You are in Mississippi Now

There are four of us, none older than 18, sitting around a small table sipping what seems to us an exotic tea drink in a Greenwich Village coffee house. We have come here on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in 1964 in search of the Greenwich Village experience. Mostly what we know about the village we learned on Hootenanny and other television shows. We picked a place out of the newspaper without much thought, but we have gotten very lucky. We have found one of the major places where folk music is flourishing, the Gaslight Café on McDougal Street. It’s about half-way through the evening and we don’t know that yet. We have watched three pleasant folk acts and are enjoying ourselves, thinking perhaps that this is how the rest of the evening will go. That will be all right with us. We have gotten what we came for, but we are about to get far more than we imagined was possible.

In a few minutes Phil Ochs will take the stage. Ochs is a topical singer.  He writes songs based on the stories we read in the newspaper about Cuba, Vietnam and, most importantly for me on this night, about race relations in the South. He mixes in some traditional poems and older songs he has adapted to balance the program, but as his first album declares in its title, it’s mostly All the News that’s Fit to Sing. He devotes two songs to Mississippi, where I had spent a few days the previous summer.  The first, “Too Many Martyrs,” is a song of mourning for fallen heroes Medgar Evers and Emmett Till.  The verses are as prosaic as the news, but Ochs wrenches some poetry out of the chorus:

Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies, too many empty words were said.
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh, let it never be again.

The second song, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” is angry, probably the angriest most outspoken song I have ever heard. It slaps me in the face and I don’t miss a word. I don’t know very much about world affairs yet, but I have a developing understanding of race relations in the South. The song devotes verses to the government, the people, the schools, the police, the courts, the laws and the churches, each connected to the whole by the repetition of a simple chorus.

Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of

I had gone to Mississippi a few months before to visit with two boys from Ole Miss who had been my roommates that summer while we were selling books door to door. Bill and John came from  two small towns in Holmes County, a few miles north of Canton, where much civil rights organizing was occurring. My visit came during the Democratic  National Convention, and much attention was focused on the attempt of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to be seated in place of the all-white delegation of the state party.  The atmosphere in Mississippi was very charged. Still, my friends’ families were relaxed and kind to me.

On the second day, I had dinner at John’s house. His mother was a lovely woman who lived in a gracious house that stood on a steep hill outside their little town. Her husband was dead, but her other son farmed their land. Dinner was going well when my friend John, an actor by nature, started a story from his book-selling experiences. It involved a black family, but it was a story about selling, not a story about race. In telling the tale, John improvised the dialogue with the customer whom he referred to as Mrs. Jones. About halfway through the story, his mother stopped him. “John,” she said, “you don’t have to call her Mrs. Jones, you are in Mississippi now.”  It was one of those awful Southern moments that just appear out of nowhere to leave a long scar in its wake.  I had seen this happen many times since I was a child, but none stunned me as much as “You are in Mississippi now.”

I was ready for Phil Ochs. On the morning after we heard him, I bought his first album, and by Christmas, I had a Bob Dylan album. By the end of February, I had all four of Dylan’s albums. After that I bought them one at a time when they were released.  I also listened to many folk singers in a short period of time: Pete Seeger, Dave Van Ronk,  Eric Anderson, Tom Rush, Judy Collins, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Odetta, and many others. Many of these singers did songs about the civil rights movement.

Nearly all of the folk singers were white, and I didn’t know enough about black music to hear the cry of freedom in rhythm and blues.  In my senior year, I had my first close black friend, Gil Glover, one of the first of seven blacks to attend my college. Gil enlarged my world in many ways including introducing me to Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, and Gil Scott-Heron. Nina Simone sang some great songs about the civil rights struggle, but because she came from the jazz tradition, her work was not as widely known as it should have been. One of her songs was devoted to Mississippi and was written about the same time as Ochs’ “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” It’s a simple song.

She introduces it like this:

The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddam
And I mean every word of it.

And the song ends like this:

Everybody knows about Mississippi.
Everybody knows about Alabama.
Everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam.

For me, the 1960s began on the night before Thanksgiving in 1964 in the Gaslight Café when I heard Phil Ochs and found some songs with legs strong enough to stand on, songs that finally taught me that the answer to “You’re in Mississippi now” was “Mississippi Goddam.” The decade ended in early 1971, when I was living in Albany, New York. There at a screening of a film, I heard for the first time Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free.”

Well I wish I could be
Like a bird in the sky.
How sweet it would be
If I found I could fly.
Oh I’d soar to the sun
And look down at the sea.
Then I’d sing ’cause I’d know.
I’d know how it feels,
I’d know how it feels to be free.

I realized that day the song described not only the plight of a black person in the South, but, in a different way, my own plight there in New York. I had run almost a thousand miles away to be free of my home and of the South only to discover that running away just showed me a longing I did not know I had. The South was for me a place like the Tobacco Road  of John D. Loudermilk’s song, a place I hated for all its many sins but loved because it was where I came from. I have spent most of my life bouncing back and forth between the South and points East, North and West trying to make peace with these conflicting impulses:  “Tobacco Road, I hate you ‘cause you’re filthy, but I love you ‘cause you’re home.”

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