History Women February 16, 2021 at 11:00 am

‘Mississippi Goddam’ – Here’s the story behind Nina Simone’s most influential protest song

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor February 16, 2021 at 11:00 am

February 16, 2021 at 11:00 am | History, Women

Nina Simone is known for her music and her contributions to the civil rights movements. Image via webbcanyonchronicle.com/Tom Copi

Activist Medgar Evers was shot in the back while standing in the driveway of his Mississippi home in the morning of June 12, 1963. Evers, who was from a meeting with NAACP lawyers, was taken to a hospital where he died after some minutes. That same year, on September 15, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama that saw the death of four Black girls and injured many others occurred.

The girls were in the bathroom on the morning of September 15 when a bomb planted by Ku Klux Klan members went off. The explosion resulted in a hole in the church’s rear wall, and a two-foot deep crater in the ladies’ basement lounge. It also destroyed the church and even blew a motorist out of his car, destroying several cars near the site as well as other properties close to the church.

When singer Nina Simone heard what had happened, she “sat struck dumb”. “It was more than I could take,” she recalled. “The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realized what it was to be Black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection…it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination.”

Her first reaction after the Birmingham bombing was “to go out and kill someone,” the jazz musician and songwriter remembered. “At first I tried to make myself a gun. I gathered some materials. I was going to take one of them out, and I didn’t care who it was,” Simone said. “Then Andy, my husband at the time, said to me, ‘Nina, you can’t kill anyone. You are a musician. Do what you do.’”

In an hour, Simone had composed a song called “Mississippi Goddam” — her first civil rights song. “When I sat down the whole song happened. I never stopped writing until the thing was finished,” she recalled.

Alabama’s got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi
Goddam

Simone sings in the opening line of the song. The song did take her career a different path than she perhaps expected. She was not really into ‘protest music’, she once said, explaining that “a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate.”

The Alabama church bombing and the murder of Evers, however, changed her thoughts, she said, adding that “with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.” And indeed she never turned back in her activism since then. Right after the song’s debut in New York, Simone performed it in March 1964 to a mostly white audience at Carnegie Hall who first did not get the message of the song, laughing after hearing the opening lines. It was somewhere in the middle towards the end of the performance that they began looking increasingly jittery.

“Everyone knows about Mississippi,” Simone sings as the song closes. “Everyone knows about Alabama. Everyone knows about Mississippi. Goddamn.”

“Mississippi Goddam” was included on the album “Nina Simone In Concert”. Released as a single, the swearword was bleeped out so that people are not offended yet the song received backlash. Most Southern states banned it. Venues refused to book Simone. “We got several letters where they had actually broken up this recording and sent it back to the recording company, really, telling them it was in bad taste,” Simone said during a 1964 interview on the Steve Allen Show. “They missed the whole point.”

Unperturbed, Simone went ahead to sing the song at civil rights rallies and marches, including the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March in early 1965. On many occasions, Simone changed the lyric, “Tennessee made me lose my rest,” during scores of live performances around the country and the world to reflect what was happening at a particular moment. When civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, Simone mourned, “Memphis made me lose my rest.”

Music played a central role during the civil rights movement in the 20th century. Be it protest songs on racism, injustice, and violence, or songs adapted from hymns, these offered hope and strength to participants and leading activists in their quest for justice and equality. At the height of the movement in the 1950s and 60s in America, anyone who stood up for the rights of African Americans became a possible target for assassination.

Simone faced many dangers. “We encountered many people who were after our hides,” she said of her performances at various rallies and marches. “I was excited by it, though, because I felt more alive then…because I was needed, could sing something to help my people, and that became the mainstay of my life, the most important thing.”

Simone, inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, is now known not only for her mix of jazz, blues and folk music from the 1950s but for her contributions to the civil rights movements. Born on February 21, 1933, in Tryon, North Carolina, she nurtured her music passion from the beginning. After leaving the Julliard School in New York where she was studying classical piano, she turned to perform in nightclubs focusing mainly on jazz, blues and folk music. Becoming an activist, she later left the U.S. for Europe to escape racism and segregation.

Her mark as a musician is being felt even today. She has been sampled by a number of musicians including Kanye West, Jay Z, John Legend, Talib Kweli, Timbaland, Lil Wayne, and Bilal, among others.

According to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame:

Simone’s groundbreaking compositions like “Mississippi Goddam” and “Four Women” defined a songwriting voice that was proudly, defiantly black and female. Her radical rearrangements of other songs have been covered by everyone from George Michael to the Animals, Whitney Houston to Jeff Buckley. An icon whose tortured life was the subject of an Oscar-nominated documentary, Nina Simone was a unique creative force.

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