In a Nutshell
"I feel emotion is dying, what we feel is dying, everything is so orderly," Nina Simone said in an interview in 1965. "Raising your voice has become a crime! I want to evoke joy, sadness, pain" (Nadine Cohodas, Princess Noire
Although Nina Simone was deeply embroiled in the Civil Rights Movement
and undergoing a political awakening of her own in the mid-1960s, the last thing she wanted to do was write predictable protest songs that summed up the experience of being a black woman in a couple of minutes that made for easy radio play. Instead, she recorded song after song that defied categories in favor of evoking intense emotions. And she rarely settles for a single emotion, but manages an enchanting mixture of anger, delight, loss and rage. "Sinnerman," a ten-minute tour de force based on a traditional spiritual song is just the noisy rollercoaster of joy, sadness and pain she was going for. What, if anything, is expressed by the song's frenetic noisemaking?
About the Song
||Musician(s)||Nina Simone (piano, vocals, arrangement), Al Schackman (guitar, harmonica), Rudy Stevenson (guitar, flute), Lisle Atkinson (bass), Bobby Hamilton (drums)
Explore the ways this song connects with the world and with other topics on Shmoop
At the height of Civil Rights
strife, Nina Simone was experiencing her own emotional tumult, beginning with a political awakening in the early 1960s
. Rather than create a simple narrative of protest or defiance (though she did write some compelling protest songs), "Sinnerman" takes us deep into another world—the world of fervent religious faith. "Sinnerman" is about a Christian revival, the story of a person "coming through" to God. But can it really be considered a religious song?
Nina Simone was inspired by people like James Baldwin
, whose writing had already probed deeply into the role of the church in forming identity for African Americans. Langston Hughes
, a mentor and close friend to Simone, wrote passionately about the emotional experience of oppression, tying it to history and tradition. Simone combines these impulses by bringing back the mood of the impassioned Black Methodist Episcopal revival meetings of her childhood. "Sinnerman" transforms a spiritual gospel song into a lengthy emotional diatribe. Maybe it's about her political awakening as a black woman in what she would call "a country run by white people…and a world run by men." But it could just as easily be about a bad dream she had once, or about a religious breakthrough. It is, after all, a pretty classic "come to Jesus" tune if you really listen to it.
Answering the question "what is 'Sinnerman' about?" is almost as tricky as answering the question "who is Nina Simone?" And that might be just where the song's beauty lies.
On the Charts
peaked at #8 on the R&B Albums chart and #139 on the Billboard 200 in 1965.
In 2003, Felix da Housecat's remix of "Sinnerman" made it up to #10
on the Dance/Club Play charts.