Curtis Mayfield, who would have celebrated his 74th birthday this weekend, wrote a rarity of a song most everyone in North America has heard: “People Get Ready.” By rarity, I mean its message, not its repetition, as it has been covered by everyone from Rod Stewart to the Neville Brothers (though my personal favorite is Eva Cassidy’s version).
“People Get Ready,” while a vintage rock and roll tune that is always counted among the greatest rock songs of all time, is clearly a spiritual. It is pure gospel, and the great Curtis Mayfield intended it to be exactly so.
Mayfield started singing when he was kid at his grandmother’s Chicago church. He learned to play guitar, piano, and most every instrument he could get his hands on. He joined the Impressions when he was a teenager, and entering adulthood, he got involved in the Civil Rights movement, becoming a close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
As the story goes, Dr. King was scheduled to come to Chicago to meet with the city’s leaders. Mayfield was a part of the delegation that was to meet King at the train station. As they waited for MLK’s train to arrive, the song that would become “People Get Ready,” began to germinate in Mayfield’s mind.
He was writing about a real train, of course, but also about a symbolic train; the train of salvation and redemption; that train “bound for glory,” per Woody Guthrie, and the “Glory Train,” as sung by Ricky Nelson. This was a train bringing transformation and change; a train that turns the world upside down.
Mayfield said this song was knocking around in his subconscious, the product of “all that preaching of my grandmother and those Sunday ministers. It’s about a train that changes the world…that takes everyone to the promised land.”
Curtis Mayfield is right about the gospel, for the life of faith is a life of waiting. We are waiting at the station; looking down the tracks that run to the horizon; listening for the rumble of those diesels and the clickity-clack of the rails; anticipating that lonesome whistle in the distance that will bring ultimate redemption to the world.
But the life of faith is also about “getting ready,” as waiting isn’t the same thing as idleness. As Simon Peter said, we are “looking for the day of God, but we are also hurrying it along.” We hurry it along by living in such a way that the kingdom of God comes within us first. We hurry it along by working toward peace and justice. We hurry it along by becoming “the change we wish to see in the world,” and by “getting on board,” with what God is doing in the world.
I’m certain that Curtis Mayfield would have agreed with what an old preacher from my youth was fond of saying. “If you stay ready,” he would regularly admonish his congregation, “then you don’t have to get ready.” Amen to that.