Mississippi Goddam

In memory of Medgar Evers (July 2, 1925 – June 12, 1963)

Fifty years on

‘Mississippi Goddam’ remains arguably Simone’s most famous protest song and, not surprisingly, forms the basis for many responses to her work. Three powerful analyses of Simone’s role in the politics of freedom of the 1960s (by Ruth Feldstein, Tammy Kernodle and Daphne Brooks) devote much of their space to discussion of the song. Like them, I’m interested in way that Nina Simone  connected the song’s composition to a subjectivizing event and it’s worth sampling how that event, which occured in 1963, was recalled by Simone in her 1991 autobiography:

In Mount Vernon we had a little apartment built over the garage which was my private hideaway, where I went to practise and prepare for forthcoming performances. I was sitting there in my den on 15 September when news came over the radio that somebody had thrown dynamite into the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama while black children were attending a Bible study class. Four of them – Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins – had been killed. Later that day, in the rioting which followed, Birmingham police shot another black kid and a white mob pulled a young black man off his bicycle and beat him to death, out in the street. It was more than I could take, and I sat struck dumb in my den like St Paul on the road to Damascus: all the truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped my face. The bombing of the little girls in Alabama and the murder of Medgar Evers were like the final pieces of a jigsaw that made no sense until you had fitted the whole thing together. I suddenly realised what it was to be black in America in 1963, but it wasn’t an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine [Hansberry] had been repeating to me over and over – it came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered into me and I “came through”.

Simone’s first reaction is a desire for violent revenge for the atrocious events that have brought home to her the excess of her (and her fellow black Americans’) situation. She attempts to build a gun in order to deliver retribution to the objects of her “hatred” and “fury”. Her husband, a former police officer, discovers her and stops her, saying, “Nina, you don’t know anything about killing. The only thing you’ve got is music.” Simone accepts this and sits down at her piano:

An hour later I came out of my apartment with the sheet music for ‘Mississippi Goddam’ in my hand. It was my first civil rights song, and it erupted out of me quicker than I could write it down. I knew then that I would dedicate myself to the struggle for black justice, freedom and equality under the law for as long as it took, until all our battles were won.

As Simone goes on to note, when she started to become involved in the civil rights movement many already considered her an activist due to the publicity she gave to various aspects of the movement in her concerts and in interviews. She had already recorded songs such as Oscar Brown‘s ‘Brown Baby’ and her “Afrocentric” numbers from ‘Zungo’ onwards had asserted a “return to Africa” that reflected the emerging manifestoes of black nationalist organizations. But clearly Simone felt it necessary, in this retrospective account, to delimit a before and after, to hinge her commitment to civil rights upon a decisive event. Her positing of this event as both specific (the Birmingham bombing and Evers’s death) and ongoing (the decision to commit herself to civil rights).

Simone_In-Concert-coverThe event of conversion can be read into the unfolding narrative of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ itself. The tune, in the first recorded version (found on the 1964 album In Concert), starts off at something of a gallop, its uptempo rhythm seemingly eliciting pleasure from the Carnegie Hall audience, who laugh when Simone declares, “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam!'”, pausing slightly before adding, “and I mean every word of it!” (to which the audience respond with more laughter).  The opening lines – “Alabama’s got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi / God-dam!” – are repeated, as if inviting a singalong, although it quickly becomes clear that this will be a difficult tune to learn as Simone changes the melody, slowing and stretching her vocals as she asks, “Can’t you see it, can’t you feel it / It’s all in the air?” before circling back to the “Alabama / Tennessee / Mississippi” lines to conclude the song’s first section. It is at this point that she issues the next interjection: “This is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet”, which is received with more laughter from the audience. At this point, we are just over one minute into this nearly five-minute performance.

There is a shift in the dynamics of ‘Mississippi Goddam’ here as Simone settles into the regular rhythm of what amounts, in this unusually structured song, to the first verse. The metre of the lyric stays constant for the next fifty seconds as Simone unfolds a series of increasingly stark images: “we all gonna get it in due time”; “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there”; “me and my people just about due”. The series culminates in the observation, “You keep on sayin’ ‘Go slow'”. Simone pauses for breath as the tune maintains its momentum, then moves into a new section, calling out, “But that’s just the problem”, to which her band members respond with a shout of “too slow!”. This response is issued after each of Simone’s subsequent calls: “washin’ the windows”; “pickin’ the cotton”; “you’re too damn lazy”. As the song approaches the three-minute mark, Simone returns the melody to the “Mississippi God-dam!” refrain before offering her next spoken interjection: “I bet you thought I was kiddin’, didn’t you?” There is still laughter, though it is less audible and possibly more nervous than before.

