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"Jazz is a white term to define black people. My music is black classical music," Nina Simone once said. In fact, the only thing that seemed to irritate her more than hearing her music called "jazz" was hearing herself compared to Billie Holiday—Simone always stresses that their music actually has little in common. In a possibly more accurate assessment, Ebony Magazine called her music "a strange grafting of a thick, abrasive almost masculine sound onto a sophisticated classical music training" (Cohodas 91).
"Sinnerman" is full of the strangeness that characterizes Simone's sound. The song cannot be defined by genre: more than anything, it's an experience, inspired by classical with tinges of blues and even opera. Listening to song feels sort of like watching like a revival re-enactment—it's not so much a "gospel song" in the sense of musical style as a recreation of the emotional process of having a breakthrough. It is theatrical, atmospheric, and impossible to categorize.
"Sinnerman" launches with a frenetic drum beat on a high hat and Nina Simone's piano playing that sounds like the repetitive motion of a freight train barreling into a tunnel. It is dark and repetitive, with a guitar echoing the piano's fast-paced voice. Simone's heavy singing cuts above the noise, repetitive and building in energy. A couple minutes into the song, she starts crying "Power! Power!" in a vaguely gospel style, and a quiet, sad chorus answers her in a sort of convoluted call and response.
Now "Sinnerman" really starts to take us for a walk. Soon after the "Power!" lines, the piano tumbles down a crazy Claude Debussy-sounding scale before cutting out completely, leaving just the guitar, bass and drums with the addition of some random hand clapping. The sounds become atmospheric: we could be in a room during a revival, holding our breath and waiting on the person at the center of the room to come to Jesus. The clapping increases in frequency, and slowly the piano returns to its grinding motion. The piano and Simone's voice become one as she re-enters the fray with audible breaths and cries of "oh yeah, oh yeah." She builds to a second extreme crescendo, and a second fall, during which Simone begins to truly moan: "Don't you know that I need you Lord?" At this moment (here we are about nine and a half minutes in), the real breakthrough moment occurs, and Simone's rumbling piano draws the song out for nearly a minute more. Strangely, and somewhat abruptly, "Sinnerman" ends, and the feeling is like a sigh of relief (even if you enjoyed what you just heard).
The sound of it all can only be described as soulful. Maybe that's why they call Nina Simone the High Priestess of Soul Music—even though she pretty much hated that label, too. "Our music crosses all those lines. N**** music has always crossed all those lines and I'm kind of glad of it. Now they're just calling it soul music," she told Ebony in 1969. When it comes to a description of her music from the High Priestess herself, we'll take what we can get.
"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!"