"Did you know that the human voice is the only pure instrument? That it has notes no other instrument has? It's like being between the keys of a piano. The notes are there, you can sing them, but they can't be found on any instrument. That's like me. I live in between this. I live in both worlds, the black and white world. I am Nina Simone, the star, and I am not here. I'm a woman. My secret self is between these worlds." So wrote Nina Simone in a letter to one of her brothers (Cohodas 8). This defiant statement about her status as a person who spent her life between worlds is a great frame to help us understand "Sinnerman" and its meaning in Simone's life.
As we have discussed already, "Sinnerman" is hard to put a finger on. Is it gospel, blues, or classical? Is it personal, political, or spiritual? Like much of Nina Simone's work, it seems to be all those things at once, dwelling in between several worlds with the result of creating something completely new. It is also about the process of a revival, of completely losing your identity in order to break through to something new.
Like "Sinnerman," Nina Simone herself defied categorization, and that defiance was, at the end of it all, precisely what gave her such a broad appeal. Langston Hughes, a friend and mentor to the singer, described her in a column he published in 1960: "She is strange. So are the plays of Brendan Behan, Jean Genet, and Bertolt Brecht. She is far out, and at the same time common. So are raw eggs in Worcestershire and "The Connection"... She is different. So was Billie Holiday, St. Francis, and John Donne (…) She is a club member, a colored girl, an Afro-American, a homey from Down Home. She has hit the Big Town, and the big towns, the LP discs and the TV shows—and she is still from down home. She did it mostly all herself. Her name is Nina Simone. She has flair, but no air. She has class, but does not wear it on her shoulders. She is unique. You either like her or you don't. If you don't, you won't. If you do---wheee-ouueu! You do!"