by Bill Batson
History came knocking on the door of local legend and maestro Sam Waymon twice this month. On July 14, Waymon was invited to speak at the 4th Annual March on Washington Film Festival in Washington, DC where he introduced The Amazing Nina Simone, a documentary about his sister and musical partner. On Saturday, July 30, Rivertown Film will host the first public showing of Hell Bound Train, Heaven-Bound Travelers and Verdict: Not Guilty, two silent films that were salvaged from obscurity by the Library of Congress with a newly commissioned score by Waymon.
These pioneering African American films were made by an evangelical Christian couple, James and Eloyce Gist, during the 1920s through the 1940s. The films were created for and about the black community and explore themes of good and evil, morality and Christian life. These movies-funded, written, produced, directed and distributed by people of color were circulated in 16mm prints that deteriorated and were lost over the decades. Like many movies, multiple copies of these films did not exist. One copy traveled with the Gists, to showings where Eloyce would accompany on piano and James would deliver a sermon. Eventually, the film split into hundreds of fragments along the splices from wear and tear. The version that will be shown at the Nyack Center on July 30 has been reconstructed and restored from these fragments by the Library of Congress.
Another film scored by Waymon was recently nationally released. Spike Lee’s remake of Ganja and Hess titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus premiered on February 13, 2015. Lee funded the project through a one million dollar Kickstarter campaign. The company that distributed Ganja and Hess, Kino Lorber, asked Waymon to compose music for the films made by the Gists.
Sam Waymon in Nyack
Waymon moved to Nyack in the 1970s with the independent filmmaker Bill Gunn where they commenced a creative collaboration that produced the script and soundtrack for Ganja and Hess, a classic cult movie that blends afrocentric themes and vampirism. They lived in a house in Upper Nyack that is featured in this week’s sketch.
See Maestro Samuel Waymon Perform
Pioneers of African-American Cinema
Saturday, July 30, Hell Bound Train, Heaven-Bound Travelers and Verdict: Not Guilty will receive their first public screening at the Nyack Center, 58 Depew Ave. Doors open at 7:30p, and the films begins at 8p. The silent films feature a score by Waymon. Tickets are $11/General admission, $9/Rivertown Film Members, students and seniors, and $8/Rivertown Film Senior Members. Tickets can also be purchased in advance from rivertownfilm.org.
B.B. King Blues Club September 9, Waymon will perform at a DVD release party for The Amazing Nina Simone. Performances at 7:30p – 9:30p. BB King’s is located at 237 W 42nd St, New York.
Rockland Legislative Honors On Tuesday, September 6 at 6:30 Waymon will be honored by the Rockland County Legislature.
Daniel Perry built the house in the 1830s. Perry operated a boat building business from the riverfront property. Perry’s descendants sold the home to screen writing legend, Ben Hecht in 1929. Hecht came to Nyack to be close to his writing partner Charles MacArthur. In a confluence that foreshadowed the activities of Waymon and Gunn, Hecht divided his time between cultural and political activities. Hecht was a major supporter of the Zionist cause and used the home for fundraising events and strategy meetings.
When Waymon and Gunn arrived in 1969, one of their first visitors was Charles MacArthur’s wife, Helen Hayes, who regaled the newcomers with stories of pool parties held by the former occupants. Hayes’ welcoming gesture is remembered fondly by Waymon as one of the most meaningful days at the residence, on a par with their audience with the President of Nigeria and literary gatherings that included Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Gunn’s closest friend James Baldwin.
But the most memorable and certainly most choreographed visit was from the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1975, Minister Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, learned that Gunn was being considered to write the script for an autobiographical film of the life of his disciple, Muhammad Ali. Before a deal could be struck, Gunn and Waymon were flown out to Chicago to meet with Minister Muhammad. Upon their return, they got a call from the boxer. Even though the spiritual leader had given his blessing, Ali would not agree until he met Gunn at his home. The visit was a success and work on the project proceeded.
During this period, Gunn wrote and directed Ganja and Hess, a film that was honored at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 as one of the best American films of the decade. Waymon’s multidisciplinary talents are on display in the film in which he composed the score he performs. As a low budget effort, many of the props and furnishings, including the Rolls Royce and the Jaguar, belonged to Waymon. Gunn’s prolific career as a playwright, novelist, actor and film director ended in 1989 when he passed away at Nyack Hospital.
Waymon developed as an artist along side his sister, celebrated songstress Nina Simone. Sam and Nina (Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) were raised in Tyron, North Carolina with six other brothers and sisters. Their parents, Mary Kate and John Divine were both ministers of the gospel. Both Sam and Nina started piano lessons at the age of three.
The Ku Klux Klan was active in Tyron. As a young man, Waymon remembers witnessing cross burnings and savage beatings.
Simone recorded 40 albums and has influenced artists as diverse as Yusuf/Cat Stevens and Alicia Keys. During their partnership, Waymon was her manager and organist. They traveled the world performing, but they also found time to lend their talents and efforts to the Civil Rights Movement. Waymon still has scars from a march where non-violent demonstrators were set upon by a mob with bricks and batons. Sam and Nina performed at Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral in 1968.
Nina Simone died in 2003 in France. As a surviving sibling, Sam was an outspoken critic of the recent Hollywood production based on his sister’s life. He was particularly critical of the casting of Zoe Saldana as Simone. Over 11,000 people have signed an on-line petition that echo his objections. For Waymon and others, Simone’s dark skin and African features defined and circumscribed her life. They are incredulous that actors of Simone’s racial identity were passed over for a performer who is reportedly using facial prosthetics and skin paint to portray the singer.
The auditorium where the Nyack Center holds after- school programs, Rivertown Film screens movies and the Chamber of Commerce operates the indoor winter Farmers’ Market was a set for Ganja and Hess. The opening and closing scenes of the film were shot there when the space was a sanctuary for a church. Waymon was cast as a pentecostal preacher, singing and stomping in front of extras who were members of the congregation that worshiped in the space at the time. Waymon shared the scene with Duane L. Jones, the actor who played the leading role as Ben in the classic 1968 horror film that launched what is now a national obsession with zombies, Night of the Living Dead.
Through his music, the enduring legacy of his collaboration with Gunn and his defense of his sister’s name and memory, Waymon acts as a guardian of the African American cultural universe. Waymon has expressed a concern that history has a way of remembering the battle but forgetting the blood. Through his composing and performance, Sam Waymon won’t let us forget either.
Parts of this Nyack Sketch Log were originally published on February 12, 2013
Bill Batson is an artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: The Waymon Sound is Soaring” © 2016 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.