more so as she grew older, at least until she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and put on medication late in life.
It is very painful, I think, to be told: You enchanted the world for me, you made me feel things I never knew I could, now please be normal at dinner. We are always saying this to people in one way or another, of course; maybe we have to. But hearing it didn’t make her less angry, or less erratic. She fled the country, first for Barbados,4 then for Liberia, and then for Europe, where she eventually settled in France. She beat her daughter. She shot a gun at a record executive in 1985 (she missed) and shot an air rifle at a neighbor boy whose laughter annoyed her in France (she hit him). Dr. King, I am not nonviolent. But in her classic 1965 cover of the old spiritual “Sinnerman,” a song she’d performed as a little girl in her mother’s church, she sang:
Where she had an affair with the prime minister.
The Lord said go to the devil,
The Lord said go to the devil,
He said go to the devil,
All along dem day
And you knew that you were hearing someone who had lived that moment. I ran to the devil. He was waiting. All on that day.
If this were the archetypal pop-genius narrative, there’d be a familiar turn toward the end. The clouds would lift and she’d find some sort of peace. But it isn’t that, not really. Her career waned. She enjoyed a late renaissance of a kind after going on mood medication, touring into the 2000s. Her old songs started playing in commercials. Often she felt a little better, though occasionally she’d still, say, wander out of her hotel room naked and carrying a knife, looking to stab a friend with whom she was furious. In 1990 she played the Montreux Jazz Festival in cornrows and dangly earrings and sang a version of the chanson “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” an old favorite of hers, that showed how overpowering she could still be, even when not quite in tune. Do not leave me, the song pleads in French. I will invent for you senseless words, which you will understand …
Which is as good a definition of what the artist does as any. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the early 2000s. She had a stroke. She missed performing, after resenting the need to perform for most of her life. She got sicker. The Curtis Institute gave her an honorary degree two days before she died.