People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions
People get ready – there’s a train coming
You don’t need no baggage, you just get on board
All you need is faith to hear the diesel hummin’
Don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord…
I bought The Impressions Anthology double LP at some point in the late 70s during my soul conversion years. The album collects songs from 1961 to 1977 and every one is a classic, but one song stood out for me as head and shoulders above the rest. More like a hymn than a pop song, this is one of the reasons why pop music is so potent. To take a church form and turn it into a gospel/political plea of this simplicity and strength takes skill, it’s like a William Blake poem or a Martin Luther King sermon, it hits you right between the eyes, and goes straight for the heart.
Black American music has long used biblical imagery in the context of freedom – the crossing of the River Jordan, the walls of Jericho, let my people go (from Egypt) – the language of slavery from the Moses era of the Old Testament perfectly fit the plantation south. Trains have also been prominent in freedom songs. The Underground Rail Road was the name for the hidden path to freedom for escaped slaves, a series of marks on trees, directions remembered, safe houses, places to avoid. The songs Wade In The Water, The Gospel Train and Swing Low Sweet Chariot all refer to the freedom train, or the underground railroad. Harriet Tubman was one of the main conductors on this train, freeing hundreds of slaves to the Northern states. The Gospel Train (Get On Board) was sung by contralto Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when she was denied entry to the Constitution Hall in 1939 by the “Daughters Of The Revolution”.
With the aid and support of Eleanor Roosevelt she sang an outside radio broadcast to 75,000 people with millions listening on the radio. She was later the first black performer at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Incidentally she has also sung “Erbarme Dich” from the St Matthew Passion (see My Pop Life #76).
So Curtis Mayfield‘s song is in a tradition, it may have the appearance, melody and structure of a gospel tune, and the subject matter of a religious song about God, but Black American music always has significant symbolic aspects of freedom hidden in plain sight. People Get Ready is very much a song of the Civil Rights era, two years after the march on Washington, and released in the same year of the Selma to Montgomery marches. A year ealier the 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public places – the “coloured” drinking fountains and rest rooms, bars and restaurants, but in some parts of America it was impossible to register to vote. The freedom train was coming though. Lyndon B. Johnson‘s presidency was actually more radical than Kennedy’s before him and created many of the institutions of America still existent today – Medicare and Medicaid, public broadcasting, voting rights and public housing.
The arrangement of the song is special – a choir hums the intro with a xylophone and strings, then the Impressions – Curtis Mayfield, Jerry Butler and Fred Cash – sing the song. Guitar lines, trumpets and vocal harmonies grace the key change and then we get taken home, musically. Something about the chord structure answers a deep yearning for completions and resolution and the song rose into my all-time top ten within a year of buying it. I put it onto Jenny’s Soul Tape (see My Pop Life #29) along with Gladys Knight, Bobby Bland (My Pop Life #28) and others, and then in the early 1990 we saw Curtis Mayfield live at the Town & Country in Kentish Town Road. I think most people’s highlight was Move On Up (and fair enough, what a tune), but when he played People Get Ready, in the same arrangement as the original, simple and direct, we melted. A few months later a lighting rig fell onto him in Flatbush New York and he was paralysed from the neck down. He still continued to write and play until diabetes lost him the use of a leg. He died in 1999.
His output remains an inspiring and uplifting body of work, from the early Impressions songs through Pusherman and Freddie’s Dead to the last LP New World Order, and perhaps no other artist has contributed so many black pride anthems, from Keep On Pushing through to Move On Up. But he also managed to balance the righteous freedom politics with an uber-cool image that peaked with Superfly in 1971.
I’ll just briefly note in passing that Bob Marley is among the artists who covered People Get Ready. And Stevie Wonder played it with India Arie last month in Brooklyn (see My Pop Life #39). A towering song.