Don't Tell Me, I'll Tell You: Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddamn"
July 18, 2017| by C.M. Crockford
Many horrible things happened in 1963, but two in particular set off a shockwave. Civil rights activist Medgar Evans was murdered by a KKK member in Mississippi, and an Alabama church bombing (by Klansmen as well) killed four children, all girls. These victims were all black and Southern, and all of the perpetrators got away with it for years (one of the bombers died of natural causes without ever being prosecuted), and both killings happened within a month of each other. So Nina Simone, like many musicians necessitating a response to the injustices of the world, wrote a song.
A studio version of “Mississippi Goddam” appears to have never been made; instead, the live Carnegie Hall rendition from 1964’s Nina Simone in Concert was the version that many are familiar with, and the setting suits its purposes. Like many onstage recordings there’s a spontaneity and freshness to the playing that actually augments the urgent, furious feeling of the lyrics and meter. Simone wrote the tune in about an hour, and “Mississippi Goddam” indeed feels like the passionate and improvised rant of someone who just can't take this shit anymore and doesn’t know how anyone else can. She sings while pounding the keys for emphasis: “To do things gradually would bring more tragedy / Why don't you see it? / Why don't you feel it? / I don't know, I don't know!”
Protest songs tend to fail most when they’re not personal, when they feel like political rhetoric put to music without a sense of what the singer feels, or when the politics of the songwriter are presented without a touch of individual humanity. Nine out of 10 hardcore protest songs can feel really boring after a certain age because it’s just polemics about imperialism or wealth shouted into your face without much beneath the surface (this is for a future edition of “Signals, Calls and Marches” but the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” is a masterpiece because it locates the heartbreak in colonialism’s legacy). Where “Mississippi Goddam” succeeds is in part that Simone as a black woman is shocked and outraged that nothing is being done while her own people die; it was written so quickly that her deep-seated, spontaneous anger crystallized forever into a melody.
And that melody is deceptive. Simone wrote a vibrant, catchy jazz piano song with a fast tempo that is rhythmic, restless, easy to nod along to (it owes something to bop and R&B both). The song seems jaunty but it becomes clear especially with the emphatic pounding of the keys during the chorus (“And everybody-knows-about-Mississippi GODDAM”) that the tune is less fun than simply manic, unable to stop itself. The violence of the playing here is meant to mirror the violence of the bombings, of racism and the South in 1964, and then the internal response to that kind of fear and hatred.
Yet the song still is entertaining as hell, uncomfortable in its cognitive dissonance. Simone incorporated jazz, Broadway and gospel into the work — in the midst of the British Invasion here was music that was unquestionably black and thoroughly American. Simone’s introduction from Carnegie Hall is dripping with sardonic bitterness: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet.” And all of those forms are subverted in some way, from the “Go slow/Too slow” call-and-response section that bitingly satirizes moderate liberalism and more pandering community leaders advising caution down to the final notes, a classic show-tune button often meant to bring the house down.
At the end of the version that became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, we hear Simone cry “That’s it!” ending the concert, while her band plays a breezy, cool jazz outro that sounds as if it could be from any cocktail party in 1964. It’s as if the last five minutes, so personal and jarring, had never happened. Like this was just some light entertainment, if “My Baby Just Cares for Me” had finished the set. But the audience at that concert hall knew this wasn't the case. They had witnessed a glimpse into justified, despairing rage, and as the decade went on and Black Power solidified as its own movement to fight while the bodies still piled up, they would see much more.