For reasons that should be obvious–and sort of rhyme with the words “Dump Conflagration”–I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about protest music. And surprisingly, one of the songs that feels most relevant to our current (terrible) political situation is one that was written over 50 years ago, about a different (and even more terrible) political situation: Nina Simone‘s “Mississippi Goddam.”
It’s a testament to Simone’s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.
My favorite version of the song, for example, comes from April 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event, Simone tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed 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 / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” As historically specific as the performance remains, its sense of hopelessness leapt out at me across the decades when I listened to it again this week. It’s hard not to detect a little of our present situation in the lines where Simone rages against the admonitions of moderate white liberals: “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying ‘Go slow!'”
But if the rage Simone felt in 1964 and 1968 still feels relevant to 2017, then so, too, does the galvanizing purpose behind the song–which is the real reason why I found myself listening to it so much this week. “Mississippi Goddam” is about the terrible things that happen to marginalized people, but it’s also about standing up and demanding justice for those terrible things: not later, but now. Yesterday and today, reports of anti-inauguration protests, counter-events, and of course the Women’s March on Washington were the only things in the world that felt right, that made any sense at all. And, while I don’t know if the legendarily acerbic Ms. Simone would have been part of the Women’s March–though I will go out on a limb and say she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing no damn pussy hat–I do think she would have approved of the many people taking to the streets. It’s going to be a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years); but if we keep fighting like what I saw this weekend, I think we might be all right.
(This post is an expanded version of a blurb I wrote for my own blog. Come read my thoughts about 15 other songs of dissent on Dystopian Dance Party.)