This is the 89th post in a weekly series. Read about it here and see the list of previous songs here. A new post about a different song is posted each Monday. You can listen to the songs in a Spotify playlist.

In June of 1963, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was murdered in Jackson, Miss. Three months later, the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed with sticks of dynamite, killing four young black girls. Both acts were committed by members of The Ku Klux Klan.

Nina Simone was rehearsing for a club show when she heard about the church bombings. Her first response, she remembered, was to try to make a gun out of things in her garage: “I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone… I didn’t yet know who, but someone I could identify as being in the way of my people.” Her husband talked her out of it and instead persuaded her to use music, not violence, to address her rage.

Accounts differ as to how long it took her to put her thoughts into words. Some say she wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in an hour, and others say 20 minutes. Regardless, she wrote it quickly. Simone performed the song at the Village Gate a few days later, but it was her performance at Carnegie Hall in March of 1964 that introduced the song to the world.

Speaking to a mostly white audience, Simone said, “The name of this tune is Mississippi goddam. And I mean every word of it.” Then, she sang some of the most blistering lyrics she had performed onstage at that point:

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

In the middle of the song, she prefaced the next verse with “This is a show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.” The irony, of course, is that the show had played out in real life. She continued, referencing real life events, and her incredible anger:

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

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!’

And by the end, Simone had turned her scorn toward all of what she saw as impeding progress.

Oh, but this whole country is full of lies
You’re all gonna die and die like flies
I don’t trust you any more
You keep on saying ‘Go slow!’
‘Go slow!’

But that’s just the trouble
‘Do it slow’
‘Do it slow’
Mass participation
‘Do it slow’
‘Do it slow’
Do things gradually
‘Do it slow’
But bring more tragedy
‘Do it slow’
Why don’t you see it
Why don’t you feel it
I don’t know
I don’t know

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!

The performance appeared on Simone’s album, “In Concert.” “Mississippi Goddam” was released as a single, though it didn’t chart. But it never got the chance to succeed, because many states banned the song. Radio stations from around the US returned boxes of the records cracked in half. Her career never fully recovered, at least not in the US. She left the country, going to Africa and later Europe, where she died in 2003.

But despite the damage “Mississippi Goddam” did to Simone’s relationship with white audiences, and thus her career, the song did not alienate her from everyone. It became a civil rights anthem in the summer of 1964, and in 1965, Simone performed “Mississippi Goddam” before tens of thousands of marchers in Selma on a stage propped up by coffins.

In the 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” comedian and activist Dick Gregory offered praise to Simone for taking the chance she took to sing “Mississippi Goddam,” saying, “If you look at all the suffering black folks went through, not one black man would dare say ‘Mississippi Goddam.’ We all wanted to say it. She said it.”

Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” has been recorded several times since her 1964 Carnegie Hall concert. There have been variations, with some artists spelling it “Mississippi Goddamn” and other artists changing the city names altogether.

Singer Esquerita has been listed as one of Little Richard’s biggest influences, as both had flamboyant personas, big hair, and energetic stage shows. Esquerita died in 1986, but his “Mississippi God-Damn” appeared on the 1994 posthumous release, “Sock It to Me Baby.” He stayed faithful to Simone’s lyrics, even using the same spoken word ad-libs from her performance. But Esquerita’s version was no cookie cutter karaoke tribute. He played the piano in a way that sounded more like Jerry Lee Lewis than the jaunty playing on Simone’s version.

Italian singer Laura Fedele performed “Mississippi Goddam” for a live tribute to Simone that was ultimately released as “Independently Blue: Le canzoni di Nina Simone.” Fedele’s perky version sounded even more like a showtune than Simone’s, as if Fedele was attempting to play a version of Simone herself.

In 2006, jazz and blues vocalist Kim Nalley released “She Put a Spell on Me: Kim Nalley Sings Nina Simone.” Along with “I Put A Spell On You” and other songs Simone covered, Nalley performed Simone’s own material. On her version “Mississippi Goddamn,” Nalley paid attention to every detail, recreating all of Nina’s asides while putting herself into the song as well. It was a great tribute to Simone, but also demonstrated Nalley’s vocal range as well.

Singer Carole Alston’s 2007 album “For My Sisters” was recorded during one of her live shows. Alston prefaced her performance of “Mississippi Goddamn” with some context for Simone’s writing of the song:

In 1865, slavery was officially abolished in America. 1865. And 100 years later, Martin Luther King started his marches on Washington and the civil rights movement. So, in that 100 years, not much progress had been made. And Nina Simone realized this. There were church bombings, there were still lynchings in the South, there was still segregation, and all of these things made her very angry at her country, and very angry at the politics of her country.

Later in that introduction, Alston pointed out that “Mississippi Goddam” was as relevant in the mid-2000s as it was when Simone wrote it. Alston returned to that point a few times throughout her performance, and one can feel it in her voice.

Skerik’s Syncopated Taint Septet’s “Mississippi Goddamn” cover, from its 2010 album “Live At The Triple Door,” recast the song as a funky jazz tune. The band kept the jaunty feel from Simone’s original, but inserted several horns that gave it more layered sound.

Italian band Blastula’s trippy cover of “Mississippi Goddam” was a freewheeling mix of jazz, sampling, and spoken word performance art. Simone’s version was defined by how straight-forward and jaunty it was, but this a chaotic collection of sounds crashing into each other. As artsy as that might sound, it worked with the overall theme of the song.

“If I Had My Way I’d’ve Been A Killer” was a musical project based on an Italian play about Nina Simone. Valentina Monti, Diber Benghi, Dagmar Benghi, and Corrado Gambit debuted the stage production in 2013, and then challenged themselves to make a version that relied only on sound. The rendition of “Mississippi Goddam” that appeared in “If I Had My Way I’d’ve Been A Killer” was faith to Simone’s version, except it was delivered in a thick Italian accent.

“Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone” was released in 2015 as a companion piece to the 2015 documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?” As part of that project, Andra Day covered “Mississippi Goddam.” Compared to the other “Mississippi Goddam” covers we have reviewed, this is the one that feels furthest from Simone’s version. Day’s lounge-y vocals over a jazz arrangement didn’t sound like the showtune-like song first performed by Simone, but Day still managed to punctuate the song with the requisite “goddam!”

Jazz singer Natalie Douglas said her 2016 album, “Human Heart,” turned out more political than she had planned, “but to anyone who knows me,” she added, “that’s not a surprise. I grew up in politics.” Perhaps the most political stretch of the album is near the end, where she followed “Strange Fruit” with “Mississippi Goddam.” She blitzed almost faster than Simone had, but her version still had all the same bite.

Besides these covers, which used all or most of Simone’s original lyrics, there have been other variations of the song that have changed or added lyrics to reflect modern events.

Inspired by Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” Queen Muse offered up “Missouri Goddam” in 2014. Referencing several headlines of the year, “Missouri Goddam” took its name from Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot and killed by a white police officer.

Navasha Daya’s “Baltimore Goddam,” released after the Baltimore protests of Freddie Gray’s death in 2015, kept Simone’s arrangement, though Daya updated most of the lyrics. Like Queen Muse’s “Missouri Goddam,” “Baltimore Goddam” referenced Ferguson.

The following year, AhSa-Ti Nu Tyehimba-Ford recorded “Carolina Goddam,” the title of which referred to the Charleston church shooting, in which Dylann Roof opened fire at a prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Roof killed nine people, all of whom were black.

In 1969, Simone told Ebony Magazine, “I hope the day comes when I will be able to sing more love songs, when the need is not quite so urgent to sing protest songs. But for now, I don’t mind.”

The sad thing is, it’s been almost 50 years since she said that, and “Mississippi Goddam” is as relevant as it has ever been. The updated versions have placed it in a modern context, but the message holds up, more than half a century after she delivered that message in the first place.

You can listen to these songs and previously discussed cover songs in a Spotify playlist.
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