So what’s the secret to writing a great protest song? Well, you need to have the talent to elucidate some pressing issue with insight and ingenuity. A little idiosyncrasy goes a long way as well, since that can deflate some of the earnestness that often sinks music ripped from the headlines. The main ingredient, however, would have to be the fearlessness to present the material in such a way that can seem bracing or even discomforting to those in the audience. In that way, the artist can assure themselves of being heard.
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Nina Simone checked off all of these boxes when she wrote “Mississippi Goddam,” as scathing an indictment of black-white inequality that has ever been penned. She then added to the song’s embarrassment of riches by giving it one of her most indelible performances, a stunning 1964 live take in New York City that not only captured her unconcealed disgust and withering sarcasm but also inadvertently revealed the effect the song would have on audiences unprepared for that kind of candor.
The ironic thing is that Simone had originally balked at recording topical material until the assassination of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers on June 12, 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi changed her mind. “Nightclubs were dirty, making records was dirty, popular music was dirty and to mix all that with politics seemed senseless and demeaning,” Simone wrote in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You. “And until songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ just burst out of me, I had musical problems as well. How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three and a half minutes and a simple tune? That was the musical side of it I shied away from; I didn’t like ‘protest music’ because a lot of it was so simple and unimaginative it stripped the dignity away from the people it was trying to celebrate. But the Alabama church bombing and the murder of Medgar Evers stopped that argument and with ‘Mississippi Goddam,’ I realized there was no turning back.”
Simone’s genius move was to deliver her stinging message amidst the comforting, bouncy backdrop of a show tune. After she mentions the title of the song on the live recording, the audience titters as if it’s some kind of joke before the opening lines assure them that Simone’s not playing. Name-checking three of the major Civil Rights battleground states, she sings, “Alabama’s gotten me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.”
In between the percussive repetitions of the refrain, Simone’s verses combine blues idioms like hound dogs and black cats with news flashes about the situation (“School children sitting in jail.”) There’s also stage patter playful enough, on the surface anyway, to give the audience a bit of a breather between her furious assaults.
As the song progresses, Simone’s ire rises and she fires back at condescending do-gooders. “Don’t tell me / I tell you,” she shouts, making sure her opinions get their rightful place in the conversation. “They keep on saying, ‘Go slow!’” she complains, referring to those who would drag their feet in pushing the nation toward racial equality. She enters into an ironic call-and-response with her backing band, who answer “Do it slow” to her frustrated plaints: “Do things gradually (Do it slow!) / But bring more tragedy (Do it slow).”
In the closing moments of the song, Simone leaves all equivocation behind, calling out the folks she’s addressing as liars and prophesying their doom. One wonders how the mostly-white audience at Carnegie Hall that evening felt about those lines. By the time Simone shouted out her last “Goddam” with a mix of gusto and exasperation on that fateful evening, she had managed to provoke, confront, and entertain. That’s every ingredient in the recipe for a truly unforgettable protest song. “Mississippi Goddam” is certainly one for the ages.