In the mid-1960s several popular musicians wrote protest songs that condemned Mississippi racism and violence as problems that all Americans should recognize and confront. In particular, Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, and Phil Ochs wrote and recorded songs that publicized injustice and sought to inspire change. Some of the songs, particularly Dylan’s “Oxford Town,” became important as part of the state’s image.
None of the three musicians was from Mississippi, but all went to Mississippi in the early 1960s. Dylan helped load trucks with food bound for Mississippi’s poor people and visited in 1964. Both he and Simone participated in fundraising concerts, and Dylan sang at the March on Washington. Ochs wrote of his time in the state in “You Should Have Been Down in Mississippi,” a song that addressed the complacency of many Americans by reminding them of conditions in the Magnolia State.
“Oxford Town” appeared on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), which also contained the protest songs “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Merchants of War.” The fast-paced “Oxford Town” lasts less than two minutes and consists of five rhyming quatrains. A quirky song Dylan described as “a banjo tune I play on the guitar,” it raised the issue of racism and violence at the University of Mississippi and the need for national action. Two quatrains deal with James Meredith, who faced “guns and clubs . . . all because his face was brown.” He “Come to the door and he couldn’t get in / All because of the color of his skin.” The song shifts from Meredith to a narrator’s story of fear and uncertainty: “Me and my gal and my gal’s son / We got met with a tear gas bomb / Don’t even know why we come / Goin’ back where we come from.” But the song ends with a clear charge to a national audience: “Two men died in the Mississippi moon / Somebody better investigate soon.” Dylan has returned to Mississippi themes throughout his career. “Only a Pawn in Their Game” (1964), concerns Medgar Evers’s murder, while other Dylan songs refer to Highway 61, levees, Robert Johnson, Bukka White, and other blues legends. “Mississippi” (2001) laments, “Only one thing that we did that was wrong / Stayed in Mississippi a day too long.”
Simone, a North Carolina native who became a professional singer in Philadelphia and then New York, wrote “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the 1963 murders of Evers in Jackson and of four girls in a Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing. She performed it at New York’s Carnegie Hall in March 1964 and released the live recording later that year on the album Nina Simone in Concert. The song provides a fascinating study of the issues involved at that moment in the civil rights movement. Changing rhythms and bouncing from melody to melody, the upbeat piano tune does not sound the way a protest song might be expected to sound. The lyrics address the issue of violence versus nonviolence, the long-standing African American belief in a promised land, the follies of the traditional language of uplift and respectability, the foolishness of critics of the movement who “try to say it’s a communist plot,” Simone’s frustration with religion, and her impatience with people who assumed that desegregation was the movement’s only goal: “You don’t have to live next to me / Just give me my equality.” Growing frustration showed in both by the memorable title and by the powerful challenge near the song’s end: “This whole country is full of lies / You’re all gonna die and die like flies.” The song pays tribute to Mississippi’s blues history and intersperses blues lyrics with specific references to the terrors activists were facing: “Hound dog on my trail / School children sitting in jail / Black cat cross my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last.” And the lyrics twice juxtapose calls for activists to move slowly with the longtime complaints that African Americans worked too slowly. Civil rights workers loved the song and loved Simone for her persistent efforts to raise funds for the movement, to perform for activists, and to keep up the fight even when her actions cost her concerts and record sales.
Ochs, a folksinger, grew up in Texas and New York and spent one week in Mississippi—the week in June 1964 when Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, and Michael Schwerner were murdered in Neshoba County. Ochs avoided the complexities of Dylan’s use of multiple perspectives or Simone’s quick movement from one topic to another and wrote straightforward melodies with clear lyrics. The chorus of the “Ballad of Oxford (Jimmy Meredith),” repeats, “There was blood, red blood on their hands,” and “There was hate, cold hate in their hearts.” “Going down to Mississippi” dramatizes activists’ fears about traveling among armed opponents. Most memorably, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” offers detailed criticisms of whites who rejected outsiders’ criticisms; schools that were “teaching all the children that they don’t have to care”; police, judges, and laws that supported white supremacy; and churches where “the fallen face of Jesus is choking in the dust.” Ochs went beyond Dylan’s suggestion that someone should investigate Mississippi violence, concluding instead, “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of.” In 1971 Ochs decided that the terror he saw in Mississippi was more of a national issue and renamed the song “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.”
These songs and others inspired some protesters and contributed to the image of mid-1960s Mississippi as a terrorist state.
- Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (2007)
- Bob Dylan website, www.bobdylan.com
- Marc Eliot, Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs (1978; reprint, 1994)
- Benjamin Filene, Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music (2000)
- Shana L. Redmon, Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora (2013)
- Brian Ward, Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness, and Race Relations (1998)