The song moves back into the “verse” form for another series of vivid snapshots (“picket lines”, “school boycotts”, “all I want is equality / for my sister, my brother / my people and me”). Simone’s vocal, earlier so playful and inclusive, has now become furious and declamatory. The lyric becomes ever more apocalyptic as she declares, “This whole country is full of lies / You all gonna die and die like flies”, then uses the line “I don’t trust you anymore” to return to the “too slow!” call-and-response section, which centres on key words of the civil rights movement (“desegregation” “mass participation”, “unification”). As the song enters its final thirty seconds, it circles back to the opening tune, with Simone swapping the “Alabama / Birmingham” couplet for “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality” and finishing with a drawn out “Mississippi God-dam!”, pounded home by pneumatic piano. As if the significance of the climax is not clear, Simone adds a punctuating “That’s it!” and the band switch into Miles Davis’s ‘Milestones’ to signal the end of the show.

In just under five minutes Simone manages to set a number of contemporaneous debates to music: an assertion of the “double consciousness” claimed by W.E.B. Du Bois as a conditioning factor of the black experience in America (“I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there”); a sense of desperation and an accompanying loss of faith (“I’ve even stopped believing in prayer”, she declares at one point, as if the blasphemous “Goddam” had not already proven it); and the debates played out between various civil rights groups (CORE, SCLC, SNCC ) and black leaders (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael) over the place of nonviolence and armed struggle. Mirroring the shifting musical sands of the song, the position taken up by the narrator changes as she describes a growing sense that violence is the only option left and delivers violence upon her audience through the declamatory, performative nature of the lyrics. Simone cleverly combines what J.L. Austin described as “constative” language (that which describes facts or gives information) with “performative” language (that which does functional work: greetings, warnings, threats and curses).

Roach_WeInsistWhat marked ‘Mississippi Goddam’ out from anything Simone had hitherto recorded were its anger, its sense of immediacy and insistence, and its strategies of alienation. As far as the latter goes, it could be seen as a successor to Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit‘, an invasion of brutal reportage into the polite environs of the supper club. The recording on In Concert would support such a reading, witnessing as it does a subtle but noticeable change come over the audience as the song narrative unfolds. But in other crucial ways, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is a very different song from ‘Strange Fruit’, without the stillness and neutral, curious tone with which Holiday imbued her performance. Simone’s is declamatory and insistent, closer perhaps to the cry placed in the title of the classic civil rights jazz recording, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite (1960), on which the drummer Max Roach had collaborated with Oscar Brown, Jr. and vocalist Abbey Lincoln.

As Dorian Lynskey points out, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ also echoes the voice overheard in the crowd witnessing King’s “I have a dream” speech, a voice which responds to King’s vision by crying “Goddam!” It is this declamatory quality that gave the song its power and that gave it a foothold in history, making it now seem both evocative of its time and continually, insistently relevant and disturbing. “Goddam” may have been a ruder, more shocking declaration in the Carnegie Hall atmosphere of 1964 than it would be today, but, because we know this, we can still witness the unsettling process of hearing Simone alienate her audience as the song unfolds. What is more, the decades that have elapsed since this landmark recording have done little to diminish the power of lines such as “you’re all gonna die and die like flies”.

As this line makes clear, ‘Mississippi Goddam’ is notable for its assertion of a desire for revenge, one that can be connected to the more vengeful parts of the Bible. If the statements were too violent to be categorized as gospel, the song nonetheless shared a predictive element often found in gospel. There is also an echo of the interplay between singer and audience that Simone used in her gospel songs, although “interplay” may be the wrong word, for what Simone often seems to do is highlight the barrier dividing herself and the audience even as she seems to invite participation. On the recording of ‘Children Go Where I Send You‘ the singer alerts the audience to the recreation of a revival meeting while suggesting that they probably don’t know what that is; so too, in ‘Mississippi Goddam’, where the breach is highlighted by the between-verse commentary (“this is a show tune but the show hasn’t been written yet”, “I bet you thought I was kiddin”).

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Mississippi Goddam”

  1. […] not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other […]

  2. […] not surprisingly, Simone also used ‘Mississippi Goddam‘ in her Westbury concert to comment on King’s murder and to connect it to other […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: