Nina Simone’s Live Performances of Her Poignant Civil Rights Protest Songs

When armored troops and tanks arrived in the St. Louis sub­urb of Fer­gu­son, advanc­ing on civil­ians with guns drawn and launch­ing tear gas can­is­ters into the crowd, more than a few peo­ple watch­ing it hap­pen exclaimed, “Mis­souri God­dam!” After the Charleston, SC mas­sacre last sum­mer, many exclaimed, “South Car­oli­na God­dam!” The phras­es direct­ly ref­er­ence an ear­li­er, all too sim­i­lar, time in the vio­lent his­to­ry of civ­il rights strug­gles, 1964, when Nina Simone wrote and per­formed “Mis­sis­sip­pi God­dam” (above in Hol­land). It was “a song that would change her career,” writes Matt Stag­gs at Sig­na­ture, “com­pli­cat­ing her rela­tion­ship with the white estab­lish­ment while cement­ing her alle­giance with the civ­il rights move­ment.”

After her ambi­tions as a con­cert pianist were frus­trat­ed, Simone rose to fame as a bril­liant­ly tal­ent­ed per­former of clas­si­cal, jazz, folk, blues, and cabaret music. She “did not so much inter­pret songs,” writes Adam Shatz in the New York Review of Books, “as take pos­ses­sion of them.” But her most famous remains her own com­po­si­tion, “Mis­sis­sip­pi God­dam,” a pas­sion­ate response to the mur­der of Medgar Evers, the Six­teenth Street Church bomb­ing in Birm­ing­ham, and oth­er shock­ing acts of bru­tal­i­ty by mem­bers of the White Cit­i­zens Coun­cil and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the retal­ia­to­ry police vio­lence and mass arrests at Ten­nessee sit-ins.

After her first per­for­mance of the song at a 1964 Carnegie Hall con­cert (dur­ing which she shout­ed at the shocked audi­ence, “You’re all gonna die!”), it would become “a civ­il rights anthem.” The per­for­mance itself was a sly bait-and-switch; “deter­mined to bring a taste of the era’s injus­tice to her most­ly white audi­ence,” Simone intro­duced the song as a “show tune, but the show has­n’t been writ­ten for it yet.” And indeed it sounds like one, “at least for a few moments.” The song, writes Shatz, “rep­re­sent­ed a rev­o­lu­tion in black polit­i­cal ora­to­ry.”

Now, many peo­ple born long after Simone’s that first bomb­shell per­for­mance of “Mis­sis­sip­pi God­dam” are dis­cov­er­ing her life and work through the Oscar-nom­i­nat­ed Net­flix doc­u­men­tary What Hap­pened, Miss Simone!, as well as the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing a two-year-old unre­leased biopic (so heat­ed even its star dis­avowed the film). Released on the day of mur­dered pas­tor and State Sen­a­tor Clemen­ta Pinck­ney’s funer­al, the doc­u­men­tary renews the focus on Simone’s role as a fierce activist on and off the stage. In songs like “Back­lash Blues,” writ­ten by Langston Hugh­es (above, in a live 1968 Paris record­ing ses­sion), Simone protest­ed “sec­ond class hous­es / and sec­ond class schools” as well as the Viet­nam War draft and frozen wages.

In “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” above in a 1976 per­for­mance, she express­es pro­found long­ing to “share / All the love that’s in my heart” and “Remove all the bars / That keep us apart.” As Shatz tells us, Simone once defined what free­dom meant to her when an inter­view­er asked in 1968: “I’ll tell you what free­dom is to me: no fear. I mean real­ly, no fear!” She seemed to embody fear­less­ness onstage as she devot­ed her career to activism.

And yet, writes Clau­dia Roth Pier­pont in The New York­er, she “had been hes­i­tant at first.” It was play­wright Lor­raine Hans­ber­ry who pushed her into speak­ing, though she “only start­ed a process that events in Amer­i­can quick­ly accel­er­at­ed.” After the Birm­ing­ham bomb­ing, Simone recalled want­i­ng to “go out and kill some­one… I could iden­ti­fy as being in the way of my peo­ple.” Instead she took her out­rage to the stage, and she memo­ri­al­ized Hans­ber­ry after her friend’s death at age 34 with a song she called “the Black nation­al anthem,” also the title of Hans­ber­ry’s posthu­mous auto­bi­og­ra­phy, “To Be Young, Gift­ed and Black.” Before the per­for­mance above, at a More­house Col­lege record­ing ses­sion in 1969, Simone emo­tion­al­ly describes the gen­e­sis of the song in an inter­view. The song itself hints broad­ly at the pain of her own child­hood, and that of so many oth­ers, then con­cludes with pride, hope, and affir­ma­tion.

Young, gift­ed and black
How I long to know the truth
There are times when I look back
And I am haunt­ed by my youth

Oh but my joy of today
Is that we can all be proud to say
To be young, gift­ed and black
Is where it’s at

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Nina Simone Sings Her Break­through Song, ‘I Loves You Por­gy,’ in 1962

Watch a New Nina Simone Ani­ma­tion Based on an Inter­view Nev­er Aired in the U.S. Before

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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