Copyright © WriteSpace, LLC
The longevity and impact of the song is far reaching and timeless. Nina Simone recorded a stark, haunting version of the song on her album Pastel Blues (Verve, 1965) and she went on to become a lightning rod for those on both sides of the Civil Rights movement. Years later, Diana Ross, Sting and Jeff Buckley were among those who recorded the song along with instrumental versions from Herbie Hancock and Marcus Miller. Time magazine selected "Strange Fruit" as the "Song of the Century" in 1999. The song's endurance and significance were highlighted once again in 2017 when vocalist Rebecca Ferguson, a second-place finisher on a British television music competition, X Factor, was asked to perform at the inauguration of the forty-fifth US President. According to CNN, Ferguson agreed with the following caveat, she would perform ..."if you allow me to sing 'Strange Fruit' a song that has huge historical importance, a song that was blacklisted in the United States for being too controversial. A song that speaks to all the disregarded and downtrodden black people in the United States...then I will graciously accept your invitation and see you in Washington." Ferguson's invitation was withdrawn without comment as if to remind us that social attitudes in the US haven't changed as much as we would have hoped.
The Price of Protest: Nina Simone
A veteran of World War II, who fought in the Battle of Normandy and was honorably discharged with the rank of Sergeant, Medgar Evers went on to graduate from Alcorn State University in Mississippi where he was on the football and track teams, the debate club, sang in the choir, and was junior class president. The Evers family was prominent in the community and Evers brother, Charles, was the first African-American mayor elected in Mississippi. Medgar Evers worked to gain admission for African-Americans to the University of Mississippi following the 1954 Supreme Court ruling against segregation (Brown v. Board of Education). He also became an official in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), advocating for voting rights and other integration issues. Evers' widely publicized investigation into the 1955 lynching of fourteen year old Emmett Till brought him to national prominence and made him a revered protagonist in the Civil Rights movement and a prime target for segregationists.
Evers' views were in direct contrast to those of a sixty-thousand member network of white supremacist organizations known as the White Citizens' Councils (later called the Citizens' Councils of America). In his book Let the Trumpet Sound (Harper Collins, 1982), the author Stephen B. Oates describes the mission of the organization as written in a widely distributed flyer: "When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, sling shots and knives." In the early hours of June 12, 1963, Evers was gunned down on the front steps of his home in Jackson, Mississippi. The assassin—Byron De La Beckwith—was a member of White Citizens' Councils and though his guilt was not in question, it took the Mississippi courts thirty-one years to convict him. The Citizens' Councils of America still exists in 2017 and its manifesto was cited by Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who killed nine members of the Charleston, South Carolina, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, during their services in 2015.
Nina Simone's career was well-established in 1963. She had recorded a dozen albums including live performances at the Newport Jazz Festival, New York's Town Hall, The Village Gate, and Carnegie Hall. Civil Rights had not been part of her repertoire up to that point but 1963 was the year that pushed Simone into activism. In a matter of weeks, Evers' assassination was followed by the bombing of the Birmingham, Alabama 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four young black girls and blinding a fifth. By 1965, the FBI had determined that four known members of the Ku Klux Klan were the suspects but no prosecution was initiated for twelve years. Simone's reaction was visceral. In her autobiography I Put a Spell on You (co-written with Stephen Cleary) (Pantheon, 1992), Simone describes her initial reaction. ..."I was trying to make a home-made pistol. I had it in my mind to go out and kill someone. I didn't know who..." As irrational as her response may seem, Simone had quietly endured a struggle with mental health issues and the events of 1963 prompted a volatile reaction. She had been diagnosed as bipolar and suffered from depression; she had once shot and wounded a man and—in a separate incident—misfired trying to shoot another. In this case she channeled her anger into writing the first of several of her protest songs, "Mississippi Goddam," in less than one hour.
Simone performed the song during a series of three Carnegie Hall concerts in 1964 and later released the song on Nina Simone in Concert. It was Simone's debut of the Dutch label Philips Records following several successful years with Colpix Records, a Columbia Pictures—Screen Gems venture. The reaction to the song was mixed. Even while performing "Mississippi Goddam" to predominantly white audiences in New York's Village Gate and Carnegie Hall in 1964, the song was being banned in many Southern States. The ostensive rationale was the use of the word 'Goddam' but with lyrics that included Picket lines/School boycotts/They try to say it's a communist plot/All I want is equality, "Mississippi Goddam" created more than a few philosophical challenges in politically and racially charged South. Promotional radio copies of the single were smashed and sent back to Philips Records. Despite those challenges, Simone performed the song at the Selma-to-Montgomery march and it became a Civil Rights anthem.
In general, protest music of the 1960s had a diplomatic vibe about it, sometimes couching outrage in metaphorical language. Simone, the next door neighbor of Malcolm X in Mount Vernon, New York, breached the peaceful approach just as her neighbor had in rejecting the passive resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. and calling for a more retaliatory response to racial injustice. But Simone's career was damaged by "Mississippi Goddam" and her enthusiasm for the movement waned after the 1968 assassination of King. From the perspective of the Civil Rights movement, Simone left off with 'Nuff Said (RCA Victor, 1968)—an album that included a reprise of the Civil Rights song "Backlash Blues." She left the US for Barbados and then Liberia before finally settling in Paris. Simone's assets evaporated and she played small venues for minimal pay still preferring that life to a return to the US. Simone died in southern France in 2003.
Before and after Simone's Civil Rights benchmark was established, other notable jazz figures had left their mark with recorded works of protest. Beyond Civil Rights, the Vietnam War was fertile ground among artists with a social conscious. In The Politics of Dancing: Jazz and Protest, Part 2 the contributions of Charles Mingus and Max Roach and more modern artists such as Wadada Leo Smith, Billy Bang, Charlie Haden, Carla Bley, Noah Preminger and others will be explored.