Langston Hughes’s Ardent Public Fan Letter to the Young Nina Simone
“She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht. She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.”
By Maria Popova
On February 8, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday, the poet, novelist, activist, and playwright Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901–May 22, 1967) traveled to Asheville to speak at the Allen School — one of a handful of accredited boarding schools for black girls in the South. There, he met sixteen-year-old Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who had helped organize the event as treasurer of the school’s NAACP chapter. Although Eunice was academically formidable — she had skipped the ninth grade and would graduate as valedictorian of her class — her supreme power lay elsewhere: music. Gifted, hard-working, and determined to become a classical pianist, she had been playing at her mother’s church since age four, performed her first concert at twelve, and had landed at the Allen School thanks to a scholarship fund procured by her beloved piano teacher and first great champion, Miss Mazzy — an Englishwoman by the name of Muriel Mazzanovich.
When Hughes met the young Eunice that winter, he could not have known that she would soon revolutionize the music canon under her stage name, Nina Simone. Less than a decade after his Allen School visit, her debut album Little Girl Blue stopped the nation’s breath. Hughes, by then one of the most influential voices in black creative culture, was so stunned that he lauded it with lyrical ardor in “Week by Week” — the newspaper column he had been writing for the Chicago Defender since before he met the young Eunice and would continue writing until his death. Included in Nadine Cohodas’s biography Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (public library), the piece is no common journalistic report on a young artist’s debut but rather a prose poem, a kind of paean for the arrival of a new creative prophet.
Originally published on November 12, 1958, it was quickly syndicated by newspapers around the country and was eventually reprinted as a sort of extended blurb on the back of Simone’s 1965 EP Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, just like Walt Whitman had emblazoned a sentence of Emerson’s electric letter of praise to him on a subsequent edition of Leaves of Grass. Hughes writes:
She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, LeRoi Jones, and Bertholt Brecht.
She is far-out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and The Connection.
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.
She has a flair, but no air, she has class but does not wear it on her shoulders. Only chips. She is unique. You either like her or you don’t. If you don’t, you won’t. If you do — whee-ouuu-eu! You do!
This short, lovely newspaper serenade marked the beginning of lifelong friendship, mentorship, and artistic collaboration that would last for the remaining years of Hughes’s life. He would send her books he thought would inspire her, invite her to his Manhattan apartment for dinner, and write words for her to set to song. When Hughes died in 1967, 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 beautiful, a beautiful man, and he’s still with us, of course.”
Complement with Hughes’s little-known children’s book about jazz and this rare recording of him reading “We Are the American Heartbreak,” then revisit Nina Simone on time.
Published June 23, 2019