Listen to this track by incomparable High Priestess of Soul herself Nina Simone. It’s “Sinnerman”, a traditional gospel-blues song of misty and mysterious origins as captured on her 1965 record Pastel Blues. The song closed that record, an epic length encapsulation of nothing less than the Fall of Humanity, the hope for redemption, and the fear of damnation.
Covering this tune was likely a product of Simone’s upbringing in the church. But, it is also likely that “Sinnerman” was well-covered on the Greenwich Village folk scene, of which Simone was also a part. The Weavers recorded a version of it, which may have been responsible for it being something of a standard of the ’60s folk boom. It has since become a well-covered standard across a number of musical spectrums.
This one is the real thing; over ten minutes long, and with Simone’s full-powers behind it, and making it her own. It would have an impact well after this version was recorded.
As has been said on this blog, and many times elsewhere, The Blues is a very old form, and with many branches and roots. No one really knows exactly how old it is. It is nothing if not utterly primal in its subject matter. Maybe this is why a song that purportedly dates back to the early 1900s was so well adapted into a then-modern movement of folk-music sixty and more years on. It deals in some core threads that make up the whole of human experience; the need for meaning, and connection to something greater. Those things are constant, no matter what the era.
Put in its simplest terms, this song is about the basic tenets of the human condition; the need for security, for love, and the fear of being without them. These themes tend to sell themselves, since they are so basic to our psychological, and even our physical make-ups. Casting aside any theological issues that it raises about the nature of redemption and of damnation, that’s what this song is about.
But, there is a reason that Nina Simone’s version of “Sinnerman” is so renowned and often used as a template for other versions. Her delivery is all about hooking into the emotional center of the material, and then riding it out to its conclusion, not as a means of presenting an antiquity (as a lot of folk performers tend to do), but as something to be understood as something living, breathing, and real. And it’s also about her ability as a storyteller to get us to so readily identify with the central figure to be found in this song; the wretched Sinnerman, driven to move toward the light even as his weakness pulls him deeper into darkness.
This is to say nothing of her voice, always a unique instrument, not just a little on the androgynous side to make it one that closes the gender gap where empathy is concerned; she’s singing for all of humanity here anyway. Simone is a musical chameleon, climbing into the skin of the doomed protagonist, calling out to a god who may or may not extend the hand of salvation.
I think the timing of the song’s popularity is significant as well, performed and recorded during a time when the value systems of a culture were being seriously questioned, when global destruction seemed like a push of a button away, and when the future was becoming uncertain when morally ambiguous wars, political assassinations, and cultural violence surrounding civil rights movements were becoming impossible to ignore. Of course, even then the emotional undercurrents remain even in this era, when we can add advanced environmental degradation, school shootings, government-sanctioned homophobia and violence, and the threat of global bankruptcy to the list of demons we’re unable to ignore.
Folk music and myth endures for a reason. It is a mirror of our collective search for something to be celebrated in common, or to be confronted by as a people, and sometimes as individuals too. We’re still searching for redemption, pulled this way and that by opposing forces that we don’t always understand.
Nina Simone had a long and unparalleled career before her death in 2003. Find out more about her at Ninasimone.com.