Mississippi Goddam! — The Song that made Nina Simone into a Revolutionary

“And I mean every word of it.”
Picture sleeve for “Mississippi Goddam” single promo. Credit: Wikipedia

It’s 1964, the nation has been set ablaze by the burgeoning strength of the civil rights movement and an equally audacious white backlash in the deep south. It’s 1964 and Ms. Nina Simone gives a sweeping gaze across the audience before she sits before the piano in Carnegie Hall. Jokingly she introduces her newest song as, “a show tune for a show that hasn’t begun yet” and jumps into the lyrics that will change the course of her career and life:

“Alabama’s gotten me so upset. Tennessee made me lose my rest. Everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam!”

This song was definitely not what her white audience, familiar to the lighter hearted fare of “I Loves You Porgy” and “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was expecting.

Seemingly appearing from nowhere, Mississippi Goddam had been composing itself since Nina’s youth. At her first concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963, Ms. Simone famously writes to her mom, “I’m at Carnegie Hall but I’m not playing Bach.” Prior to all the glitz and fame, Nina never planned on being a jazz musician. From a young age, she was preparing to be the world’s first black female classical pianist. A precocious child, Nina’s musical talent was noticed and sponsored by a benefactor. Nina spent seven to eight hours a day playing the likes of Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. Yet classical music could not shield Nina from the nefariousness of her nation’s condition. Since youth, she had discerned the severe inequality, crossing rail road tracks (a standard physical demarcation between black and white neighborhoods) to attend her piano classes. During her first recital, her parents were asked to sit at the back. Nina, not yet a teenager, refused to play unless her parents were permitted to sit in the front row. After that incident, Nina continued to play and grow in her musical prowess. Her skills did not go unnoticed. At 18, she attended the prestigious Julliard Academy and spent a year and a half preparing for the admissions process for the equally rigorous and prestigious Curtis Institute of Music. She was not admitted.

“I knew I was good enough. It didn’t occur to me until later that it [the denied admission] was because I’m black.”

She turned to night gigs at bars to fund her studies and support her family.

Eunice Waymon before she changed her name to Nina Simone. Credit: Herb Snitzer
“I played everything I could think of. Gospels. Jigs. Spirituals. Anything I could remember.”

She never sang. It took an ultimatum from her boss to sing if she wanted to keep her job. The ultimatum marked the beginnings of the heralded voice that’s revered today.

Backstage at first live performance at Carnegie Hall, 1963. Credit: Alfred Wertheimer/Courtesy of Sundance

Nina’s voice and skilled hands rose to such prominence that it was difficult for even the white own radio stations and venues to deny her. She truly was a national figure. Yet, her fame occurred with systemic racial discrimination against African — Americans as a backdrop. Nina was in a difficult situation. She was a Black woman that commanded a large white audience. The civil rights movement was an opportunity for her to belong in her own unique way. A Black female classical pianist, she was an anomaly to both black and white people. Having experienced the penury in wealth and spirit that came with her skin color, and the ostracization brought from her career, she embraced the civil rights movement with a righteous anger. The 4 girls murdered in the church bombing in Birmingham, the vicious struggle in Tennessee, and the murder of Medgar Evans in Mississippi — all happening within a year, lit the fuse.

“When the civil rights thing came up, all of a sudden I could let myself be heard about what I’d been feeling all the time.”
“And when the kids got killed at that church. . . that did it. . . I just sat down and wrote this song. And it’s a very moving, violent song. Because that’s how I feel about the whole thing.”

At a glance, one might not understand the significance of Mississippi Goddam. Historical context can provide some answers. Firstly, language considered inappropriate was nonexistent in music and seriously censored. Secondly, public messages perceived as anti-American propaganda were blacklisted. The culture of language coupled with the culture of the bible belt, and the criticism of a confederate stronghold was a recipe for public backlash. Now, take those two elements and add the fact that Nina is black woman — a proud one, with dark skin, African features, and the boldness to admonish governments and leaders. Mississippi Goddamn is akin to an act of war from a David to a Goliath.

The backlash was immediate. Radio stations in the South banned the song. Cases of 45s (a phonographic record that’s played at forty — five revolutions per second) were returned from radio stations cracked in half. As her activism and outspokenness continued, venues hesitated to book her. Nina was blacklisted by the very same people that used to support her. Such is the paradox of performing to an audience that enjoyed her but did not understand her.

You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality
Nina Simone and James Baldwin, 1960s. Credit: New York Public Library

However, the civil rights movement loved every single bit of it. Already a household name, Nina’s outspokenness carried her to the front lines. To quote Dick Gregory in the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone, “. . . to have someone of her stature talking about your problem. You know how happy they had to be? We all wanted to say it. She said it.” On an excited spring night in 1965, she gave a live performance of “Mississippi Goddam” at the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. She was a friend of the people and also of the greats. Nina sparred words and broke bread with the likes of Martin Luther King, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry. She even lived adjacent to Malcom X Shabazz. While her friends brought the intellectualism that championed black dignity and demanded constitutional truth, Nina brought the music that emoted the complexity of black identity, from the anthemic “Young, Black, and Gifted” to the sobering “Strange Fruit.”

Nina’s gift was undeniable. She did not merely sing her songs, rather she possessed them. Her fame could have reached the heights of her contemporaries such as Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, but instead she chose to use her platform to propel a movement forward. An act of authenticity that negatively impacted her career and created additional stress coupled with other factors that triggered her mental instability later on in her life.

“I choose to reflect the times and situations in which I find myself [in]. That to me is my duty. “

A revolutionary and martyr.

Credit: www.NinaSimone.com

To learn more about the incredible Nina Simone, I recommend watching the 2015 Oscar nominee, What Happened Miss Simone directed by Liz Garbus.

Song’s mentioned:

And of course the famous Mississippi Goddam:

https://open.spotify.com/track/3VE3LrItblsfLFHewdY6TT