Certain Songs #1338: Nina Simone – “Mississippi Goddamn”

Album: Nina Simone in Concert
Year: 1964

One of the earliest and most enduring of Civil Rights anthems, Nina Simone composed “Mississippi Goddamn” in an hour as a response to the murder of activist Medgar Evans, and in a weird way, it was her Colin Kapernick moment: shit that had no doubt been bugging her her whole life had piled up so much, she couldn’t keep quiet about it anymore, damn the consequences.

And sure enough, it was banned in the very South that had spurred the writing of it in the first place. Ostensibly for the word “goddamn” in the title, but she could have called it “Mississippi Goldurn” and they would have figured out a reason not to play it.

With a deceptively jaunty beat — Simone jokes that it’s a “showtune but the show hasn’t been written for it yet.” — “Mississippi Goddamn” is absolutely unsparing in both its beauty and its fury. As the drums keep up a jazzy double-time, Simone worries about being killed herself, rails against having to act white just to get by, and even feels abandoned by god.

All of which leads up to this:

Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying “Go slow!”
“Go slow!”

But that’s just the trouble
(Do it slow!)
Desegregation
(Do it slow!)
Mass participation
(Do it slow!)
Reunification
(Do it slow!)
Do things gradually
(Do it slow!)
But bring more tragedy
(Do it slow!)

With her band chiming in on the “do it slow!” like they don’t quite believe making fun of incremental progress is the answer, “Mississippi Goddamn” also illustrates the tensions that she’s singing about: she’s ready to charge forward and try to go get the equality she wants, but they aren’t so sure.

That all of this righteousness was sprung upon a primarily white — and no doubt mostly self-styled liberal — audience in 1964 is all the more amazing, and you can hear the audience reacting a lot to her “I mean every word” interjection at the beginning, a little less at the “show tune” joke and not at all when she asks later on if they thought she was kidding.

Because by that time, even the thickest of them had realized that she wasn’t.

“Mississippi Goddamn”

“Mississippi Goddamn” performed live in the Netherlands

“Mississippi Goddamn” performed live in 1965

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