The real meaning of Nina Simone's Classic Song, "See-Line Woman"

Written by
The Great Nina Simone (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

I had the pleasure of introducing the great band Dexter Story put together for Young, Gifted & Nina, the superb show at Grand Performances on Friday night. The singers: Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jimetta Rose, Sonja Marie, and Patrice Quinn channeled Nina’s voice, style, sultriness, and spirit magnificently; Waberi Jordan looked like an African queen transplanted into 1960’s Carnaby Street in her black and white minidress, and Joi Gilliam wore a translucent dress that turned some heads. Dwight Trible was incredibly moving, putting his heart and soul into his singing as he always does. Kudos to Michael Alexander, Leigh Ann Hahn and all the Grand Performances crew, as well as, Music Director Dexter Story and Jonathan Rudnick, who helped bring it all together. Click here to read my intro notes on the great Nina Simone.

At the end of my intro, I told the crowd that even though I met and knew Nina Simone, I never knew what the song “Sealine Woman” was about. I’ve seen it spelled a million times, mostly wrong: ceeline woman, sealion woman (that sounds scary), see-line woman, see lyin’ woman, she lyin’ woman; I’ve also been told that it was a dress, a civil war ditty, etc. I asked the audience for help, and got some feedback from a fashionably-dressed and very knowledgeable woman.

Nina’s “Sealine Woman” is a 19th century seaport song about sailors and prostitutes. The sailors would come into port (Charleston or New Orleans perhaps). Women of the pleasure quarters would be waiting, lined up dockside. Their dress c0lors signified the specific delights they offered. That is what the song is really about. Nina sang it many different ways, often changing the lyrics. Here are most of them. It’s a slippery thing, this song; the lyrics and song title always change according to who you ask.

“Sealine Woman” – Nina Simone, 1964

Sealine woman, she drink coffee she drink tea and then go home

Sealine woman, sealine woman, dressed in green

wears silk stockings with golden seams

Sealine woman, dressed in brown

watch out fellas, she’s gonna get down

Sealine woman, sealine woman, dressed in red

make a man lose his head (or wears a rag upon her head)

Sealine woman, sealine woman

black dress on, for a thousand dollars

she wail and she moan

(variant) sealine woman, dressed in black

sleep all day, on her back

Sealine woman, wiggle wiggle

turn like a cat, wink at a man

and he wink back

Now child,  sealine woman

empty his pockets and wreck his days

make him love her, and she’ll fly away

sealine woman, dressed in white

stay up all day, ball all night

Sealine woman, dressed in yellow

watch out girl, gonna steal your fellow

Here is a version she did in Berlin in 1988, followed by images of slavery days back when this song may have originated.

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