Chris Guiton discusses Nina Simone's Mississippi Goddam
Every now and then a song comes along that defines an epoch. “Mississippi Goddam” by jazz and blues singer-songwriter Nina Simone was one such song. The song was Simone’s impassioned response to the racist murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi in 1963. And the subsequent bombing by a Ku Klux Klan member of a Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young African-American girls who had just finished Bible class.
She wrote the song in an hour, saying later, “First you get depressed, and after that, you get mad. And when these kids got bombed, I just sat and wrote this song.”
Simone first performed “Mississippi Goddam” at a Greenwich Village nightclub. But it got its major outing shortly afterwards at Carnegie Hall, New York, in March 1964. Performed to a largely white audience, this was a turbulent year in the Civil Rights struggle and the political context can’t have been lost on them.
An authentic voice
Simone introduced the song by saying, “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam. And I mean every word of it.” The place-names of racial injustice are skilfully woven into the lyrics:
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
Simone referred scornfully to the gratuitous insults that characterised racist language: “You're just plain rotten… You're too damn lazy”. But she reserved her real anger for the caution of public leaders:
You keep on saying "Go slow!"
But that's just the trouble
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
"do it slow"
Do things gradually
"do it slow"
Her lyrics reflected a movement whose patience was running out:
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer.
The song finishes on a sombre note, which reflected the deep divisions that scarred American society:
You don't have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.
The Carnegie Hall recording was subsequently released as a single. The reaction was swift. Radio stations in the South refused to play the song. Boxes of promotional singles were returned with each single broken in half. And several Southern states banned it, ostensibly because of the word "goddam”. Simone also found herself blacklisted by music venues.
But “Mississippi Goddam” struck an immediate chord with people in the Civil Rights struggle. It was a bold political statement, driven by an urgency uncommon in a jazz song. The song’s upbeat melody made an ironic contrast with the words. This was deliberate. As she sang, “This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it, yet”.
Simone had embarked on a career in music at a young age. She hoped to become a classical pianist and attended the prestigious Julliard Academy at the age of 18. She applied for a scholarship to the equally prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. But was unsuccessful. As she said later, “I knew I was good enough, but they turned me down. And it took me about six months to realize it was because I was black. I never really got over that jolt of racism at the time.”
The power of song
The Establishment often sneers at ‘protest’ singers. You might argue this is a mark of their success. Artists as diverse as Billie Holiday, Pete Seeger and Bob Marley have used music to make pointed condemnations of racism, war and social injustice. And you know they’re on to something when the mainstream media do their best to ignore or deride an artist’s work.
Protest songs can be didactic, poorly written or simply dull. But the great ones stand out as subversive, powerful agents of change. As music critic Dorian Lynskey put is, “The political content is not an obstacle to greatness, but the source of it. They open a door and the world outside rushes in.” The song’s message, slipped in under the radar of commercial imperatives, is “the grit that makes the pearl”.
Some claim that protest songs have lost their power to connect with people as changing social habits – particularly the growth of social media – have eroded music’s political significance. Even veteran folk singer Billy Bragg, who himself wrote effective Thatcher-era protest songs, said, “Only the audience can change the world – not performers.”
But music has been an intrinsic part of the struggle for political and social change since the dawn of modern history. Protest songs might not themselves move the world on its axis. But they have the power to say something important about the times in which we live, generate a shift in people’s opinions and galvanise an audience in a way that cinema or painting can’t.
As fellow jazz singer Dianne Reeves said, “When I first heard Nina Simone, her naked truth shocked me. Whenever she sang, it felt like lightning bolts in my soul”.
“Mississippi Goddam” marked a turning point in Nina Simone’s career. She had made a conscious decision to use her music to tackle racism and participated actively in the civil rights movement. Speaking about this, she said, “I had spent many years pursuing excellence, because that is what classical music is all about... Now it was dedicated to freedom, and that was far more important.”
Her professional career undoubtedly suffered as a result. But the timeless power of the message in “Mississippi Goddam” – along with other civil rights classics such as “Backlash Blues” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” – still resonates with us today.
Nina Simone’s music continues to inspire listeners today. I’ll leave the final words to Simone, “You can't help it. An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times.”
See the Wealden Wordsmith for more pieces on the political power of literature, music and art.