What the hell is a Sea Lion Woman??

February 19, 2010

I’ve always found the words to that Nina Simone song infuriating. What the hell is a Sea Lion Woman?? Sea Lions are hardly attractive, no matter how you look at them. Does she bark like a Sea Lion? Maybe it’s See-Line Woman – the song mentions silk stockings with golden seams. Maybe she’s referring to the line, or seam, on the back of her stockings… Or is it C-Line Woman? Is there a train in Chicago called the C-Line, where she hangs out, waiting for Johns? She Lyin’ Woman?

Wikipedia lists the possibilities as: “Sea-Line Woman”, “See [the] Lyin’ Woman”, “She Lyin’ Woman”, “See-Line Woman”, or “C-Line Woman.” Lyin’ makes more sense, but that doesn’t sound like it’s what Simone is saying in the song.

So, being the curious researcher I am, I did some digging on the interwebs. It turns out the very first recording of the song (pre-Nina) is from 1939. Folklore researcher Herbert Halpert had set out to record American folk songs for the Library of Congress (awesome job!) and found two teenage sisters, daughters of a minister and a choir director in Mississippi. The girls said it was just something they would sing while jumping  rope.  The brief track mostly references drinking coffee and drinking tea – no mention of the wailing or moaning going on in Nina Simone’s version.

http://odeo.com/episodes/11268763-See-Line-Sea-Lion-Woman (not sure if this link is working anymore).

However, the history of the song, and the lyrics of the original, still don’t help to explain what the song means. Other than ruling out the fact that they’re not referencing a train in Chicago.

Finally, I found a blog that mentions a biblical word, Selah.

Wiki says the word Selah is used frequently in the Hebrew bible, esp in Psalms. The meaning is difficult to translate, but in the bible (and in MUSIC) it’s used to mean “stop and listen.” OR that there’s a musical interlude in that point of the Psalm.

Check this: “The Psalms were sung accompanied by musical instruments and there are references to this in many chapters. Thirty-one of the thirty-nine psalms with the caption “To the choir-master” include the word “Selah”. Selah notes a break in the song and as such is similar in purpose to Amen in that it stresses the importance of the preceding passage.”

And, the most compelling reason that I think Sea Lion Woman is actually Selah Woman:

“Selah” is used in Iyaric Rastafarian vocabulary. It can be heard at the end of spoken-word segments of some reggae songs. Its usage here, again, is to accentuate the magnitude and importance of what has been said, and often is a sort of substitute for Amen.

Considering that the girl’s father was a minister and their mother a choir director, I’m pretty sure this is what the girls were really singing. I don’t know about you but I feel relieved. I’d rather not picture a Sea Lion in a dress ever again.

5 Responses to “What the hell is a Sea Lion Woman??”

  1. Justin said


    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

  2. Maddening isn’t it? AFantastic research job…although if it was Selah Woman she was saying, why call the song See Line Woman?

    • lunasealife said

      Thank you! I’d guess it’s because the song was learned/passed down only vocally, without the benefit of seeing it written, and Selah is a fairly unusual word.

  3. I concur that this is a remarkable story but not usually for the mighty Nina simon.

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