Invited by the Allen School’s NAACP, Langston Hughes appears in Asheville, NC, for a series of three talks on Tuesday, February 8, 1949. As treasurer for the school’s NAACP, sixteen-year-old Nina Simone (then Eunice Waymon) is both part of the official invitation extended to Hughes and a member of the audience when the poet speaks in the school auditorium that afternoon. According to Mary Burnette, an Allen High School graduate who attended the event and roomed with Simone on Glee Club trips, Hughes read “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and talked of all the various types of blood coursing through his veins.
During this visit, Hughes stayed at Black Mountain College from Monday morning February 7 to Wednesday evening February 9. He was greeted at 7:45 a.m. in Black Mountain College by Barbara Drier, taken to her home for breakfast, and invited to stay in one of the college’s rooms. Hughes is very impressed with the school and its innovative polices. Ms. Dreier also drove Hughes to and from his three events in Asheville on Feb. 8th.
As a board member of the Newport Jazz Festival since 1958, Langston Hughes is involved with inviting Nina Simone to perform on the first night (June 30, 1960). It is unclear exactly when Hughes heard Simone perform in person or sing on her first record, which was released in February of 1959. The two meet for the first time at this festival. In fact, Simone can be seen in the audience watching while Hughes emcees the July 3 session on “The Blues.” As such, Simone both watched and formally met Hughes in the context of him being an established expert on blues music.
When white audience members rioted after they were unable to get tickets, the Newport Jazz Festival’s final three sets (one that night / two the following day on the 4th) were unexpectedly canceled on the afternoon of July 3, 1960. This was the first time the blues had been played on this scale before white audiences in America, and the demand exceeded all expectations for the 13,000 seat outdoor venue.
At the end of Langston Hughes’s instructive blues session, Muddy Waters sang a song Hughes had just written (most likely mere hours before the official announcement). As an official board member of the festival, Hughes would have been involved in the private discussions before the decision was made public. Otis Spann played piano and John Lee Hooker (Guitar Slim) played acoustic guitar as well.
At the time the song was performed (which can be heard by following the BUTTON below), it was sincerely believed this might be the bitter end of the festival forever. The very last words on the recording are Langston Hughes himself solemnly saying, with a heavy heart, “Goodbye Newport.”
On October 2nd, Hughes invited Simone to a dinner in which raccoon was being served. She was performing in Chicago at the time, and writes back to acknowledge that she would love to join him were she not away. She also references that Hughes has sent her two letters. While one appears to be missing, there is a very likely explanation.
On or about October 4, Hughes also sent Simone an autographed copy of his typed two-page article “Spotlight on Nina Simone” that was completed and set to appear in the Chicago Defender the next week. At the top of this copy (which only exists in the Nina Simone Archive in Tryon), Hughes wrote in green ink: “Nina—I like your Nina at Newport LP! Langston.” This note reminds us that although Hughes knew of her work before meeting her at Newport, he may have been thinking of this album in particular when he published the Defender piece. It is likely this is the second letter she refers to in her Oct. 6 response.
At some point “long before,” Hughes sent Simone a book. It was likely one of his own, but which one is unknown. The most likely candidate would be his first autobiography entitled The Big Sea which Simone references in her July 6, 1965 letter. In her first documented response, Simone asserts that she tried to call him “long ago” to thank him for the book, but he was out of town.
On November 12, 1960, Hughes publishes an entire article in the Chicago Defender called “Spotlight on Nina Simone.” Typically Hughes would highlight a few books at Christmas, or mention someone notable for no more than a sentence (at most a paragraph). It was not his common practice to devote an entire article to one artist. With the status akin to today’s Oprah Winfrey, Hughes would never be more popular than he was in 1960, and his endorsement carried exceptional weight.
The article was important for another reason as well. Similar to singer-songwriters who followed in Bob Dylan’s shadow, Simone had suffered comparisons to Billie Holiday because she had likewise covered a song from George and Ira Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. (In fact this would remain her only top 20 hit). Hughes effectively asserted that Simone was completely unlike Holiday, thus helping her gain credibility sooner and faster to pair with the obvious talent she already had as a singer, performer, and pianist.
Hughes may have learned that Nina Simone was not her real name from a private conversation the two had at the Newport Jazz Festival.
Attending Jean Genet’s play The Blacks, Hughes left after the first act to watch Simone perform at the Village Gate on April 3, 1961.
Hughes sends Simone a copy of his new book of poems titled Ask Your Mama in October of 1961. Hughes began writing the book immediately after he first met Simone at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960, and her name appears as “Miss Nina” within the poem “Horn of Plenty.”
