“The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam, and I mean every word of it.”

Nina Simone

In 1963, Civil Rights activists were bearing the weight of rage and grief triggered by the assassination of black activist Medgar Evers in June. Just three months later, four young girls were murdered in the terrorist bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Those inconceivable acts of violence, alongside the toll of everyday racism, inspired one of Nina Simone’s most memorable, and vital songs, “Mississippi Goddam”.

“Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee made me lose my rest

And everybody knows about Mississippi, Goddam!”

The song’s provocative message and title put Simone’s career on the line – it was banned on Southern radio stations – but it helped to strengthen the political motivation behind much of her subsequent work. 

On 21st March 1964, Nina Simone recorded a jaunty live version of “Mississippi Goddam” to a largely white audience at New York’s Carnegie Hall. In a break between verses, Simone calls out from the stage: “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written yet.” The audience laugh before she launches back into the lyric:

“Hound dogs on my trail, school children sittin’ in jail”

When she next calls out “I bet you thought I was kidding, didn’t you?”, the crowd’s laughter is muted – everyone knows that this ‘show’ is no feel good Broadway caper with a happy ending.

60 years on, the truth and injustice captured by Nina Simone are still as essential and relevant as ever.

Narrated by Tank from Tank and the Bangas, this short documentary tells the story of a powerful song and important moment in music history. 

Freya Hellier is a content editor for Everything Jazz. She has spent many years making programmes about all genres of music for BBC Radio 3, Radio 4 and beyond.

Header image: Nina Simone. Photo: David Redfern/Redferns.