Nina Simone’s song of protest

Monday, June 7, 2010

Nina Simone (1933-2003) performed the other night at Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C. She packed them in at the progressive venue at 14th and V Streets. And in her own enchanting and rebellious way, she blew the doors off the jambs when she sang Ain’t Got No — I Got Life and other songs. For those few precious moments, the renowned singer, songwriter, pianist and civil rights activist came alive — alive with passion so powerful that even death could not steal her from her fans.

That night I learned something about Nina Simone, something about her need to give voice to protest, at once defiant and rousing. It was, as we say, a “First Amendment moment,” one of the times when someone exercises her freedom and by her example moves the rest of us to do likewise. Let me explain.

Kindling for a fiery outburst
Nadine Cohodas is a friend and an accomplished author of several books on race, music and social justice. I went to Busboys and Poets to hear her talk about her latest work, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone (Pantheon, 2010). The event was co-sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Cohodas staged the story of Simone’s life with several engaging readings from her book. As that story progressed, she wove a few stunning film clips into her remarks.

One was from a Sept. 10, 1964, broadcast of “The Steve Allen Show.” The famed host of a nationally syndicated TV variety program, Allen was one of the few who then dared to provide a forum for those with dissident views. Only five months earlier Allen had attempted to air an interview with Lenny Bruce, the ribald comedian. The network would have no part of it; the interview never ran. But Allen’s interview with Nina Simone did — and 46 years after its broadcast it aired again at Busboys and Poets to an awestruck audience. Allen’s interview was a prelude to the performance of a controversial song Simone had written months before. The song: “Mississippi Goddam.”

As Cohodas recounts it, the song was conceived in response to the 1963 assassination of Medgar Evers, the NAACP’s field secretary in Mississippi.

“I heard the news with disgust,” Simone recalled in Cohodas' book. “What I didn’t appreciate was that while Medgar Evers’ murder was not the last straw for me, it was the match that lit the fuse.”

“She didn’t yet know,” adds Cohodas in her book, “how brightly the fire would burn, but everything in her life was now transformed into kindling.”

Then there was the Birmingham, Ala., bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church; the bomb killed four girls (Addie Mae Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair). That was the kindling that led to fiery outburst.

“I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus,” Simone says about the bombing in Cohodas' book. “All truths that I had denied to myself for so long rose up and slapped me in the face. I suddenly realized what it is to be black in America in 1963.” It was no mere intellectual insight, notes Cohodas. It was far more. The feeling of a need to do something “came in a rush of fury, hatred and determination,” said Simone.

Thus “Mississippi Goddam” was born. And it was that song that Steve Allen wanted Americans to hear for themselves the night Nina Simone came on his show, first to talk about it and then to perform it.

'When you get to those words, scream them'
“Mississippi Goddam” was a song of rage, though it was “incongruously upbeat with an insistent two-beat rhythm, its biting lyrics more commentary than anthem,” Cohodas' book observes. The message was unvarnished:

Alabama’s got me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
But everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

. . .

Hound dogs on my trail
Schoolchildren sitting in jail
Black cat across my path
I think every day’s gonna be my last.

. . .

You don’t have to live next to me
Just give me equality.

That was the song that Steve Allen dared to air, which was bold for its day and that venue. As Cohodas puts it: “When Nina joined Allen at the desk before [the] song, he told her he wanted her to sing Mississippi Goddam because he knew it would provoke a lively discussion about censorship.”

“This is kind of an awkward song to talk about,” Allen said. That was part of the setup, Allen's way of alerting the audience to listen to the words between the lines.

Before singing, Simone declared, “First you get depressed, then you get mad. And when these kids got bombed, I just sat down and wrote this song. And it’s a very moving, violent song ‘cause that’s how I feel about the whole thing.  It’s called 'Mississippi Blank Blank.'”

Here is how Cohodas recounts what happened next: “'I have to explain that,’ Nina went on before Allen could say a word, ‘… . It’s a two-part expression, Steve, ending with the word damn. In other words, it’s ‘Mississippi _____.’”

Allen chimed in with his own anti-censorial intervention: “If I may speak of this entirely without passion. The first word is God and the second word is damn, and I think everyone up this late who can afford to pay for a television set is adult enough to recognize that one not only hears the expression but most of you say it when you hit your thumb with a hammer.”

And then, as Cohodas notes, he added: “So everybody at home when you get to those words, scream them.”

With that, Nina Simone, age 34, took to her piano and belted out “Mississippi Goddam.” The offending words were muffled on the broadcast, but Allen's setup had effectively dismantled the censorship. (Uncensored versions of the song can be found here and here.) Though slightly obscured, the infuriated message of dissent came over the airwaves and into Americans’ homes. It was a stirring and memorable performance. (Even decades later, it touched the audience at Busboys and Poets, considerably so.)

After “The Steve Allen Show,” Simone took her song to the streets. In March 1965 she performed it in front of 40,000 people gathered for a march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala. This time, however, there were no bleeps, just choruses of solidarity in the midst of police blockades.

Free speech vs. silence
So why recount the Nina Simone story? Simple: to remind people, yet again, of the importance of exercising our First Amendment rights. In a world rife with ignorance buttressed by smugness, we sorely depend on antidotes to the collective psychosis that all too often incapacitates the American mind.

Stories like Nina Simone's also inspire people to step forward when others stand back in complicit silence, the kind of silence that allows wrongdoing to thrive. Thankfully, where there is inspiration there is sometimes a way, which is the moral of this story about a woman who first stepped out of line and then sang from her soul.

Ronald Collins is the Harold S. Shefelman Scholar at the University of Washington Law School and a fellow at the First Amendment Center. His next book is The Fundamental Holmes: A Free-Speech Chronicle and Reader (Cambridge University Press, June 2010), to be followed by We Must Not be Afraid to be Free: Stories About Free Speech in America (Oxford University Press, December 2010), with Sam Chaltain.

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