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My favourite Black Freedom Struggle Protest Songs

May 24, 2011

 Nina Simone – ‘Mississippi Goddam’

Nina Simone

In September 1963, a Ku Klux Klan group bombed a Civil Rights activist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four girls and injuring many others. This was the moment Nina Simone decided it was time for her to take part in black activism. This terrible event was an inspiration for Simone’s song ‘Mississippi Goddam’. She “suddenly realised what it was to be black in America in 1963” and it drove her to write her first Civil Rights song.[1] Nina Simone’s explicit lyrics showed the anger and frustration that she felt against the US government, which was trying to gradually move to equality between blacks and whites, but to her, “doing things gradually” was only going to “bring more tragedy”.

Bob Dylan – ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’


Around the same time, another musician presented his opinion about black segregation in a protest song. But this time it was a white artist: Bob Dylan. He was only twenty-one years old when he wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ – a song that was to become an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. He performed this song in August 1963 at the Great March on Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. When Sam Cooke heard Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, he was fascinated by the song and somehow ashamed to realise that a young white man had written it and not himself. He was challenged and soon after wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. The song, which revealed Cooke’s gospel roots, has over time become a symbol of the Civil Rights movement. Songs have a unique way of getting a message across to a wider audience and these singers used music to share their opinion, anger, and feelings and to spread the word, thus helping the growth of the Civil Rights movement. Barack Obama paraphrased Cooke in his inauguration speech: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America.”

Sam Cooke – ‘A Change is Gonna Come’

Nina Simone did not stop her fight for black freedom after writing ‘Mississippi Goddam’: “In the decade that followed, she was known to have supported the struggle for black freedom in the United States earlier, more directly, and in a more outspoken manner around the world than had many African American entertainers.”[2] And one of my favourite songs of hers is actually ‘Backlash Blues’, another song against racism and inequality. The lyrics were taken from a poem of the same name by Langston Hughes – an old friend of hers also involved in the black freedom struggle. I really love this song and every single other song on the album Nina Simone Sings the Blues which I strongly recommend to you all!

Nina Simone – ‘Backlash Blues’

There is a live version on youtube in which she improvises a lot and which is so different from the original song on the album, but because they are both so good I couldn’t decide which to choose… So there you go!

[1] Simone, Nina. “Mississippi goddam” in In Concert – I Put a Spell on You (compact disk: Polygram Records: 1990).

[2] Feldstein, Ruth. “‘I Don’t Trust You Anymore’ Nina Simone, Culture, and Black Activism” in The Journal of American History, 91.4 (2005): pp. 1350-51.

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