At the height of young Miss Nina Simone’s involvement in the early 1960s Civil Rights Movement in America, she released an unassuming record into the world: Pastel Blue. The coda of Pastel Blue is an impassioned version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” (a song about lynching and racism and fucked up sexuality and gender) and, last track, the eponymous “Sinnerman“. Think for a minute how much of a one-two that release must’ve been. In 1965. Sinnerman and Strange Fruit. Over in Hollywood, Elvis was gyrating Hawaiian in soundstage technicolor, crooning pop hits like Return to Sender to the Musical.ly millions of their time…
Sinnerman was written in the 1920s as a “Little House on the Prairie” spiritual exhortation. It was glib, white, wholesome. It invited the faithful in their bonnets and best somber hues. The original lyrics were a hymn of challenge, beckoning the sinner back to the fold: repent broken creature, come submit to the love of Jesus, ye foul sinner man.
But Nina Simone answers the dimestore evangelism with a m
ore powerful, more urgent, more undeniable rebuttal: the impossible plight of the Black Man in unjust, cruel America.
Sinnerman, Cinnamon Man. Cinnamon and White Milk was a euphemism for a black man with a white woman. Work through the metaphors if you care to.
Check Nina Simone’s words.
First, the Black Man trusted in the Rock (of Ages i.e. homeland, Africa, ancestral wisdom) but found no help. Got taken away to the Americas as slaves. The Black Man looked back to the sea or the river to escape, but only bleeding death and boiling pain is there. The Black Man has no choice but to live in the New World. There’s no way to go back in time.
Black Man turns to the Lord (the White Christian God) for sanctuary but the doors are shut and they turn the Black Man away (segregation, Jim Crow laws). The Church (i.e. the Lord) tells the Black Man to go to the Devil. Rejects him, alienates him, despises him, denies him a safe place in society.
The Devil embodies hate and slavery and violence and rebellion; and Nina Simone knows the devil is waiting, full of power. She fears the consequences of that choice.
The Black Man is a good man, and he doesn’t want the Devil’s solution. He tries again to seek peace and reconciliation (coming back to the Lord, full of need, educated 20th-century style) but the Lord (as White Church) rejects the Black Man again. This time the excuses have changed. This time they condemn the Black Man for not praying (i.e. for his thoughts of violence and rebellion against the perpetual oppression).
Caught between a rock and a hard place, the Black Man is torn between God (love and peace – reconciliation) and the Devil (violent power – rebellion). White Man denies the Black Man access to God. Hence the song ends with Nina Simone’s personal cry of protest and need. But she isn’t preaching a solution. She’s not hubristic.
Sinnerman perceives and fears coming race violence but sees it as inevitable. Because the oppression of unjust segregation is unrelenting and it’ll continue to fan the flames of hate in the heart of the Black Man. Simone and the Sinnerman know the time is coming when there’ll be no choice but slavery or the Devil; and the Devil is waiting. Is this fate? Nina Simone doesn’t have an answer…