Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul
On June 12th, the night after Kennedy's announcement that he would present a new Civil Rights Bill to Congress, Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP chapter in Jackson, Mississippi, was fatally shot on the steps of his home. The Mississippi governor shook the hand of the accused killer, a white man, during the trial. "While Medgar Evers' murder was not the final straw for me, it was the match that lit the fuse," Simone said.
She was living in Mount Vernon, NY and had a den built over the garage where she would spend several hours practicing for a show. As she began to prepare for her week-long engagement at the Village Gate in New York City, Simone heard some terrible news over the radio. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, once a haven for both its worshippers and civil rights workers in Birmingham, Alabama, was struck by a dynamite bomb on September 15th, killing four girls: Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. A riot broke out later that day and the police shot a black kid, and a black man was pulled off of his bike and beaten to death by a white mob.
"I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963, but it wasn't an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine [Hansberry] had been repeating to me over and over," Simone said. "It came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered me and I 'came through.'" Simone's rage caused her to rummage through her garage and pull out every tool that she could find. Andy, her husband and a retired cop, came up about an hour later and asked what she was doing. She couldn't speak and when she tried to speak, the words didn't really make sense. Simone was going to make a gun, a homemade pistol.
She had wanted to kill for those four little girls, for Medgar Evers, and for all black people who were victims of violence motivated by racism. Andy stood there and said to her, "Nina, you don't know anything about killing. The only thing you've got is music." Then he left her alone to give her time to calm down. At that moment, she wasn't really convinced that nonviolent protests were helping black people anymore. That disturbed her more than the anger she had felt. But Simone realized that Andy was right, that she didn't have it in her to kill anybody. So an hour later, she wrote the sheet music for "Mississippi Goddam" (Philips Records, 1964):
Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet
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
One dealer in South Carolina returned a bunch of copies back to her office with each copy of "Mississippi Goddam" cut in half. Some states even blocked the word "goddam," and released it as "Mississippi #**#!," which made her laugh. Otherwise it was a huge hit everywhere she performed it.
But Simone still had her insecurities about these songs: "How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three-and-a-half minutes and a simple tune?" It was too late for her to turn back. Her protest songs were an essential part of the movement and time eventually gave her a great sense of pride to know that she had made that kind of impact. The civil rights era would drive her and her musical direction for the next seven years.
We lost our "High Priestess of Soul" to cancer back in 2003. Three years later, on February 21st, her birthday, a sold out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watched Nina Simone: Love Sorceress, filmed by Rene Letzgus at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Most of the audience had only encountered Simone through listening to her music. The great thing about a concert film is that it can capture what many may already know about Simone the musicianher incomparable piano playing, her insightful lyrics, her vocal arrangements. And the music can shed some light on who Simone, the woman, might have been: confident, secure, and often charismatic.
Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA Victor, 1967)
Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul (Philips Records, 1967)
Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You (Philips Records, 1965)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone in Concert (Philips Records, 1964)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall (Colpix Records, 1963)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone at the Village Gate (Colpix Records, 1962)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings Ellington (Colpix Records, 1962)
Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem Records, 1958)
Courtesy of Nina Simone's Black Swan Page