Hughes and Simone are among a delegation of 33 members of the American Society of African Culture (AMSAC) slated to perform in Lagos, Nigeria on December 18-19. The group includes Lionel Hampton, Odetta and Randy Weston. The group poses on the steps of the State House in Lagos, Nigeria. While Hughes is in the front row, Simone stands center, just to the left of Nigerian Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe.
While Hughes stays for another month after, Nina flies back from Nigeria earlier than she would like to after her first trip overseas because of a very important December 31 concert. North Carolina artists enjoy a night unlike any other when Rocky Mount’s Thelonious Monk, High Point's John Coltrane, and Tyron’s Nina Simone play Carnegie Hall together with Sonny Rollins to ring in the New Year.
Having exchanged letters and Christmas Cards since October of 1960, Hughes was consistently sent complimentary tickets to watch Simone perform anytime she was in New York (particularly at Carnegie Hall). Hughes sees Simone perform at Carnegie Hall on March 21, 1964 and January 15, 1965.
To promote her appearance at Carnegie Hall, Hughes’s 1960 article from the Chicago Defender is once again reprinted on her March 21, 1964 concert poster. It is unclear if it was once again placed in the program as well as it was on April 12, 1963.
At this crucial turning point in her career, when she was starting to write songs such as “Mississippi Goddam,” it is important to note that Hughes’s endorsement appeared side-by-side on these ads during such a significant point in her career.
Hughes sends Simone a copy of his just published poem “Dream of Freedom” acknowledged in an April 15, 1964 letter.
With Simone scheduled to release Broadway, Blues, Ballads, in the fall of 1964 , Hughes is contacted to lend his Nov. 1960 review of Simone to the liner notes on the back cover of the album. One song on this album, “See-Line Woman,” was actually suggested directly by Hughes. “See-Line Woman” was performed for the first time with Hughes in attendance at the March 21, 1964 concert, and this live version was included when the album was released. Hughes was photographed backstage by Bernard Gotfryd with Simone bracing between Hughes and comedian Godfrey Cambridge. One of these images may have been later included in a 32-page booklet promoting Simone to both her fan club and the press.
“See-Line Woman” became the only song Simone ever really liked from her album Broadway, Blues Ballads. She would often comment that “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” angered her, not only because it was covered to a much greater commercial success by The Animals, but also because it became one of the tunes audiences expected her to play.
“See-Line Woman” was released in mid-July of 1964 as the B Side to “Mississippi Goddam.” In that visually stunning single (where “Goddam” appears as a handwritten approximation of something like “ *@!!*!! ”, the tune Hughes suggested is named “Sea-Lion Woman.”
The song was performed on TV by Nina on the Steve Allen Show sometime in 1964. The song would continue to appear on set lists up to 1989, and Simone was still singing it in November of 1999 when she performed in Miami.
Hughes also recommended a list of about 24 other songs for her to sing (in perhaps as early as January of 1964). This list complicates how he viewed her as a performer. In heading his list, Hughes typed that these “Incantations for Nina Simone” were “Songs of Enticement, Bewitchment, Voodoo, Hoodoo, Conjuration, Bedevilment, Spell Casting, and Incantation.” Was Hughes seeing her as a sorceress, or was he feeding a direction she herself was about to head in? Of the 24 songs Hughes suggested, one was titled “You Cast a Spell on Me.” With Hughes’s successful suggestion of “See-Line Woman," Simone and Andy Shroud would be loathe to dismiss Hughes's instincts. In fact, the song immediately after “You Cast a Spell on Me” was the Saint-Saens theme song from Sampson and Delilah which Simone in fact played as an instrumental the very night of March 21, 1964 (with Hughes present). Hughes even included the full and hand-typed lyrics to this theme song. Furthermore, in an original lyric of his own (titled “Live, Love, and Rule”) he suggested she sing:
I’ll work black and white magic
And any other color, too,
So come on, Baby Bunting,
Let me cast a spell on you.
Did Simone or Andy Stroud see this suggestion of this Motown song performed by The Sanitones and opt for a similar but more “I” centered approach of Jay Hawkins’ “I Put a Spell on You”?
Happy to lend his endorsement, Hughes updates his Nov. 12, 1960 Chicago Defender article and returns it August 14, 1964. He revises his piece so that names such as “Ernie Banks” are replaced by more currently popular baseball players such as “Willie Mays.” Completely overlooked by scholars, this 1960 article bears strong resemblances to the poems Hughes is contemporaneously drafting (and revising) for his 1961 collection Ask Your Mamma.
After seeing her perform in person at Carnegie Hall on January 15, 1965, Hughes wrote Simone: “the concert was terrific: Except that you don’t need an orchestra. You YOURSELF are enough for anybody’s money.” Though certainly not the only reason Simone moves away from performing accompanied by strings, it is interesting to note that Hughes’s opinion may have helped sway what she herself was already feeling.
