Nina Simone’s legendary 1966 performance at the Newport Jazz Festival has been talked about in small circles with awe for half a century. This is due in part to two things: Her set was so captivating that the audience wouldn’t let the next act on the stage; they hooted and cajoled the festival’s emcee until he finally announced she’d be back for an encore. It was also for the revamped version of her passionate “Mississippi Goddam.” For completists, fans, and anyone who even vaguely loves Simone’s music, the Newport “Mississippi Goddam” has been like a vapor in the wind: often discussed, rarely heard.
You’ve Got to Learn is the first-ever release of this specific Newport set, in honor of what would have been Simone’s 90th birthday. Of course, there’s no shortage of recordings of Simone playing live. From her first time at Newport in 1960 all the way to her sets at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s in the ’80s, the stage is where her endless artistry shone brightest, and where her often unpredictable stage demeanor deepened our understanding of a brilliant and troubled artist. But this set captures a moment at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, after the marches in Selma and Jackson where Simone performed, but before many of her friends like Langston Hughes or Martin Luther King Jr. had died. On You’ve Got to Learn, Simone renders familiar songs in unique arrangements, and its political urgency translates through a particular serenity in her performance, like she was both eye and the hurricane.
As the set begins to rapt applause, Simone goes back to the roots of blues, grounding each track in the foundation from whence they came. The wrenching title song—recorded with strings and soothing background vocals for 1965’s I Got a Spell On You—is presented here in its true form, a powerfully sad and gritty blueprint for suppressing the pain of a broken heart until it scars over. On “I Loves You Porgy,” the George Gershwin tune that made her a star, she sounds stranded in the muck of human emotions. In an interlude introducing the commanding “Blues For Mama,” she sets the scene in her honeyed, regal speaking voice: “There is an old porch, and there’s an old man, and there’s a beat-up guitar and a broken bottle. There are flies all around, there is molasses all around, and he is composing his tune on a hot afternoon.” In that political moment, if inadvertently, she traces the long road from the origins of the blues to the fight for liberation, but also brings it home: “It will appeal to a certain type of woman who’s had this kind of experience.” Simone, too—the pain is just at the surface, but she’ll let it all out on the piano.
You’ve Got to Learn is worth it for the new “Mississippi Goddam” alone. Simone had written the song in response to the racist violence plaguing the South in the summer of 1963—the assassination of attorney and Civil Rights icon Medgar Evers in his Jackson, Mississippi, driveway, by a Ku Klux Klan member; and the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, where four KKK members in Birmingham, Alabama, planted a dynamite bomb that murdered four young Black girls. The ensuing furor over a Black woman singing a curse word in a song demanding equality in the era of Jim Crow resulted in radio stations breaking the vinyl singles in half and sending them back to the record label. But their anger couldn’t come close to Simone’s own, which channeled that of a nation. “We all wanted to say it,” observed the legendary activist and comedian Dick Gregory, in the 2015 documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? “She said it.”
The most popular rendition of “Mississippi Goddam,” recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1964, is a knowing bait and switch: her anger towards the murderous cruelty visited upon Black Americans is, at first, expressed mainly in words. She sings, conversationally and almost cheerily, over her bright chords and lets the tension build as the song spreads out, and then the cloudy key shift of the bridge: subjugation, despair, urgency, and finally, existential revolt. It hasn’t lost an iota of its power, but it says a lot about both the era and her Carnegie audience what makes the audience gasp in shock is Simone saying the word “goddam” aloud.
Two years after the Carnegie Hall performance, in Newport, Rhode Island, “Mississippi Goddam” was a rallying cry, and Simone decided to sideline the rousing showtune rhythm, instead swinging deep into a blues riff. In this accounting of the chaos, she swaps out Tennessee for California in the lyrics to reflect the Watts Rebellion of ’65, “sending the listener on a wave across the growing expanse of national violence,” as the professor and author Shana L. Redmond puts it in the liner notes. Simone’s delivery is especially conversational here, her voice curling at the edge of each phrase with a scratchy, exasperated depth. But even at her most powerful, she never quite betrays the measured nature of her rage, an enigmatic quality that permeated her music as well as her life. Her brilliance stemmed from both studiousness and tumult, her technical virtuosity an outlet for the personal pain she endured, whether at the violent hands of her first husband and manager, or through the struggles of her long-undiagnosed bipolar disorder.
Across seven songs and 33 minutes, it’s hard to feel like we’ve discovered a new fold, wrinkle, or tear in Nina Simone’s richly cataloged life and music. But even in its brevity, You’ve Got to Learn is a hearty document of how music can motivate a political moment and how the most crucial of these songs reverberate throughout history, particularly as history coils in on itself, repeating the same cruel pattern. Simone’s music and voice still have the ability to deliver us toward righteousness.
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