Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi, goddamn
I can't stand the pressure much longer
Somebody say a prayer”
These are the first lines of the song Mississippi Goddamn, Nina Simone’s most controversial track and her first civil rights song. The song was written under an hour in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, where four young Black girls died in a white supremacist terror attack organized by the Ku Klux Klan; as well as to the assassination of the civil rights activist Medgar Evers.
Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee are specifically mentioned due to their relevance as settings in the Civil Rights movement which began in the mid-1950s and continued into the late 1960s, consisting in acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent protest like boycotts, sit-ins and marches against racial segregation and discrimination in the United States of America.
Jazz songs served as a tool to condemn the injustices, as well as voicing the feelings of the artists in the name of an entire community. They are testimonies of the cruel events happened during that time and that serve us to never forget the lives, the despair and the fighting spirits of people that simply wanted to be treated as human beings.
“Strange fruit” is also another song that can be an example of what was just mentioned. It was written by Abel Meeropol and sang by Billie Holiday as a response to the lynching of African Americans. Used to taunt and terrorize the communities of color, it would involve criminal accusations, often dubious, against a black American, an arrest, and the assembly of a “lynch mob”. Victims would be seized and subjected to every imaginable manner of physical torment, with the torture usually ending with being hung from a tree and set on fire:
“Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze”
Terrifying how people would bring children and picnic basket to these murders, or even make postcards out of the photos taken, or dismember the victim and take pieces of their flesh and bone as souvenirs.
As we can see just from these two songs, jazz is not just swing, syncopation, improvisation. Jazz is not simply music. Jazz is much more. Jazz hands down to us all the fears, the angriness, the faults and wrongs that belong to a part of history that we just read in books, watch on documentaries and learn briefly at school.