Variations on a Theme: Sinner Man
"Sinner Man" is a traditional, American spiritual. At least one blogger claims the song has roots in the Appalachians, by way of Scotland, though I can find no evidence to back that up. The earliest recording we have is from 1956. In the subsequent fifty-plus years, the song has been covered, deconstructed, reconfigured, and re-interpreted by musicians around the world. There are very few lyrics to the song, but those few words strike hard and fast at those looking for power, support, and spiritual uplifting. Here is a sketch of the many variations of "Sinner Man:"
Les Baxter's "Sinner Man" (1956) sets the stage with varying tempos, orchestral flourishes, and wailing background vocals.
Three years later (1959), The Weavers recorded a folksy, vocal-centric version of "Sinner Man."
Another three years passed (~1962) before Nina Simone took a crack at the spiritual. Simone's take is the version by which the song is most known, sampled by other artists, and used in sountracks. Simone not only smushed the title (the singular "Sinnerman") and lengthened the song (stretching it to over ten minutes), she added killer jazz riffs, staccato clapping, and a heart racing drumbeat.
After Simone's transformational rendition, The Wailing Wailers (featuring Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer) took "Sinner Man" in yet another new direction (1966).
The Spanish folk band Nuestro pequeño mundo brought "Sinner Man" back to its folk music roots in a very powerful (can folk be anthemic?) way (1968). The music and power of the words rise throughout this television performance.
In 1977, Peter Tosh kept things slow, reggae, and electric. In 1970, Peter Tosh and The Wailers recorded a version called "Oppressor Man." In Tosh's solo recording, he changes the "Sinner" (or "Oppressor") to "Downpressor." In the Rastafarian vocabulary, "downpressor" means "oppressor." The changes to oppressor/downpressor, therefore, add a political dimension to the spiritual.
Almost thirty years passed before any significant recording of "Sinner Man" occurred. In 2004, Sinead O'Connor, while recording her album in Kingston Jamaica, covered Tosh's "Downpressor Man," doing little to alter the song.
Recently (2009) Lauryn Hill put the sin back in "Sinnerman" with a performance in Copenhagen. The musical rhythms match that of Simone's recording, but Hill adds rap to the mix.
Sophie B. Hawkins slows things back down and adds a repeating "heave ho" and drums, which recall the journey Africans made from their homeland to the United States via slave ships. The effect is ... forgetful.
Thankfully, to blunt Hawkins' poor interpretation of "Sinner Man," we have blues man Eric Bibb, who sounds as if he is channeling the very folks who started singing this fine tune. In 2012, perhaps "Sinner Man" has finally rediscovered its roots.