Civil Rights in Song (4): Nina Simone

Portrait Of Nina SimoneNina Simone was one of the great American musicians. Sometimes pigeonholed as a jazz musician, in fact she traversed genres. Her greatest moments are high points of the American canon. Nowadays, everyone seems to know Feeling GoodMy Baby Just Cares For Me, and perhaps Don’t Let me be Misunderstood, but the likes of Wild is the Wind or Baltimore are no less thrilling.

As a black woman writing in the civil rights era, and one performing at a time when protest music was de rigeur for some, politics intruded. Two songs featured on her 1964 album Nina Simone in Concert. We featured Old Jim Crow in the first of this series here, but Mississippi Goddam is better known. It was written in response to two events.

medgar-evers-9542324-1-402Medgar Evers was part of an emerging black middle class, being a college graduate and insurance salesman. When he moved top Mound Bayou, he became active in and then president of the Regional Council for Negro Leadership. This, in turn, led him into the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the most important of the black political groups of the era.

Mississippi’s schools were segregated: Evers had graduated from Alcorn, then a black-only college. However, in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation in schools and colleges (which Americans call schools, of course) was unconstitutional. In the aftermath of the Brown vs Topeka ruling, Evers applied to the all-white University of Mississippi law school: the NAACP wanted to establish a test case. He was rejected.

Evers would spent the next nine years as Mississippi’s most prominent civil rights campaigner. He led a public investigation into the murder of Emmett Till, campaigns against segregation in all forms and voter registration drives. In the highly charged atmosphere of 1963, his campaigns cost him his life. There we three attacks on him that year. The third came just hours after Kennedy had given his speech announcing his intention to introduce civil rights legislation. Evers was shot in the back, and after being admitted to a whites-only hospital that had initially refused him admission he died of his wounds.

The murderer was tried three times. The first trials were in 1964, and two all-white juries failed to reach a verdict. He was finally convicted in 1994, after a long campaign by Evers’ widow, Myrlie. He had enjoyed 30 years of freedom.

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Evers was murdered in June 1963. Just three months later, four members of the Ku Klux Klan set of a bomb in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The day before Medgar Evers was murdered and Kennedy gave his speech, the governor of Alabama, George Wallace had made his infamous ‘stand at the schoolhouse door’, in opposition to desegregation of the University of Alabama (you can read more about that, and Wallace, in the third installment of this series here). In 1963, the Birmingham Campaign to end segregation also gave birth to the Birmingham Children’s Crusade, in which hundreds of children walked out of school in protest at segregation in schools. They marched on the city hall. Over three days, over a thousand were arrested at the order of the city’s police chief, Bull Connor: the youngest was nine. Connor also had the police turn dogs and fire hoses on the marchers.

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The city’s business community, the civil rights campaigners, which included Martin Luther King, the federal government and a newly elected major had brokered a settlement by the end of May. With the help of the federal government’s national guard, desegregation began, including in Birmingham’s schools. By then, white reaction had turned violent. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was not the first, but it was the most terrible.

The 16th Street church was a centre of civil rights campaigning and, as such, it had been the gathering point for the Childrens’ Crusade. This time, the bombing was deadly. The victims were four girls: Addie Mae Collins (14), Cynthia Wesley (14), Carole Robertson (14), and Carol Denise McNair (11). The murders shocked America, and he world.

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In the way of these things, their murderers stayed three, not even prosecuted at the time. Thje state claimed insufficient evidence, and the head of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover (who hated King, believing to be  a communist), blocked a federal prosecution. In the end three men were convicted of murder, but not until 1977, 2001 and 2002.

Back at the time, Nina Simone, wrote Mississippi Goddam. And when she name-checked Mississippi and Alabama, everyone knew what she was on about.

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, that’s it

They knew what she was on about on both sides. The song was banned across a fair bit of the South.

In 1966, Nina Simone wrote Four Women. It took the stories of four stereotypical African-American women. As such, it deals not just with the rights of blacks, but women too. The first woman, Aunt Sarah, is a slave:

Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again

Then we meet Saffronia, the daughter of a black mother raped by a rich white man, ‘between two worlds’. Then, we have a prostitute, Sweet Thing. If the first three must be seen primarily as victims, Peaches, will fight back.

I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves

Once again, the song was banned in many places.

The following year’s Silk and Soul saw Simone record a version of the song I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free. The song had originally been written for one of its songwriters’ daughter, but by quickly became a song adopted by the civil rights movement.

In the same year, she also released Nina Simone Sings the Blues. With lyrics by her friend Langston Hughes, Backlash Blues ranges across poverty, Vietnam and civil rights.

Do you think that all the colored folks
Are just second class fools?

Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. Simone’s bass player, Gene Taylor, wrote a song in reaction. Three days after King’s death, Simone and her band played the song at the Westbury Festival, on Long Island, New York. Simone’s brother, Samuel Waymon, was playing the organ. In 2008, he recalled that day in an interview with America’s National Public Radio:

We learned that song that (same) day. We didn’t have a chance to have two or three days of rehearsal. But when you’re feeling compassion and outrage and wanting to express what you know the world is feeling, we did it because that’s what we felt.

As well as sorrow, it came with a warning:

But he had seen the mountaintop and he knew he could not stop
Always living with the threat of death ahead
Folks you’d better stop and think, everybody knows we’re on the brink
What will happen, now that the King of Love is dead?

This is that performance of Why? (The king of love is Dead):

Back in 1965, Simone’s friend Lorraine Hansbury died, age 34, of cancer. Hansbury was a successful playwright. Her A Raisin in the Sun, written in 1959, was the first play by an African-American to get a Broadway run (Broadway is New York’s equivalent of London’s West End). She became only the fifth woman and the youngest ever recipient of the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best play.

Hansbury was also a political activist. As well as campaigning for civil rights, she also supported anti-colonial movements abroad, such as Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising. She was what is known as a Pan-Africanist, seeing the two struggles on parts on one African struggle for freedom. Similarly, she saw her writing as an assertion of African culture. She was also a feminist, and a campaigner for gay rights (she was bisexual herself). After her death, her ex-husband compiled some of her writings into a play, and a book, called Young, Gifted and Black. The following year, Simone and lyricist Weldon Irvine wrote a song in her memory, but also taking her as an inspiration:

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

Here is that song:

Simon continued performing until her final illness and death in 2003. In 1987, My Baby Just Cares for Me was used an advert for Chanel, and she was a global star again. Her critical reputation is probably higher than ever. As a black woman, she is an icon of both African-American culture and feminism. In the civil rights years she was more than that, she was a campaigner.

Most of all, though, she was a great artist. Here’s one of my personal favourites. Wild is the Wind was a romantic ballad of a fairly conventional sort. Here, Simone utterly transforms it:

And, why not this:

Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel

Feeling Good

 

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