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Backlash Blues

Nina Simone & Langston Hughes


C h r o n o l o g y

Allen School (1949)

As then Eunice Waymon (age 16) Nina Simone meets Langston Hughes in Asheville, NC, when he is invited to both speak and read his poetry by Allen High School's NAACP chapter in which she serves as treasurer. Hughes's full schedule of 1949 events for Negro History Week in NC are documented here as well as the the three months of controversy that followed after his appearance in Asheville.

Langston Hughes established Nina Simone's reputation and forever shaped her image as the
High Priestess of Soul. Beyond his friendship and public support, the poet is responsible for four Simone songs recorded during the most pivotal years of her career (1964-67).

This relationship is essential for truly understanding these two iconic American artists.  The depths of
this influence are finely documented here.  Langston Hughes and Nina Simone remain undefinable, and each of them can be heard anew through the rare audio included below.

Nina Simone performs on the first day of the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island (June 30, 1960). On the third day, she sits in the second row to watch as Hughes introduces remarkably detailed examples of blues techniques before performances by musicians such as Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, and John Lee Hooker (Guitar Slim).  This historic occasion marks the first time in America that blues music is preformed on such a large scale to a primarily white audience.  Interest exceeds capacity as white rioters force the festival to close immediately after Hughes and the blues musicians finish their sparkling educational set (with the full audio included here for the first time anywhere).


After suggesting as many as four songs for Simone to perform (including "See-Line Woman"), Hughes gives Simone a recent poem of his in 1966 which she turns into a revered classic. The song's full development from drafted poem to revised song is mapped here as well as the startling and overlooked implications of Hughes assertively speaking out against the Vietnam War. 




BB Newport Intro (1)Nina Simone
00:00 / 01:07


Immediately after the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival closes early as a result of white rioters, Hughes begins three consecutive weeks of work in Newport on his new poetry collection entitled Ask Your Mama (1961).  He references the relatively unknown Nina Simone in the sequence's opening poem "Cultural Exchange."

After his death in May of 1967, Nina Simone will dedicate her July 1, 1967 performance at Newport to Langston Hughes.


Nina Simone

Born Eunice Waymon (in Tryon, NC, on February 21, 1933), pianist and singer Nina Simone was a one-of-a-kind performer with over 84 albums to her name.  Living in New York, the Netherlands, Liberia, and eventually France, she died in 2003 after a lifetime of friendships and acquaintances that included playwright Lorraine Hansberry and writer Langston Hughes.


Langston Hughes

Born Feb. 1, 1901 in Joplin, Missouri, Langston Hughes came to represent the world's image of a black writer by the early 1960s.  Inspiring Dr. King's metaphors, introducing blues music into poetry, and taking Gospel music across the globe through his plays, Hughes died in May of 1967 having contributed poems that were just as essential to the Civil Rights Movement as they were to the New Negro Movement of the 1920s.  

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