The Perfectly Good Curse of Nina Simone

These are troubled times. And nothing is new.

We are concerned about racial equality. We are concerned about the will and moral fortitude of our political leadership. We are concerned about ethical standards, how we talk to each other, and how we treat our neighbors and our strangers.

These things are on our minds in 2020, and these things were on our minds in 1964. Specifics may change, but generalities stay the same.

“Mississippi Goddam” was written by the great Jazz vocalist, pianist and songwriter Nina Simone in 1964. Medgar Evers had been assassinated. Four young girls were killed when a bomb exploded in a church. Simone was angry at the violence and unrest throughout the south. She was furious. She was raging.

The song begins with a bouncy piano intro and Simone says “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet. The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddam’, and I mean every word of it.”

Alabama’s gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam!

Can’t you see it, can’t you feel it
It’s all in the air
I can’t stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer

Simone never tries to absolve herself of responsibility for using a curse word that may cause many people to turn off the record rather than having to hear that word more than absolutely necessary. She moves closer to the word. She asks the listener questions so that we are involved as well, so that we share in her anger and righteous indignation.

“Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don’t belong here
I don’t belong there
I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.”

She asks for the Lord for mercy, and then she curses the Lord. She lists what is wrong, and the limitations of what she can do and where she can go. Why shouldn’t she be angry? What response other than anger, frustration and confusion might we expect? What other response could possibly be appropriate?

“But that’s just the trouble
‘Do it slow’
Washing the windows
‘Do it slow’
Picking the cotton
‘Do it slow’
You’re just plain rotten
‘Do it slow’
You’re too damn lazy
‘Do it slow’
The thinking’s crazy
‘Do it slow’
Where am I going
What am I doing
I don’t know
I don’t know.”

1964. “Mississippi Goddam.”

In 1969, John Lennon said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ. Protests and boycotts ensued. Jerry Lee Lewis married his young cousin in 1957. Janet Jackson had a wardrobe “malfunction” in 2004. Congress thought the lyrics to “Louie Louie” were subversive and dirty in 1963. These artists made their creative statements, and they lived their lives but they never really got away with it. They were stopped. They were told no.

Nina didn’t get away with it either. Nina was angry. She expressed her anger, and people got angry as a result. The record was banned throughout the south, and promotional copies were sent back to the record company after they had been broken in half. But protests generally last a short while. Music lasts forever. “Mississippi Goddam” stands as a searing indictment of hatred and bigotry, and a fascinating snapshot of a tragic moment in time.

Picket lines, school boycotts
They try to say it’s a communist plot
All I want is equality
For my sister my brother my people and me

Yes you lied to me all these years
You told me to wash and clean my ears
And talk real fine just like a lady
And you’d stop calling me Sister Sadie”

As I write this article, people are marching in solidarity in response to a recent and sharp increase in anti-Semitic attacks in New York City and beyond. American citizens are concerned for their safety as Iran promises retaliation for the attack on their military leadership. Our nation looks forward to a 2020 presidential election that is sure to be full of acid, vitriol and hatred. We continue to ask ourselves the questions that Nina Simone asked in 1964. “Where am I going? What am I doing? I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Towards the end of “Mississippi Goddam” Nina Simone says wryly, almost knowingly, “I bet you thought I was kidding.” Of course, she wasn’t. “Mississippi Goddam” was a bold attack on violence and hatred, and though Simone enjoyed a successful career, she always felt that “Mississippi Goddam” ultimately was the reason she never became an even bigger artist than she was. She felt abandoned by the music industry, and she ended up living in different countries around the world rather than staying in the country that, she felt, didn’t want her in the first place. S

Nina ends “Mississippi Goddam” in acquiescence. She knows there will be no racial utopia. She knows that what is now, will be tomorrow. She knows that the struggle and the trouble will continue.

“You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me my equality
Everybody knows about Mississippi
Everybody knows about Alabama
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam!”

“Mississippi Goddam”
Written by Nina Simone
Performed by Nina Simone
Released 1964

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