While it could be argued that Simone presented her “folk” material in a fairly restrained manner, keeping something of the textual reverence displayed by her contemporary Odetta, her gospel numbers tended to be wilder affairs, possessed of a different kind of power to that found in Odetta’s voice. Power, pleading and confusion are the key markers in Simone’s reading of ‘Sinnerman’, a track described by Richard Middleton as a “last-day drama”. Certainly, there is an apocalyptic feel to the song, aided by its epic running time (notable in at least three recorded versions by Simone ), its “implacable” piano vamp (Middleton) and its depiction of an unredeemable sinner caught between God and the Devil. Over the endless, infectious piano, the song is played out in what initially seems like a duologue in which the speaking roles are limited to two voices, not necessarily in conversation. The Sinnerman is addressed as “you” at various points but speaks as “I” for most of the song, although it is not difficult to imagine, given the terror and confusion that reign over this transgressing subject, that everything we hear represents the Sinnerman’s own bewildered thought and speech. As in ‘The City of Refuge’, a song recorded by the gospel-blues artist Blind Willie Johnson, the protagonist is constantly running. The relentless verses chase the sinner as “he” runs to the rock, to the sea and to the river (both of which are “bleeding” and “boiling”), each time finding neither refuge nor respite from his all-seeing, vengeful God. Even when he runs “to the Lord” he is told to “run to the Devil” and is left with little option but to plead with the Lord to “bring down power”.

The power play of the text is matched by the shifting dynamics of the song. Eventually the implacable piano crashes to a halt (3:35) and drums, bass and guitar carry the groove. There is a clapping interlude with no instrumental accompaniment, during which the piano starts up again, slowly at first and then gradually building back into the vamp and a repeat of some of the verse elements – the boiling river and sea. Simone’s voice rises to a shout (“where were you when you ought to be praying?”) and, as the band move into a repeat of the “bring power” section, the pleading becomes desperate, eventually moving into a wordless kind of scat that Middleton describes as “glossolalic” (a reference to the religious practice of speaking in tongues), succeeded by “a drum-kit conclusion of Old Testament severity”. Like the sinner, we are caught between a rock and a hard place, not knowing where to go or what to expect. It is tempting to read the song as one of paranoia, or, at least, of the kind of double consciousness with which Simone so often identified, a consciousness that offers the subject an always already confused sense of belonging. In a lesser known version of ‘Sinnerman’ included on the album Gospel According to Nina Simone, the artist inserts a line from her signature song “Mississippi Goddam” – “I don’t belong here, I don’t belong there” – which serves as both an intertextual reference for performer and audience and as a way of cementing the Sinnerman’s predicament.

One Response to “Sinnerman”

  1. […] ‘The Blast’ (on Reflection Eternal) and ‘Music’ (on Best Of), along with his sampling of ‘Sinnerman’ on ‘Get By’ (from Quality), suggest that his evocation of Simone as a figurehead for the hip […]

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