Disclaimer: I am not particularly religious and this post is not meant to push any beliefs.
Sometimes, I sit and think about what makes a song truly great. It's a hard question to answer, especially as my tastes in music seem to change so frequently. At times, I preferred the simpler sounds; bare bones, easy music with few elements, like a good blues or early rock 'n roll song. Other times, I love intricately composed modern music, with so many bells and whistles that one has to wonder how it all comes together.
One song I've been enthralled with lately, I feel, seems to be at a higher level to even some of those that are considered among the best. It is Nina Simone's 1965 recording of "Sinnerman."
I don't confess to being a spiritual person; hearing the preacher sing and shout during sermons never moved me, women dancing and convulsing in the sanctuary aisles never moved me. But this song, this song moves me.
The beginning, oh the beginning, it's emotional...moving...spiritual.
(lyrics are abbreviated)
"Sinnerman, where you gon' run to...
I ran to the rock, please hide me...
The rock cried out, I can't hide you...
Can't you see I need you rock..."
This rock, it's supposed to provide shelter, safety. But this person, this sinner, is being rejected, turned away from this bastion.
"Ran to the river, it was bleeding...
Ran to the sea, it was bleeding...
Ran to the river, it was boiling...
Ran to the sea, it was boiling..."
So the sinner goes to the river, to the water, which is supposed to provide life and renewal and instead is bleeding, running red with blood. It's boiling, it can destroy.
"So I ran to the Lord, please hide me...
Don't you see me praying?
The Lord said, go to the devil...
So I ran to the devil, he was waiting..."
This sinner is even being rejected from the Lord, this source of so much comfort and forgiveness, and being told to go to the devil.
The beginning reminds me of the Bible story of a man who is very faithful, but from whom God lets the devil take everything from. Yet this man continually prays to God, continues to trust in God, despite all that he's lost. It reminds me of that in such that everything that's supposed to be comforting, restorative or loving is gone, turned the opposite.
The next part of the song features the word "power" being sung over and over in such a way that one can easily imagine Ms. Simone crying, dancing and convulsing on stage while she's singing, having a religious experience. It features that same disjointedness, lack of control that I saw take over some of the women at my church. All of a sudden, I come closer to understanding how they felt at those moments.
The next part however, seems a departure from the spiritual nature of the rest of the song. It consists of handclapping, which, in how it's done, comes off both incredibly precise and yet equally disjointed. One person is clapping on beat, one off-beat, others clapping at random triads. The effect is strangely moving, yet all that you're hearing are handclaps.
This transitions almost seamlessly into a simple, sweet piano melody. The ending, though, returns to that dismay of the beginning. Of the sinner being turned away from the Lord, but now we know why. "Where were you? When you should have been praying?" But the sinner now has the full recognition that he needs the Lord.
From there, the song ends with a strange gospel-y scat and cymbal-driven percussion that, once over, gives the listener a strange sense of release. I can't explain it fully, but this song really does make me feel something I've never quite felt before.
I somehow feel better knowing this song exists in the world.
Give it a listen. While I'm sure it may not have the same effect on everyone, it really is a great listening experience: