A couple of months ago I asked to hear from readers who might have witnessed Nina Simone’s rare, perhaps only, Knoxville appearance. Until seeing a new movie this past summer, I had never heard that Simone, the extraordinary singer who was best known for her career in New York and Europe, was here even once. But the new Netflix documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone?, happens to feature, for a few seconds, a random page of her touring agenda, with the line “University of Tennessee, Knoxville,” and the date, “Nov. 14,” no year indicated.
Simone had never been an easy-listening sort, but in her early years, she seemed daring mainly in a musical sense and did not come across as a political figure. By 1964, though, several incidents of racist violence in the Deep South, especially the murder of Medgar Evers and later three civil-rights volunteers and in Mississippi, and the killing of four girls in a Sunday school in Birmingham, radicalized many American performers and other artists. Simone’s reaction was more radical than most. During that period she evolved from a unique song stylist to a fierce and often angry advocate for racial justice.
Her UT show was just a few months after the release of her most controversial song, “Mississippi Goddam.” Introduced at Carnegie Hall earlier that year, it was especially controversial in the South. In the lyrics, she singled out three states: Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. “Made me lose my rest,” she sang. Perhaps helped by the condemnations and bans, it naturally became one of the best known recordings.
I talked to one reader who saw her in Atlanta, and heard of others who might have seen her show in Knoxville, but were now deceased or hard to reach. A couple of people directed me to a page of a yearbook showing she had been here as part of UT’s old Nahheeyayli series held at what was then called Alumni Gym (now Alumni Hall, home of Cox Auditorium).
The context in itself suggests an awkward poignancy. Nahheeyayli, the name said to be that of the “Cherokee Green Corn Dance,” was a UT tradition since 1924, and was originally a formal dance. It reached its height during the big-band era, when some of the most popular jazz orchestras in America, including those of Harry James, Glenn Miller, and Tommy Dorsey—featuring young singer Frank Sinatra, in what was probably his last appearance in Knoxville—performed at Nahheeyayli dances at Alumni Gym, as well-dressed couples danced the night away. Back then, even legendary performers were mainly entertainers, and the dance was the main thing.
The 1960s more or less buried the tradition, and in its later years I doubt the Nina Simone show seemed much like a dance. “Mississippi Goddam” is not a foxtrot.
Whatever it seemed like, I was hoping to hear from at least one person who had attended the Nina Simone concert at UT. And I heard from two, who both happen to be old friends. One was Mary Linda Schwarzbart who is, among many other things, the secretary of the Knoxville History Project. She attended the show with her husband, Arnold, who died just a few months ago.
The other witness was Kay Newton. Kay is known as a patroness of the jazz arts, the sort of person who would attend a Nina Simone concert today, and probably talk the performer into coming over for wine afterward. Originally from Memphis, Newton was new to Knoxville and was disappointed in what the lack of interest in one of America’s most talked-about performers suggested about her new home.
It might have seemed a significant event, because Simone, known to attract urbane crowds in big cities, rarely played in this part of the country, which happens to be where she’s from. Her hometown was Tryon, N.C., about 150 miles from Knoxville. By all accounts her show here did not have the character of a warm homecoming.
It’s been 51 years, and neither of our witnesses, who don’t know each other, recalls it in great detail. Kay remembers the concert as embarrassingly under-attended. Mary Linda remembers it as very short, perhaps consisting of as few as three songs. It’s likely the show was probably disappointing on both sides of the proscenium.
Regardless of the disappointments, the UT yearbook staff thought the show significant enough to include it as a special mention, with a head shot of Miss Simone, in the 1965 annual.
Mary Linda recalls one other, apolitical reason the Simone concert might have been under-attended. It was the same day that the Vols lost to Ole Miss, right next door at Neyland Stadium. I looked it up, and sure enough she remembers that right.
That in itself is remarkable, in retrospect, a reminder that even in the days when the Vols were extremely popular—Doug Dickey was coach, in his first year—the city, and even the campus, didn’t shut down in abject supplication. Alumni Gym was right next door to Neyland Stadium, but on the same day as a home game it hosted a major international singer. Almost exactly five years later, Janis Joplin performed to a crowd of over 9,000 at Stokely Athletic Center—immediately after the third-ranked Vols beat South Carolina, nearby, at Neyland.
We don’t ever do that any more, allow other big events to occur in Knoxville on Game Days. Although the Vols aren’t any more nationally prominent now than back then, football crowds are now 40-50 percent bigger than they were in the ’60s. That’s one factor, hard to discount. But the decisive reason may be that due to late-arriving decisions from television networks, we never know when the games are going to be, and therefore we never know when parking and traffic issues will affect the downtown-campus area. Therefore we can’t ever schedule festivals or big concerts on those days.
Knoxville is prostrate before the Vols, and the Vols are prostrate before the TV people. On game days, the West Coast network executives own Knoxville.
Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.
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