by Vincent Hannam
One of the things I love most about writing and blogging (and consequently theatre as a whole) is the chance to broaden my education on all kinds of subjects that I had never either heard about or took the time to research. One of those subjects is Nina Simone as an artist and civil rights activist and her song “Mississippi Goddam” which, I’ll admit, I’d never heard until Park Square Theatre’s Nina Simone: Four Women. I began thinking about how a song from fifty-three years ago has succeeded so much in the face of so much turmoil. When I was reading into that signature song I saw this picture of the original album sleeve with the latter word bleeped out. Now that kind of title would bristle more than a few feathers today, so I can imagine the world of 1964 just losing its mind – probably more so in certain parts of the country than others, but lost minds nonetheless.
That year Simone said to hell with it and released a song that was a direct attack on the social order of the South, where blacks were treated as a second-class citizens at best and out right murdered at worst. It was her response to a time in the early ’60s when the Civil Rights Movement was at an apex with the murder of Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing in 1963. For Simone, the song was her own turning point: she had had enough with the system and decided that this song and getting into the fight for racial equality was more important than pleasing her mostly white fans. Go ahead and listen to the song and really hear not just the lyrics, but the passion and cry for justice in her voice.
While the song became an anthem of the era, it was banned in several southern states who were able to use the profanity in the title as their excuse for not airing it. I have a hard time believing that even if the song was called, “Mississippi the Beautiful”, it would have found any widespread air play.
It’s a shame because the people who needed to hear it the most were the ones unwilling or unable to do so. If there is any solace in this history it’s that the song has quite clearly lived on while segregation is now a thing of the past. I think this is a valuable lesson to anyone who tries to clamp down on expression and ideas, no matter how controversial. That you can’t silence a voice forever – it will always find a crack in the wall to seep it’s way through, getting to people and spreading slowly but surely. Nina Simone was that voice and while she had the fame to back her up, she has inspired countless others with zero notoriety to make their voices heard no matter what the censors might do to silence them.
Note: Nina Simone: Four Women has been extended through Sunday, March 5.