How Nina Simone used protest music to challenge racial discrimination

This biographical article is part of JAZZ.FM91’s supplementary research component to expand on The Journey to Jazz and Human Rights documentary podcast series. Click here to find out more.


Eunice Kathleen Waymon, known professionally as Nina Simone, was born on Feb. 21, 1933, to a family of 10 in Tyron, N.C. At around the age of three, Simone began to play piano, and it soon became her dream to become a concert pianist. Demonstrating her inherent talent, Simone began performing at her local church, and made her first classical recital performance debut at the mere age of 12. During this performance, Simone had her first profound encounter with racial discrimination when her parents were forced from the front rows of the recital hall to the back, in order to make room for white patrons. Confused and enraged, Simone repeatedly refused to play until her parents were moved back to their original seats in the front row. This incident was a pivotal moment in Simone’s life, and her profound passion to advocate for Black rights in America ensued. (Her music recorded during the Civil Rights Movement would be a large extension of this.)

In her teenage years, Simone went on to study classical music at the Juilliard School in New York with the help of some of her supporters in her home town. By 1954, she had accepted a job playing piano at the Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, N.J., where the owner expected her to play and sing. At twenty years old, Simone had never sang and performed in public, but after her debut, she became an instant success. Word began to spread about this “prolific songwriter” and “generous interpreter of music from various genres.” Simone often transformed popular tunes of the day into unique syntheses of jazz, blues, gospel, and folk music. She became revered for her “rich, deep velvet vocal tones,” combined with her mastery of the keyboard.

By the age of 24, Simone caught the eye of several recording companies, and after submitting a demo of songs she had recorded in New Hope, Penn., she was signed by Syd Nathan (owner of King Records) to his jazz imprint, Bethlehem Records. Her time with the record label was short lived, and in 1959, Simone relocated to New York City and signed by Joyce Selznick, a talent scout for Colpix Records. Soon after her debut LP for the label (titled The Amazing Nina Simone), she began to play at her first major NYC venue, the Manhattan Town Hall.

Simone’s stay with Colpix records resulted in nine successful studio albums. It was during the Civil Rights Movement era of the 1960s that some of Simone’s most powerful and notable songs were recorded. Some of these include I Put a Spell on You (1964), To Be Young, Gifted and Black (1966) and, of course, protest songs such as Mississippi Goddamn (1963). After fading from the radar during much of the 1970s, she made a comeback in Europe with her song My Baby Just Cares for Me in 1987. This song put her back on the map in smaller countries around the world, and also in the United States. By the 1980s, her selection of songs “ranged from rock and roll to Beatles and Bee Gees tunes,” including her rendition of the song To Love Somebody.

By the 1990s, Simone had lived and travelled in countries throughout Europe, had two marriages behind her, and an undeniably successful career. At the age of 70, she died in her sleep at her home in France on April 21, 2003.


Feeling Good (1965)

Feeling Good (also referred to as Feelin’ Good) is a song written by English composers Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley for the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. It was first performed on stage by Cy Grant in 1964, and the following year, Simone recorded the song on her album I Put a Spell on You. According to writer Jessica Shelton, the song itself instills the idea that the narrator is “feeling good,” as in “enjoying peace and happiness after overcoming adversity.”

Birds flyin’ high, you know how I feel
Sun in the sky, you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by, you know how I feel
It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me
Yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, oh
And I’m feelin’ good

Essentially, the idea put forth by the track is this sense of a “new day” and “new life” for the singer/narrator. The presumed trials and tribulations of yesterday are not referred to in the lyrics, but rather, the sense of today marking “the start of something new” is apparent in the style and delivery of the song. Although various artists have also covered this song over the last few decades, Simone’s rendition “by and large has remained the most-popular.”


Strange Fruit (1939)

Written by a Jewish communist named Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the one of the first popular songs to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. It was first performed and recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939.

While the powerful workers’ anthems of the labour movement were meant to stir blood, Strange Fruit chilled it. “That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard,” Simone later marvelled. “Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country.”

Southern trees ‘Bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
And blood at the roots
Black bodies
Swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’
From the poplar trees

At the core of the song’s message was the violence that was carried out against Black Americans during this period. In the south especially, Black men were often publicly shamed and lynched — the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abe Smith in Indiana in 1930 inspired Meeropol to write Strange Fruit.


Backlash Blues (1967)

Simone’s symbolic song Backlash Blues was recorded in France in 1967. The lyrics to the song were written by Simone’s friend, poet Langston Hughes. The song is a 12-bar piece which opens with an instrumental, and Simone posing questions to “Mr. Backlash.” By utilizing the 12-bar blues style, Simone is “appealing to the entire African-American community to create a united front. She is also implicitly suggesting that the community should draw strength from its rich heritage.” Simone passionately uses the song to paint an image of the overt racism in the United States:

You give me second class houses / And second class schools / Do you think all colored folks / Are just second class fools?

She then gives a civil rights “warning,” and then shows aspiration for civil rights for all citizens in the final verse:

But the world is big / Big and bright and round / And it’s full of folks like me / Who are black, yellow, beige and brown

Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash / Just What do you think I got to lose / I’m gonna leave you / With the backlash blues / You’re the one will have the blues not me / Just wait and see


Mississippi Goddamn (1964)

Mississippi Goddam was written and recorded by Simone (who later announced the anthem to be her “first civil rights song”) in 1964. It was released on her album Nina Simone in Concert. The song captures Simone’s response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi, as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala.

The song begins jauntily, with a show-tunes feel, but demonstrates its political purpose with its refrain, “Alabama’s got me so upset, Tennessee’s made me lose my rest, and everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.

Keep on sayin’ “go slow” … to do things gradually would bring more tragedy. 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!

Mississippi Goddam is so powerful (and is considered Simone’s first “protest” song) as her raw anger and frustration over the treatment of her people is at the forefront of the record. In her live performances, the emotion on Simone’s face and in her voice is undeniable.

In 2019, Mississippi Goddam was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

 

References:

Dorian Lynskey. “Strange Fruit: the first great protest song.” The Guardian, Feb. 16, 2011. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2011/feb/16/protest-songs-billie-holiday-strange-fruit.

Graham Reid. “Nina Simone: Backlash Blues (1967)” Elsewhere.co, 2020. https://www.elsewhere.co.nz/fromthevaults/5383/nina-simone-backlash-blues-1967/.

The Blues. “Backlash Blues – Nina Simone and the Civil Rights Blues Movement.” Musiqology.com, Oct. 13, 2009. https://musiqology.com/blog/2009/10/13/backlash-blues-nina-simone-and-the-civil-rights-blues-movement/.

Jessica Shelton. “Feeling Good: by Nina Simone” Song Meanings and Facts, May 16, 2019. https://www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/feeling-good-by-nina-simone/.