Nina Simone Writes an Admiring Letter to Langston Hughes: “Brother, You’ve Got a Fan Now!” (1966)

Nina Simone’s cre­ative and polit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty meant every­thing to her, and the many loss­es she suf­fered in the 60s sent her deep­er into the depres­sion of the last decades of her life. “Langston Hugh­es, James Bald­win, and Lor­raine Hans­ber­ry [were] promi­nent,” writes Malik Gaines at LitHub, “among… social­ly engaged writ­ers and drama­tists” whom she con­sid­ered not only her “polit­i­cal tutors” but also her heroes and clos­est friends. She nev­er stopped griev­ing the loss of Hans­ber­ry and Hugh­es and fre­quent­ly memo­ri­al­ized them in trib­utes like “Back­lash Blues.”

Writ­ten by Hugh­es, and one of Simone’s fiercest and most time­ly civ­il rights songs, “Back­lash Blues” rep­re­sents the sig­nif­i­cant influ­ence the poet had on her and her art. In a live 1967 record­ing, she sings, “When Langston Hugh­es died—He told me many months before—Nina keep work­ing until they open up that door.” The two first met when Simone was still Eunice Way­mon from Try­on, North Car­oli­na: an aspir­ing clas­si­cal pianist, “pres­i­dent of the 11th-grade class and an offi­cer with the school’s NAACP chap­ter,” explains Andrew J. Fletch­er, a board mem­ber of the Nina Simone Project in Asheville.

This was 1949, and Hugh­es had come to Asheville to address Allen High School, the pri­vate school for African Amer­i­can girls Simone attend­ed through a schol­ar­ship that her music teacher and ear­ly cham­pi­on col­lect­ed from her home­town. The poet “could not have known,” Maria Popo­va writes at Brain Pick­ings, “that [Simone] would soon rev­o­lu­tion­ize the music canon under her stage name.” But near­ly ten years lat­er, he rec­og­nized her tal­ent imme­di­ate­ly.

On the release of Simone’s first album, Lit­tle Girl Blue, Hugh­es was “so stunned that he laud­ed it with lyri­cal ardor” in his col­umn for the Chica­go Defend­er.

She is dif­fer­ent. So was Bil­lie Hol­i­day, St. Fran­cis, and John Donne. So in Mort Sahl. She is a club mem­ber, a coloured girl, an Afro-Amer­i­can, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows — and she is still from down home. She did it most­ly all by her­self. Her name is Nina Simone.

They would become close friends and mutu­al admir­ers. Hugh­es sent her “books he thought would inspire her,” includ­ing sev­er­al of his own, and wrote “words for her to set to song.” She wrote to him with earnest expres­sions of appre­ci­a­tion, espe­cial­ly in the let­ter here, penned in 1966 just before Hugh­es’ death.

Simone had just read Hugh­es’ auto­bi­og­ra­phy The Big Sea. The book, she says, “gives me such pleasure—you have no idea! It is so fun­ny.” She also writes, with can­dor:

Then too, if I’m in a neg­a­tive mood and want to get more neg­a­tive (about the racial prob­lem, I mean) if I want to get down­right mean and vio­lent I go straight to this book and there is also mate­r­i­al for that. Amaz­ing—

I use the book—what I mean is I under­line all mean­ing­ful sen­tences to me…. And as I said there is a wealth of knowl­edge con­cern­ing the negro prob­lem, espe­cial­ly if one wants to trace the many many areas that we’ve had it rough in all these years—sometimes when I’m with white “lib­er­als” who want to know why we’re so bitter—I for­get (I don’t forget—I just get tongue-tied) how com­plete has been the white races’ rejec­tion of us all these years and then when this hap­pens I go get your book.

Hugh­es’ is rarely “mean and vio­lent,” but Simone brought to her read­ing her own despair and rage and raw sense of rejec­tion, emo­tions she was nev­er afraid to explore in her work or talk about with humor and fierce ire in her life. “Broth­er, you’ve got a fan,” she gush­es. The Big Sea “grips my imag­i­na­tion imme­di­ate­ly plus every­thing in it I iden­ti­fy with, even your going to sea and I’ve nev­er been to sea.” She had not been to sea, but she had been adrift, “depressed, alien­at­ed and low,” as she sang at More­house Col­lege in 1969 in a per­for­mance of her civ­il rights anthem and trib­ute to Lor­raine Hans­ber­ry, “To Be Young, Gift­ed and Black.”

The adlib framed Simone’s feel­ings with the same “emo­tion­al and polit­i­cal dimen­sions,” writes Gaines, she found in Hugh­es’ work. Though she does not men­tion it in her let­ter, her anno­tat­ed copy of The Big Sea sure­ly marks up the pas­sage below, in which Hugh­es’ describes his ear­ly unhap­pi­ness and his trans­for­ma­tive encounter with art:

When I was in the sec­ond grade, my grand­moth­er took me to Lawrence to raise me. And I was unhap­py for a long time, and very lone­some, liv­ing with my grand­moth­er. Then it was that books began to hap­pen to me, and I began to believe in noth­ing but books and the won­der­ful world in books–where if peo­ple suf­fered, they suf­fered in beau­ti­ful lan­guage, not in mono­syl­la­bles, as we did in Kansas.

For Simone, music gave her suf­fer­ing pur­pose, but not the music she played for audi­ences and on record. One of the sad­dest ironies of her career is that the woman dubbed “The High Priest­ess of Soul” had lit­tle inter­est in play­ing soul. She embarked on her pop­u­lar music career to fund her clas­si­cal edu­ca­tion. How­ev­er, the oppor­tu­ni­ties to play the way she want­ed to did not arise. “Nina closed her let­ter on a strange­ly down note,” writes Nadine Coho­das in Princess Noire: The Tumul­tuous Reign of Nina Simone. “Her melan­choly over­whelmed any excite­ment about play­ing for the first time in France and Bel­gium. ‘No plea­sure,’ she told Langston, ‘just work.’”

So much of Simone’s frus­tra­tion and burnout in the music indus­try came out of a deep sense of alien­ation from her work. The shy Eunice Way­mon had nev­er craved the spot­light, some­thing Hugh­es must have come to know about her in the years of their acquain­tance. In his first note of praise, how­ev­er, he gets one thing wrong. As she was always the first to point out, Simone did not do it “most­ly all by her­self.”

The sup­port of her moth­er, her teacher, and her small “down home” com­mu­ni­ty took her as far as it could. Her rela­tion­ships with Hans­ber­ry, Hugh­es, and oth­er artists/activists car­ried her the rest of the way. Until they were gone. But when Hugh­es died, Popo­va writes, “a dev­as­tat­ed Simone turned her cov­et­ed set at the New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val into a trib­ute and closed it with an exhor­ta­tion to the audi­ence: ‘Keep him with you always. He was a beau­ti­ful, a beau­ti­ful man, and he’s still with us, of course.’” See much more of their cor­re­spon­dence at the Bei­necke.

via the Bei­necke

Relat­ed Con­tent:    

Nina Simone’s Live Per­for­mances of Her Poignant Civ­il Rights Protest Songs

Nina Simone Song “Col­or Is a Beau­ti­ful Thing” Ani­mat­ed in a Gor­geous Video

Langston Hugh­es Reads Langston Hugh­es

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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