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"Some of my most fantastic experiences—experiences that really shake me, now that I think of them—happened in the church when we'd have these revival meetings," Nina Simone told Ebony in 1969. "I'd be playiNnNnNnNnNnNng, boy! I'd really be playing. I loved it! Folks would be shoutin' all over the place. Now that's my background!"
The intensity that Nina Simone brought to this interview is the same intensity she brought to the long studio session that produced 1965's "Sinnerman." Her biographer, Nadine Cohodas, calls "Sinnerman" a "frantic plea for absolution" (Princess Noire: The Tumultuous Reign of Nina Simone, 173). The Pastel Blues liner notes describe the song as "Nina magnificently catching the hysteria of a soul lost." The song is a ten-minute descent into a personal world that feels like it is falling apart, and falling fast. By the time the song reaches a climax, Simone is pretty much howling like a wolf, and the mike picks up the sounds of her breathing heavily. Despite its length and consummate strangeness, "Sinnerman" has been one of her most popular (and most sampled) tunes over the years.
What is "Sinnerman"? Is it blues, gospel, jazz, or classical? Is it a song about one woman's experience of breaking through and finding Jesus, or a song condemning a whole society for its sins? What does Nina Simone mean when she sings about the Biblical, otherworldly images of a bleeding river, or a boiling sea? One thing that is obvious about "Sinnerman" is that the song defies categorization. Listening to it is an experience, and the song fills you with a vibrating feeling of descent followed by a noisy breakthrough. But as we follow Nina Simone up to the rock, down to the river, and all up and down the piano keys, what are we breaking through to?
It's easy to trace the roots of the song to Nina Simone's days as Eunice Waymon, a musical prodigy growing up in small-town North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s. Her mother, Kate Waymon, was an impassioned believer and minister who wanted to help draw sinful souls out of the darkness and into the light, and her church, St. Luke's, was the kind of church where people would sometimes fall on the floor convulsing during a revival, trying to expel the devil from their sinful bodies. The young Eunice Waymon wasn't just in attendance at these dramatic scenes as a kid—she was the piano player, hired at age 10 because of her obvious genius at the piano. It was during these influential revivals that she first heard "Sinnerman."
Eunice Waymon grew up in the thick of the Jim Crow South before Civil Rights, and from a very early age she had an unusual ambition: she wanted to be the first black woman concert pianist. Although she was raised strictly on church gospel, the world of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin became her chosen home. Her natural skill and perfect pitch won her piano lessons paid for by a wealthy white donor by the time she was eleven, and at seventeen she spent a summer in New York City studying at the renowned Juilliard School. At eighteen, Waymon devoted herself fully to an audition for the highly competitive Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, vying against dozens of others for a total of three spots for classical piano students. When she was rejected from the school (and heard rumors that the rejection was racially motivated), she was crushed—but it also led to the birth of a new career and eventually a new identity, that of Nina Simone.
The stage persona "Nina Simone" came about when the struggling young musician decided to start gigging in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Still recovering from her rejection from Curtis, Waymon continued to devote her afternoons to practicing Bach and Beethoven and taught piano lessons for money. As she struggled to keep afloat, she learned from a student that Atlantic City was a place where a decent piano player could make good money—and not piano teacher money, but something better than that. Although Simone didn't drink for religious reasons (she had actually never been inside a bar before she set foot in her first Atlantic City workplace), she braved the commute from Philadelphia to start an underground career in the tourist hotspot. Fearful that her religious mother would find out she was playing the bar circuit, Eunice Waymon dubbed herself Nina Simone for her first bill without thinking twice. She was hired to work shifts that lasted from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m. with fifteen minutes off per hour, and after a first night at the piano, her employer let her know that she would also have to start singing.
Out of these first gigs came a musical style that melded a formal classical style with Simone's informal musical background: she was inspired by gospel, hymnals, and the blues and jazz she and her siblings had snuck in while her mother wasn't listening. Over her eclectic piano playing came her even more eclectic voice, deep and raspy in contrast to the controlled singsong of the piano. She sang from the gut, and from her very earliest days much of her performance was improvised. Her signature style stood out—way out—in Atlantic City, but people liked it. These nighttime performances developed quickly into an unexpected career, and Eunice Waymon, the girl who wanted nothing other than to be a classical pianist, slowly disappeared. The reign of Nina Simone began.
"Sinnerman" is very clearly about some kind of personal tumult, and in the years that followed, many came to identify personal tumult with the life of Nina Simone. As her wild performances brought her fully into the public eye, her public behavior was also unpredictable and erratic. From the beginning she was willing to give the evil eye or a dismissing word to anyone who talked drunkenly through her late night bar shows. She was dismissive or even attacking with reporters, and something of an ice queen with fans. She threw herself into Civil Rights and black pride activism in the 1960s, and by the early 1970s, she had completely rejected American society. She moved to Africa and then Europe to live in self-induced exile for the rest of her years. While the public struggled to get a grasp on a clear, digestible image of Nina Simone, her music provided a more complex answer to their questions. It could not be defined any more easily than she could. At the same time, her music seemed to find a way to tell the raw, whole truth about her emotions, taking audiences deep into the often-agonizing world of "the real" Nina Simone.
