Mississippi Goddam

Nina Simone, 1964

Many African American performers were reluctant to overtly address racial politics, opting instead for oblique references to the unrest and struggles of the Civil Rights Era. With “Mississippi Goddam,” Nina Simone addressed the issues head on. What events and people of the era does she respond to in the song?

How would you describe the mood of the music? Does it fit the content of the lyrics? Why do you think Simone wrote the song in this way?

What is the effect of the audience joining together in calling to “do it slow,” in reference to social progress?

Compare and contrast this song to other classic songs of the Civil Rights Era, including “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “People Get Ready,” and “Keep on Pushing.” How does “Mississippi Goddam” take a different approach to addressing the issues of the day?

"Mississippi Goddamn," performed by Nina Simone on The Best of Nina Simone, © 1969. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

For more information on Nina Simone, visit her official website

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ninasimone/
mississippigoddam.html

Herald headine after Birmingham church explosion
Birmingham Post-Herald headline after the Birmingham church explosion.

Nina Simone (1933–2003) was born in North Carolina. Her mother, a Methodist minister, objected to her daughter playing the "devil's music," but at a young age Simone aspired to be a concert pianist and later attended Juilliard with the help of a community scholarship. In 1954 she was hired as a cocktail pianist in Atlantic City, where she demonstrated a keen talent for mixing popular song, jazz, and the blues with classical music (especially counterpoint reminiscent of the music of J. S. Bach). In 1958 she moved to New York City and made a name for herself playing in the bars of Greenwich Village.

Simone's first performances were not explicitly political, although she did pepper her shows with spirituals. Early on, however, she was urged to be more politically active by her social circle of New York intellectuals, which included the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. With Hansberry's encouragement and inspired by violence in the South—especially the murder of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers in front of his family in Mississippi and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four children were killed—she wrote the protest song "Mississippi Goddam." It was first released as a single and then on her live album Nina Simone in Concert in 1964.

"Mississippi Goddam" is a lively song in a cabaret style, complete with a buoyant piano vamp, a peppy and syncopated melody, and even audience participation. The lyrics, however, starkly contrast the feel of the music. They recount the history of slavery and the poor employment opportunities that followed and bemoan the slow pace of racial progress. They also call attention to the recent violence African Americans had experienced: the line "Alabama's got me so upset," refers to the church bombing; "Tennessee made me lose my rest," refers to segregation and oppression; and "everybody knows about Mississippi, goddam," refers to Medgar Evers's murder, among other events.

The result is a tense counterpoint between buoyant music and bleak lyrics, a counterpoint that can be seen as displaying the disparity between mainstream American prosperity and the African American experience. The effect is disturbing. When Simone invites the audience to respond "do it slow!" to her calls for desegregation and other progressive initiatives, many listeners will feel uneasy about joining the peppy audience on the recording. In effect, Simone may have inspired listeners to abandon the large number of Americans calling to slow the pace of racial progress.

Simone's transition to political engagement, and her willingness to directly address current events, mirrored a transition that was occurring more broadly in the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-1960s as activists adopted a more aggressive response to acts of violence and oppression. By the end of the 1960s, many participants in the movement adopted the militancy espoused by Malcolm X.

For more on Nina Simone, see "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," in VAT, Unit 9.