Top 20 Political Songs: Mississippi Goddam | Nina Simone | 1964

"This is a show tune, but the show hasn't been written for it yet."

The words of Nina Simone during the live performance of "Mississippi Goddam" are ironic. The show had already played out, namely the murder of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers in June 1963 by the Klu Klux Klansman Byron De La Beckwith. The shooting led to a spate of civil rights songs including Bob Dylan's "Only a Pawn in Their Game".

While Dylan chose to tell the story at length, implicating everyone and seeking to address the entire racial conflict, Simone's protest is more subtle, addressing Evers' murder and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. Couched in upbeat accompaniment, the ridiculous jauntiness gives way to the sadness of the images:

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

Even with this subtlety and moderate demands -- "All I want is equality for my sister, my brother, my people and me" -- the song was banned in several southern US states. "You lied to me all these years," Simone sings as her anger rises to a crescendo: "Oh but this whole country is full of lies/You're all gonna die and die like flies."

The magic of "Mississippi Goddam" is in Simone's performance, which can be enjoyed without any knowledge of the political context. There is no explicit reference to Evers; the listener can ignore the more troublesome lyrics and enjoy the driven music. But once the first layer is broken, there is a bottomless mourning and power to the message.

Simone is singing to an audience that enjoys her, but does not understand her. Any hope is balanced: "You don't have to live next to me/Just give me my equality."

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