Just Heard: Mississippi Goddam

My first introduction to Nina Simone was in 1987, when her 1959 recording of ‘My Baby Just Cares for Me’ was used in a Chanel ad campaign. I don’t remember much of the ad campaign, but I do remember the charming video Aardman Animation (creators of Wallace and Gromit) created for the song’s re-release.

From there I discovered tracks like ‘Feeling Good’ and ‘Sinnerman’ both of which were used in ad campaigns. In fact there was a period in the 80s and 90s where a lot of ads used music from the 60s and 70s, usually to sell cars, and the musicians saw a resurgence in their careers as a result. Nina Simone was no exception, but it was her non-political songs that were being promoted in the mainstream. So by the time I discovered ‘Mississippi Goddam’ I was like, well, goddam!

“First you get depressed, after that you get mad…”

Composed in less than an hour, with some sources citing 20 minutes, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is Nina Simone’s first and one of her most famous protest songs. It was written in response to the racially motivated murders of Emmett Till and Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four Black children in 1963. She said that the song came to her “in a rush of fury, hatred and determination”. As she explains in the 2015 documentary ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’, “when the kids got killed in that church, that did it. First you get depressed, after that you get mad”.

For Simone, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was “like throwing ten bullets back at them” and indeed you feel the impact of each of those metaphorical bullets with every line she sings. The song is like a study in contrasts, with its jaunty showtune feel against lyrics which underscore Simone’s fury and wearinesss. From the first verse onwards, “Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest”, Simone begins to spell out the litany of injustices that Black Americans had experienced. That final line “And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam!” highlights how these injustices were so familiar and so ingrained in the conscious of America, that it hardly needed saying, but Nina Simone was going to say it anyway.

I often wonder what Nina Simone’s white audience made of this song when she played it at Carnegie Hall in 1964. Were they shocked? Uncomfortable? Indifferent? Supportive? Unsurprisingly in several southern states ‘Mississippi Goddam’ was banned, with radio stations returning boxes of promotional singles to the label with each record broken in half. Undeterred, Nina Simone pressed on and thereafter a civil rights message became the norm in her recordings and concerts. But this undoubtedly came at a professional and personal cost. As Simone’s political activism increased, the rate of release of her music slowed.

Slow pace of change

But it wasn’t just racist white America that Simone was angry with, she was also frustrated with the slowness of the civil rights movement, especially with Dr Martin Luther King’s non-violent stance. In ‘Mississippi Goddam’ she challenges political moderates, and more specifically white people, who supported civil rights but believed that race relations could change gradually with compromise. Simone wanted immediate action, and fully supported Malcom X’s position of taking up arms and challenging racist oppression by any means necessary:

But that’s just the trouble (Too slow)
Desegregation (Too slow)
Mass participation (Too slow)
Reunification (Too slow)
Do things gradually (Too slow)
But bring more tragedy (Too slow)
Why don’t you see it, why don’t you feel it
I don’t know, I don’t know

This wasn’t ‘We Shall Overcome’, ‘Go Tell It On The Mountain’ or ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ or any of the other uplifting and inspirational gospel anthems that defined the era. Simone had no time for that, she had run out of patience and hope. She had “even stopped believing in prayer”. As far as she was concerned, America had done nothing for her but lie, and the time for its reckoning had come:

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie
Oh but this country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you anymore

The comedian Dick Gregory would later say in the ‘What Happened, Miss Simone?’ documentary, “if you look at all the suffering black folks went through, not one black man would dare say ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ We all wanted to say it. She said it”.

Legacy

‘Mississippi Goddam’ is the expression of Nina Simone’s long suppressed and finally uncontainable anger finding its home in the Black Power arm of the civil right movement. At a time when many Black performers were caught between commercial success and speaking out on racism, Simone, though hesitant at first, wholeheartedly embraced her foray into political activism, encouraged by her friend, the playwright, Lorraine Hansberry. For this, she was proclaimed the voice of the Black Power movement by Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, whose polictics aligned with her own.

Her civil rights songs were what she called “the important ones”, and allowed her private anger to become public with a political awareness that would come to define her legacy. At times the pain, the viceral anger and desire to burn, break and even kill, made her seem a touch emotionally disturbed, and indeed undiagnosed mental illness was very much a part of her life by this point. But really she was a woman expressing the painful reality of being Black, and a woman in America and demanding freedom for herself and her people. Though her civil rights legacy would largely go unspoken of in her later years, we would do well not to forget who Nina Simone was and what she represented in the ongoing for freedom against racial injustice and oppression.

Sources
New Yorker: A Raised Voice by Claudia Roth-Pierpointe
The New Statesman: Mississippi Goddam: A portrait of Nina Simone is a thrilling celebration of a musical icon by Emily Bootle
The Atlantic: What happened to Nina Simone by Adam Chandler
Wikipedia: Mississippi Goddam
Wikipedia: Nina Simone

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