Song of the Week is a feature where SportsAlcohol editors, staffers, friends, and other assorted experts write a bit about a particular song that they love or hate or respect. Sara kicks this feature off with a song to cap off the real bad August our country has just experienced.
“The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’,” Nina Simone says at the start. “And I mean every word of it.” It’s a sentiment that must have startled the largely white crowds who came to see her perform in 1964. The previous year had seen the murder of Medgar Evers and the deaths of four girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Race relations across the country were roiling and many feared a long road ahead for both sides of the divide. Simone, though, was never afraid to be confrontational, even explosive, with her listeners and the live recordings of “Mississippi Goddam” have a righteous urgency, punctuated by uncomfortable audience laughter, that is still impossible to brush off even fifty years on.
Simone wrote the song in an hour but it contains decades of suppressed anger. The bouncy piano melody she chose provides an ironic underline to the caustic lyrics of pain and strife. After name-checking the Southern states that were the sites of major oppression and violence, she devotes several lines to mocking the legacy of black subservience. “You lied to me all these years,” she fumes, “Told me to wash and clean my ears. And talk real fine just like a lady. And you’ll stop calling me Sister Sadie.” It builds to a call and response with her singers as she rattles off the demands of the movement (“Mass participation/Desegregation”) and they shout back, “Too slow!” — inciting action over caution. She performed it both for the civil rights marchers at Selma and in concert at Carnegie Hall. While many protest songs of the era aimed for uplift, Simone’s remains arresting for its undeniable fury. She isn’t blowing in the wind; she’s the wind itself.
To listen to “Mississippi Goddam” now, in the wake of the clashes in Ferguson, among countless other injustices, is to face simultaneously how far we’ve come and how much work is still left. “You don’t have to live next to me,” Simone proclaims at the song’s end. “Just give me my equality.” Now that the latter has been won, it’s up to us to do the rest.
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