Though both her autobiography I Put a Spell on You and the documentary film What Happened Miss Simone? will assert that Hughes flew with Simone on a private plane to perform at a concert the day before the end of the historic march from Selma to Montgomery, AL in March of 1965, Hughes did not attend to event. In fact, Hughes had been personally invited by Dr. King himself by telegram, but he was unable to join the march for several reasons.
On Sunday night July 6, Simone sends Hughes one of the most personal letters she had ever written to anyone. Sent from London, the four-page letter details that Simone has been reading both of Hughes’s autobiographies. Completely absorbed, she is currently re-reading chapters of The Big Sea and annotating sections she finds “Amazing.” She finds it useful in giving her the right words to say to whites on issues of race. Simone writes, “I’ve always admired you . . . respected you and felt honored to know you— but brother, you got a fan now! I’m going out to buy every book you’ve written.” While this last line is likely hyperbole, the letter seems to come to the person Simone feels closest to having just lost her dear friend Lorraine Hansberry in January and still dealing with the traumatic news of Malcom X’s murder coming on Simone’s birthday. Simone knew Malcom’s wife Betty Shabazz well as her neighbor in Mount Vernon, NY. As a side note, Simone closes her letter with the phrase “ ’nough said.” This is interesting to note as her April 7, 1968 concert dedicated to MLK with be titled ‘Nuff Said.
At her personal invitation, Hughes watches Simone perform as part of her four-week engagement in New York starting March 8, 1966 at Square East.
At the end of the year, Hughes passes along a copy of a poem he has written asking Simone if she would be interested in putting music to it and performing it. Hughes is in the audience at the Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall on Nov. 22 when Simone performs the song for what is likely the very first time ever. She receives a standing ovation after the song is finished. Hughes appears to be remarkably moved as he keeps the souvenir program of the event with his personal belongings. “The Backlash Blues” becomes a staple of Simone’s performances and one of the five most important songs of her career.
Langston Hughes dies May 22, 1967, and his passing is on the front-page the next day in The New York Times.
Forever linked with Hughes's death, the poem is published posthumously in the June 1967 edition of The Crisis and then by Broadside Press the next month. (It also appeared as Hughes's final statement on race relations as well on page 176 of ETC: A Journal of Linguistics in July).
Simone performs the song July 1, 1967 at the Newport Jazz Festival to a crowd that had never heard the song before. Before singing it, she names Hughes. At the end of her set, she once again asks the audience to remember Hughes in a very personal tribute saying that he was a “beautiful man” that is “still with us of course.” Nearly impossible to find, this critical version of “Backlash Blues” followed the song “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and preceded “You can Have Him.” A recording of it has been unearthed here:
A studio recording of “Backlash Blues” is released in August of 1967 on Nina Simone Sings the Blues. The version recorded here mirrors the published poem verbatim.
Nina records what would become the album Black Gold at Philharmonic Hall in NY in October. After the members of her band are introduced by Ed Williams, the audience hears him say (about 1 min. and 24 seconds in): “Langston Hughes
That Justice is a blind godess
Is a thing to which we black are wise.
Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes.
The high priestess of soul, Miss Nina Simone.”
The above poem titled “Justice” was first published in 1923 and then republished most visibly in the 1931 collection Scottsboro Limited. Illustrated by Prentiss Taylor, this book was a direct response to the Scottsboro Case in which 9 young men were falsely accused of raping two women. The series of trials that left many of these men in prison for decades after took place near the town of Scottsboro, AL. While many scholars would later start to regard him as less revolutionary and radical than the writers of the Black Arts Movement, that clearly was not how either Simone or Ed Williams regarded Hughes in 1968.
Given that Hughes had sat in the audience in this very Hall on Nov. 22, 1966 and heard the premiere performance of “Backlash Blues,” the reference here to him is more than coincidental.
Songs of the Poets is released on vinyl in the UK and on 8-track in the U.S. Simone is classified as a poet along with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and Langston Hughes. With the UK as the primary market, Hughes’s name is not highlighted on the front cover, but the liner notes on back read:
“Of particular note is ‘The Backlash Blues,’ a work in which she infuses her musical and poetic genius with that of the literary poet Langston Hughes.”
Linear notes (written by Arnold Joy Smith) for the album Please Don’t Let me Be Misunderstood read:
“The poets of the sixties (like Bob Dylan and Langston Hughes) were grist for her mill. She infused their metaphors with her medium. She BECAME Dylan and Hughes. Their words and other’s continue to become hers.”