Listen: Nina Simone’s iconic show at 1966 Newport Jazz Festival

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“You’ve Got to Learn” was long held in the private collection of Newport Jazz Festival Founder George Wein. Credit: YouTube.

“You’ve Got to Learn,” a live recording of Nina Simone’s set at the 1966 Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island, is now widely available. On the record, you can hear the audience gasp when the High Priestess of Soul begins her famous protest song “Mississippi Goddamn,” and the festival emcee calming the crowd’s fervor by announcing she would return for an encore. 

The album comes in honor of what would’ve been Simone’s 90th birthday, and it was discovered after the 2021 death of Newport Jazz Festival Founder George Wein. The 57-year-old recording had been kept in his private collection, which was among items donated to the U.S. Library of Congress. 

The title track was originally released in 1965 and was “a perfect companion to the moment of grievance and strategy” around the Civil Rights Movement, says Shana L. Redmond, a Columbia University professor who wrote the album’s liner notes. 

Just weeks before the Newport event, Simone had performed in Jackson, Mississippi, at a fundraiser for the 1966 March Against Fear, a pro-integration demonstration started by James Meredith, who was shot during his march.

“What I argue about this album is that it's full of love songs, even those songs like ‘Mississippi Goddamn,’ which she was already well known for both — lauded for her courage and also vilified for the same and having produced that song. Even that song to my ears, especially knowing the events that preceded it, is a love song. I think she was taking from this moment in Mississippi — all of the courage and the strength of having been surrounded by people who were committed to similar ideas of revolution, similar ideas of love and caring and sharing.”

In this rendition of “Mississippi Goddamn,” Simone famously changed the opening lyrics to refer to the 1965 Watts Riots. (“Tennessee has made me lose my rest” became “Watts has made me lose my rest.”)

“She has fundamentally reinvented herself, and so like ‘You've Got to Learn’ — which is a translation of a French song — you have her also reinventing, translating, riffing on her own compositions on this album, which is part of the joy and absolute exhilaration that [comes with] live albums, but especially those by Nina Simone,” says Redmond.

Co-written by Abbey Lincoln, “Blues for Mama” is a reflection of Simone’s identity as a Black woman and the challenges Black women face, including domestic violence and abandonment.

“Nina was very clear, by this point, of the fact that her intersectional identity was going to absolutely play a part in her music — because her music was, in so many ways, political speech for her always and forever.”

She continues, “It was very much a part of how she understood her work, but also was reflective of her own experiences in her private life.”

More: Nina Simone in conversation with Tom Schnabel on Morning Becomes Eclectic



  • Shana L. Redmond - professor of English and comparative literature, Columbia University