Loud Minded: Nina Simone's "Sinnerman" could save any sinner
Music columnist William Schmitt on the beauty of the blues
I’m here to talk about the blues.
My dad’s neighbor has 100 GB worth of music on an external hard drive, and I recently took a tour of his musical selections. One of the names that popped out at me was Nina Simone.
Nina is dead now. She lived for 70 years and is known for being a songwriter, pianist and singer. Her compositions brought many styles together, including jazz, blues and classical music. Her vocals brought the jazz, and her fingers brought the classical vibes from her youthful aspirations of concert pianism.
I had heard of her indirectly, especially in the world of hip-hop, where producers who grew up with soul and R&B love using sections of old standards as a constant melody. Kanye West and his team of producers used part of Simone's rendition of “Feeling Good” for the Watch The Throne track, “New Day,” and I didn’t realize it until I heard the original.
The blues are something mystical. I know a lot of people write the blues off as sadness, and they’re not wrong about its nature. However, they are wrong to dismiss the blues for its natural melancholy. When you feel the blues, it is because the blues is the only thing that make sense.
Not to bitch and moan, but last week wasn’t great. Sometimes I start the day determined to make it the best day ever. Sometimes I phone it in before I even get out of bed. Monday was one of those days, so I didn’t realize the nature of my moping until nearly midnight. I discovered Nina’s “Sinnerman” earlier in the day and listened to it about six times throughout the day. My mood hit an all-time low as I looked at the pavement outside and realized I would not be able to cruise around on my longboard. To counteract my countenance, I plugged in and played “Sinnerman” one more time.
An old gospel tune with themes of the apocalypse and battling the devil, “Sinnerman” features a very swift piano pattern and drum accompaniment with occasional appearances from a rhythm guitar. It’s more than 10 minutes long and features numerous crests and valleys, peaking when Nina lets her voice loose and recoiling when she takes a break and her backing band grooves on their own. When I hear this song, I am standing on a cliff with a sword, swinging at demons, the only illumination being flashes of distant lightning. It’s therapy for patterns of pessimism.
I know this is a tough sell. You don’t dance to the blues. You do a lazy sway. You can’t truly sing anyone’s blues but your own. It’s a lonely genre of music for feelings of loneliness, and that makes each person’s discovery and journey through blues unique and personal because we all have different reasons for our sadness. It doesn’t matter if your cat died, you failed an exam or you have cancer: there is a blues for you.
While “Sinnerman” is currently my favorite blues tune because I feel it represents the swift and perilous inevitability of coursework to come, there are other artists whose music is much less harrowing. The Black Keys are a great example of a more upbeat style of blues, although they fuse their sound with rock so much it's difficult to view them as a true style of blues. Skip James is one of the old legends of the craft, a Delta drawler who plays mostly traditional blues. Other legends with a lot of musical melancholy such as Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band have a more organic, folk style to their music, though the blues remains constant. You love the blues, even though you don’t yet know it, and though you may only want to listen to the blues for short periods of time, during your time of great sadness they may be the only sound that makes sense.