8/24 Flashback: Sinnerman

8/24 Flashback: Sinnerman August 24, 2022

From August 24, 2015: “Where you gonna run to? Tim LaHaye and Billy Graham vs. Peter Tosh and Nina Simone

Mary Kate Waymon was a Methodist minister and housemaid who lived and preached in North Carolina in the first half of the 20th century. She was a revivalist — an evangelistic preacher who taught conversion and spiritual renewal.

If that were all we knew about her, we would guess that as a revival-meeting preacher, she was squarely within the white evangelical tradition of American Christianity. She was, after all, an evangelist who preached less than 100 miles from where the great white evangelical icon Billy Graham first began preaching around the same time in the same state of North Carolina.

But the Rev. Waymon was an African-American revivalist preacher, and that means that her theology, her gospel, and her understanding of revival was very different from the theology, gospel, and meaning of revival taught by the many white evangelical revivalists who preached throughout the Jim Crow South of the early 20th century.

To illustrate that difference, consider the following recording of one of those revivalist songs. This is Nina Simone’s version of “Sinnerman” — a song that Simone, born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, said she learned as a child playing piano and singing in her mother’s revival meetings:

This song is thought to date back to the early years of the 20th-century, circulating for decades in churches and revival meetings — both black and white — before it began to be recorded by folk and jazz musicians in the 1950s. The lyrics, warning sinners against judgment day, bear all the hallmarks of revivalist Christianity and the escapist form of apocalyptic belief that has shaped white evangelicalism in America from Scofield to Tim LaHaye. It’s based on a passage from the book of Revelation — a portion of scripture known to fans of the Left Behind series as the “Wrath of the Lamb” earthquake:

When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and there came a great earthquake; the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree drops its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll rolling itself up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”

In a white revivalist meeting, the apocalyptic message here would have been otherwordly. It would have served as a warning to save your soul from judgment and Hell in the afterlife. You, as an individual sinner, face eternal damnation unless you, as an individual sinner, ask God to forgive your individual sins.

For a sense of what that might have sounded like in a white revival meeting, give a listen to this recording of “Sinner Man” by Les Baxter’s Balladeers. It’s not just the music there that sounds, well, whiter. It also reflects a distinctively white theology  — a white gospel, white biblical narrative, and a white interpretation of apocalypse. It offers a white understanding of salvation based upon a white understanding of sin.

Same words. Different sermon.

The lyrics of the Les Baxter version are almost identical to the lyrics sung by Nina Simone. Almost. But notice the word that’s missing here — the central, endlessly repeated refrain in Simone’s rendition: Power. “Power,” she sings, “power, power, power.” It’s an invocation and an implication.

Now look again at that passage from the biblical Apocalypse and who it is that John of Patmos says will be crying out to the rocks: “the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and powerful.” Yes, and also “everyone, slave and free,” because the whole system is coming crashing down and this cataclysmic day of wrath will upend the entire world. That revolutionary upheaval affects everyone, but the focus of that wrath, John says, is on the kings, on “the rich and powerful.”

It seems, then, that Simone — and her mother, the Rev. Waymon — have retained something vital from that biblical vision of judgment day that the white revivalist tradition has forgotten or distorted.

That difference was underscored in another reinvention and reincarnation of this old revivalist song, when Peter Tosh translated it into a liberationist anthem, “Downpressor Man.”

“Downpressor” is the Rastafari term for oppressor — a biblical word that is as pervasive in the scripture as it is absent from white evangelical pulpits. Peter Tosh’s Rasta sermon on Revelation 6 has no patience for the pieties of white evangelical revivalism. He doesn’t allow anyone to mistake this for an altar call urging sinners to repent from drinking and dancing and cussing and fornicating. His warning of judgment day keeps the focus squarely on those named in John’s Apocalypse — “the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men.”

Tosh’s “Downpressor Man” thus conveys a warning that was far, far different from the warning preached by the white revivalists of the early 20th century who called “Sinner Man” to repent and be saved from his sins. But I don’t think his message is at all different from the meaning of “Sinnerman” as it was sung by Nina Simone — not when she performed it as a music legend in the 1960s, and not when she performed it as a little girl at her mother’s black church revival meetings in the 1930s and ’40s.

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