Picture this: it's North Carolina, 1943, and girl whose feet don't even touch the ground plays piano for a full-fledged evangelical revival.
Nina Simone was born Eunice Waymon in 1933 in small-town North Carolina and raised in a deeply religious family. Her parents met singing together at church. Her mother, Kate Waymon, was a minister at St. Luke's Black Methodist Episcopal Church when Eunice was a little girl, and the only kind of music allowed in the house was church music. All "real music," which included blues, jazz, and anything that wasn't gospel, was banned (although the Waymons got away with it whenever Kate wasn't at home, plunking out all sorts of tunes on the family piano; see Nadine Cohodas, Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, 11).
The young Eunice Waymon was quickly recognized as a prodigy, and by the time she was ten she held the official position of piano player at her mother's church. She used to play through revivals, the long prayer meetings where people came to renew their faith and expel their sins. "Sinnerman" is a remnant of her memory of those days, when Eunice used to play through the growing commotion as people came to Jesus in her presence (Cohodas 28). "Where you gonna run to?" is the question demanded of all those at a revival: how will you get out of the hole you're in and come to Jesus? And people actually came to Jesus while little Eunice Waymon played.
"Sinnerman" is a dramatized retelling of Exodus that also draws from Psalm 78. In the Psalm, sinners run to God, the rock, to ask redemption.
Psalm 78 retells the story of Exodus: a story of a community that sins and acts against God's will (in Exodus, the community of sinners is in Egypt, and Moses eventually leads the true believers out of Egypt). When they get tired of punishment, some of the sinners go back to God, their "rock," and ask forgiveness. Their pleas are just words, though, and they continue to sin in real life. God unleashes an alarming set of additional punishments on the sinners: locusts, rivers of blood, swarms of flies, and so on (based on the Ten Plagues in Exodus). So much for the rock making a nice hiding place. The line "Where you gonna run to?" becomes more of a taunt than a real question: even the Lord has refused to protect the sinner in this song.
This nightmarish scene is drawn straight from the Hebrew Bible, where fire and brimstone are really just the tip of the (rapidly melting) iceberg.
In Exodus, God turns the Nile River to blood in order to scare the bejeebers out of the oppressive Pharaoh, who has enslaved many of his citizens (that alarming development is just the beginning—we dare you to try to name all Ten Plagues). In Psalm 78, the sinners in the parable encounter a bleeding river, locusts, floods and earthquakes. Both Exodus and Psalms are a part of the shared scriptures of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. (Islam sees Exodus as the revelations of the prophet Moses and Psalms as the revelations of the prophet David, both recognized Muslim prophets.)
Now that you've had a minute to chew on the whole red river thing, let's not get distracted by the fact that an uncomfortable number of the Ten Plagues seem to be scientifically possible. Even for non-believers, the Hebrew Bible's strong imagery is one of its great offerings: the whole book focuses heavily on sin, redemption, and the natural elements. Although extreme natural events in the Hebrew Bible are sometimes interpreted as a literal history, usually the stories are shared as parables with a specific lesson to teach the current-day religious. The plagues and the Jews' Exodus from Egypt led by Moses are re-enacted and recalled every year during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Related ideas about sin, shame and redemption are reflected over and over again in Christian practices, especially through processes like Catholic confession or Evangelical revivals. And for poets and writers, the intensity of this imagery (and its clear religious roots) can make it a compelling way to talk about personal experiences.