In 1965, "the real" Nina Simone was angry. Beginning around 1960, the Civil Rights Movement had deeply impacted her, opening her up to the idea that many of her struggles in life had happened because she was marginalized by society. As she met more people who were involved with Civil Rights activism, her identity and history as a black woman became increasingly important to her work. She met James Baldwin, the groundbreaking author and anti-racist activist, in 1961. She also befriended the poet Langston Hughes, and traveled to Nigeria with him and a group of well-known African Americans. She began to help with fundraising events for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition. But it wasn't until 1963, when pastor and Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers was gunned down in Mississippi and four young black girls were killed in a church bombing in Alabama, that the meaning of the movement really hit home.
"I sat struck dumb in my den like St. Paul on the road to Damascus," Simone said of the moment when she learned about the Birmingham church bomb. "I suddenly realized what it is to be black in America in 1963…it came in a rush of fury, hatred and determination. The truth entered into me and I 'came through'" (Cohodas 144). This moment of revelation was her personal revival, an experience that shook her in the way she imagined the people at St. Luke's were being shaken by the Lord when she was a kid.
Another Nina Simone was born, and this one was not the quirky concert pianist with the deep blues voice, but the angry Civil Rights activist and black pride advocate. After her husband talked her out of getting a weapon and going out to take vengeance for the Birmingham deaths, she agreed that violence was not the answer and instead penned her famous song "Mississippi Goddam," the first in what would become a personal arsenal of grinding Civil Rights and Black Power songs. These were not tunes to sing at protests, but diatribes about the real conditions faced by blacks in America, especially black women. In the 1960s, Simone recalls in her autobiography, "I started to think about myself as a black person in a country run by white people and a woman in a world run by men" (Ruth Feldstein, "Nina Simone's Border Crossings," in Race, Nation and Empire in American History , 217). And this feeling drove her to a new kind of music, a new sound, and a new mood.
Her politics were just as difficult to pin down as her music: they sometimes flew in the face of acceptable "liberal" Civil Rights activism by expressing unmitigated anger. Even her identity itself was a challenge to audiences and observers: she was an aggressive, sometimes masculine woman, who wore floor-length gowns and played classical piano while singing raspy, heavy, soulful music that seemed to be as much jazz, blues, or show tunes as gospel or "soul." She was concerned with being a woman, but approached womanhood in a non-conventional way in her music. She was concerned with being black, but she never devoted every song to "the race problem," as it was called with those days. Even though identity politics was on the rise, Simone never fully participated in the simple categories of identity expected of her. So, at the height of her own involvement in the Civil Rights Movement, an impassioned version of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" (a song about lynching and racism) appeared on the same record as "Sinnerman"—and it's hard to say which one tells us more about how Nina Simone saw race relations in that era.
At this point, you might be thinking, huh? How is "Sinnerman" about race relations? Well, not to be difficult, but the point is that it is and it isn't. We know that Nina Simone was impassioned about racial justice, and we know that she saw her own political awakening as an equivalent to "coming through" to God the way that people did in the religious revivals of her childhood. Finally, we know that "Sinnerman" is a take on a gospel song about expelling sin, recorded by Simone at the height of her own involvement in Civil Rights—and that she was increasingly unforgiving of the sins of white America. So it's easy to deduce that on an allegorical level, "Sinnerman" was all about the sins of her country. "Where you gonna run to?" was a genuine, if slightly taunting, question for those who had not yet absolved themselves of the sin of living in a racist society.
On another level, though, it's just as important not to try to pigeonhole Nina Simone now as it was then. It can be tempting to talk about her—or any other black musician involved with Civil Rights—as a "voice of the movement" rather than just as a voice of her own. But Nina Simone was always particularly intense about insisting that she be addressed as a multi-faceted individual whose every expression does not have to represent a political ideology. She resented her music being categorized as "black music" or even "jazz," and hated how people compared her to Billie Holiday simply because they were both black women singers who had led hard lives. Although she was very deeply attached to her political beliefs, Nina Simone would probably have been the first to ask us to resist heavy-handed categorization of her work.
In "Sinnerman," she sings as a black woman in a racist society, and she sings with both pride and anger. She also sings as a woman raised in the church, and it seems she reserves both pride and anger for the church, too. And finally, she sings as an individual going through her own struggles, the "blues" part of Pastel Blues. Much of the rest of the album is about heartache, love, and loss. "Sinnerman," seems to be about all of Simone's conflicts, angers and insecurities at once. It's vulnerable enough to reach other people on an emotional level, but it's also general enough to feel like it could be about anyone. Who doesn't, at some point, go into a dark place and come out on the other side transformed? And why not use a traditional gospel song to talk about this transformation?
We can't deny that it's hard to put a finger on Nina Simone's mixing of tradition with individuality, and her mixing of gospel with classical, jazz and blues. It's hard to answer the question, "What does 'Sinnerman' mean?" It is a song about personal transformation, a song that almost inevitably has to mean different things to different people. It is a song that manages to be about identity by being about losing your identity. And, it is a song about Nina Simone.
Here's how she explained the situation in 1965: "I feel my origins very deeply. My art is anchored in the culture of my people, and I am immensely proud. No matter what I sing, whether it's a ballad or a lament, it's all the same thing—I want people to know who I am" (Cohodas 176). At least, "Sinnerman" is an expression of Nina Simone's innermost feelings of loss and transition. At most, it is an expression of the loss and transition that everybody goes through at some point in life. Not to be all doomsday about it, but it's worth thinking about: when that day comes, where you gonna run to?