The Impressions debuted the song live during a run of shows with several other popular acts. At their stop at the Uptown Theater in Philadelphia, they got into a “singing battle” with the Temptations. Each act covered the numbers recorded by the other. As recounted in Traveling Soul:
“After the third or fourth encore, the Impressions stood backstage caught in a bind. They’d run out of songs, but the audience screamed for more. My father said, ‘Well, we got “People Get Ready,”’ Sam [Gooden] nervously spoke up: ‘Are you sure we can do this song? We just learned it.’ My father replied in his customary seat-of-the-pants way, ‘Sure, let’s give it a try.’” They returned onstage to a chorus of cheers, and Dad plucked the opening chords. ‘You could almost hear a pin drop in there,’ Sam said. ‘It was so soulful, man, it just knocked these people out.’”
The Impressions were leading creators of the Chicago soul sound. Audiences also saw them as openly allied with the Civil Rights struggle, much as gospel’s Staple Singers. As Martin Luther King, Jr. came north to advance the Chicago Freedom Movement, Impressions songs like “Keep on Pushin’” and “People Get Ready,” served as movement anthems, just as “We Shall Overcome” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” had from the earlier days of the Civil Rights Movement.
Darden writes in People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, “the freedom riders, the freedom singers…, voter registration drives, and marches were invariably accompanied by reworked spirituals, gospel songs, and soul songs like the Impressions’ ‘People Get Ready’ and the Chi-Lites’ ‘(For God’s Sake Give More) Power to the People.'”
Todd Mayfield cites Andrew Young saying “None of us had great voices, but this was music that everybody could sing. You couldn’t do Curtis Mayfield’s falsetto, but we had kids who could. He was always one of the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.” Todd Mayfield adds, “Shortly after the song became a hit, Chicago churches also began using ‘People Get Ready’ in their services. Some churches changed the final couplet, ‘You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord,’ to ‘Everybody wants freedom, this I know.’”
“People Get Ready” follows strongly in the tradition of songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Gospel Train.” It speaks in code, as the message of earthly liberation lies underneath the surface meaning of heavenly salvation. The code is not that hard to decipher. I expect that listeners and singers find something vital in the openness and ambiguity of the metaphor. That the song can be both eternal and temporal at once lends it significant power.
As Marovich puts it:
“People Get Ready” uses the longstanding metaphor of the “gospel train,” which like the Old Ship of Zion, takes saints to heaven (also known as death). Conversely, if you don’t get on board (get your life right), you are going to the other place! But [“People Get Ready” uses] the image of the gospel train to encourage people to take action on earth – not so much death but life, though both meant freedom. So it’s a song with two messages: a sacred one to get your life right so you can board the train to heaven and freedom when you die; and a secular one in which the train (social action) will take you to freedom on earth.”
Mayfield’s biography also asserts that you can’t interpret Curtis Mayfield’s songs fully without understanding the story of Curtis’s grandmother. Annie Bell Mayfield had made the decision to join the Great Migration, leaving the South for Chicago. Many of those migrants boarded northbound trains with little or no luggage and often with little or no notice. If you announced your plans, white landowners might come up with a way to keep you where you were. The line “don’t need no baggage, you just get on board,” would likely resonate with the children and grandchildren, not to mention the participants, of the Great Migration. A sense of irony surely leavened this resonance. Listeners well knew the distance between the vision of freedom and the lived reality.