People Get Ready

Curtis Mayfield, 1965

Jordan and the River Jordan, both of which are Biblical references, are referred to in many spirituals and other songs by African Americans (see "Roll, Jordan, Roll"). What is the significance of this image in African American history and in "People Get Ready"?

Rivers and trains—which convey a sense of unstoppable momentum—are also common references in African American music and literature. In this song, where is the train heading?

What is it a symbol for? In other words, what is the song telling people to get ready for?

This song was released at the peak of the Civil Rights Movement, yet the lyrics make no specific references to current day events. Why do you think that is?

"People Get Ready" has been covered by countless musicians and referenced in other songs, such as John Mayer's "Waiting On the World to Change" and Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins," both of which use similar chord progressions and bass lines. Compare and contrast Mayfield's songs with the later songs. Why do you think Mayer and Springsteen chose to reference "People Get Ready" in their later songs?

"People Get Ready" performed by Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions on The Best of Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.

 

Rights have not been secured to reprint the words for this song. Please consult this online source:

https://www.stlyrics.com/lyrics/akeelah&thebee/
peoplegetready.htm

Curtis Mayfield (1942–99) was born and grew up in Chicago, where his grandmother was a preacher with her own church (located in a converted storefront) and his mother sang and played the piano. At the age of seven he joined the Northern Jubilee Singers, a gospel quintet that performed at his grandmother's church. In his teens, Mayfield taught himself to play the guitar and began writing music. When he was fifteen he dropped out of school and began playing with a group, formed partially of newcomers from Chattanooga, called the Roosters. Impressed by the group's talent, a talent manager convinced them to change their name to the Impressions. They scored their first hit, "For Your Precious Love," in 1958, when Mayfield was 16.

Bolstered by the migration of African Americans, Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s was noted for its diverse musical practices that included jazz, ragtime, blues, and R&B. Over the years, the Impressions absorbed many elements of these styles, fusing them with their gospel roots. After a brief period in which the members of the Impressions went their separate ways, they regrouped in early 1961. In 1962 "It's All Right" cemented their legendary style. Characterized by lots of brass, heavy bass lines, strings, and Mayfield's guitar, the style became known as the "Chicago sound."

People Get Ready single cover
"People Get Ready" 45 rpm album.

Mayfield composed "People Get Ready" in 1964, the year following the March on Washington, the church bombing in Birmingham, and the assassination of President Kennedy. For many, the song embodied a spirit of togetherness, and it became one of the first gospel crossover hits.

The song's sermon-like lyrics invoke the image of a train, a common image in popular folklore. The train of salvation, the train to Jordan (as described by the lyrics) is the same train that Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie sang of in "This Train's Bound for Glory," for example. A song of faith that transcends barriers, "People Get Ready" welcomes everyone to get on board.

"People Get Ready" resonated with many Americans during and after the Civil Rights Movement. It has been covered in different styles by many different artists, including Phil Collins, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, and Aretha Franklin. John Mayer's "Waiting On the World to Change" (2006) emulates the bassline and instrumentation, as does Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins" (2002).