There’s a train a-coming: “People Get Ready” – CwD10

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Later performances and covers

“People Get Ready” continues to cross, or defy, genre in the 52 years since its creation. It remains both enormously popular and enormously accessible to a wide range of artists. Rolling Stone named it as the 24th greatest song of all time. The Rise Again songbook places “People Get Ready” in its “Gospel” section, but also footnotes it in the “Freedom” section. Along the way, it has fit into soul, gospel, jazz, reggae, country (gospel), blues, rock, and pop genres.

Mayfield’s music exerted a strong influence on Bob Marley. Marley’s One Love/People Get Ready magnified the song’s reach. Marley gave co-writing credit to Mayfield on his version. The song has more covers than I can possibly encapsulate here. I’ll provide a partial Spotify playlist below. For now, I’ll focus on providing some performances where the video makes a difference.

Where you first heard the song probably depends greatly on your generation. For my generation, Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck’s performance introduced the song to many (at least to white kids in the suburbs). They produced it in the Golden Age of MTV. I probably default to hearing the “final judgment” aspects of this song because this de-contextualized, individualistic version introduced me to it.

Looking at their video now, it almost seems like a self-parody. It emanates a strong aura of self-indulgence and incorporates no African Americans in its cast of common folk. The video narrative suggests that Stewart invites Beck to come west to make his living as a guitar player. Beck jumps a freight train out in response, entertaining rural people and farm workers along the way as they gather worshipfully around his electric guitar. He finally meets up with Stewart, where his guitar solo allows Stewart to dance with one of two Hispanic women inexplicably sitting on the wooden planks of a train station porch selling tortillas for a dime. This video storytelling strips the song of context and feels very much like some producer’s idea of delivering a prodigy to the Promised Land. The story is about this one individual, not the train.

“People Get Ready” also appeared on Eva Cassidy’s posthumously discovered breakout recording Songbird. Cassidy never liked to know when the tape was rolling, audio or video. The video below contains a secretly recorded performance of the song. As nearly everybody outside of a tight geographic area round Washington, D.C. learned of her talent after she died, this video is a treat.

Several interpreters of the song have elevated or focused on its gospel dimensions. You will find many inserting a refrain of “I believe, I do believe,” as in Aretha Franklin’s version. The Rev. Al Green doesn’t take that approach in his version, but his performance of the song continues its soul/gospel blend. You’ll see and hear more than a little bit of joy in this performance.

The Blind Boys of Alabama provided one of the more recent popular recordings of the song, applying their gospel harmonies to a blues-infused version of the song. Here, they perform the song live with Susan Tedeschi.

Curtis Mayfield performing career ended prematurely because of a stage accident that left him paralyzed. Here’s one final performance for this post from a few months before that tragic end to his performing career.

Thanks for reading and for listening. As promised, here is the playlist.


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