In the wake of nationwide heartache following the news of George Floyd's death, there is a growing urgency to support the Black Lives Matter cause. Generations of soul artists have contributed to the movement through anthemic songs of protest and statement albums that have begun and furthered the conversations addressing racism, violence and disillusionment.
In this ongoing series, we highlight the songs of the Black Lives Matter movement that launched and empowered people's pleas for a brighter future. Check back in weekly to listen and learn about the songs that have unified people throughout history to stand up for racial equality.
The Impressions, "People Get Ready"
Impressions' frontman Curtis Mayfield grew up in church. At seven years old, he made his singing debut at his aunt's church as he burst into song alongside the Northern Jubilee Gospel Singers, where he became a regular.
It was such gospel training that not only pioneered Mayfield's vision of blending gospel with pop grooves, but also gave foundation to his lionhearted social conscience to address and further the black freedom movement of the 60s through his music.
During the Impressions' first decade of success, the core members consisted of Mayfield, Sam Gooden, and Fred Cash, following the prompt exist of original Impressions members Jerry Butler, Richard and Arthur Brooks by 1962.
As Mayfield filled in the frontman position, the Impressions' repertoire of Chicago soul began to focus more heavily on social and political issues, often bridging gospel and pop by focusing on the Black reality.
“Curtis lived in the suburbs and he’d come into the city,” Cash told The Chicago Tribune. “He’d pick out the parts on his guitar that we needed to sing. I was singing bass, tenor, baritone, and lead. Curtis sang high tenor. We didn’t have training. It was all instinct. Curtis would ask me all the time whether he should go to school to learn some more about music. But he didn’t need to. He was a genius with a gift for putting words together that would inspire.”
By 1964, the Impressions released their first political song "Keep On Pushing," the first in a string of power recordings that would launch the group's reputation as frontline musicians in creating the soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.
ON THE SONG'S INSPIRATION:
Mayfield, who was living in Chicago at the time of the March on Washington, penned the anthem "People Get Ready" a year after the March on Washington. As he shared with NPR's Terry Gross in 1993, the song was a subconscious result of "the preachings of [his] grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible."
For many, "People Get Ready" continues to convey the spirit of the march and its legacy in its championing of grace and redemption - a message that especially resonated in the aftermath of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy
The signature song would also further the folklore of the train of salvation, as referenced by Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash for the traditional gospel "This Train is Bound for Glory," as Mayfield sang about a train stopping to pick up all people of faith, no matter their color.
"I think it's a song that touches people..." shared Peter Burns, the author of the biography Curtis Mayfield: People Never Give Up. "It is a song of faith really, a faith that transcends any racial barrier and welcomes everyone onto the train. The train that takes everyone to the promised land, really."
KEY LYRIC: "So, people get ready, there's a train a-comin'/ You don't need no baggage, you just get on board/ All you need is faith to hear the diesels hummin'/ Don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord"
With its debut in 1965, "People Get Ready" became one of the first gospel crossover hits, peaking at the No. 3 spot on Billboard's R&B Chart and No. 14 on Billboard's Pop chart. The tune of optimism and hope would inspire not only generations of listeners and advocates of racial equality, but also musicians who also aspired to unite the world, including Bob Marley, Phil Collins and Bruce Springsteen.
There are many ways people can support the movement against police violence and provide relief to the communities who have been impacted by police racism. Help the family of George Floyd HERE. Fight for Breonna Taylor HERE. Help the family of Ahmaud Arbery HERE.
Want to help protesters? Donate to one or more community bail funds HERE. Visit Movement For Black Lives for additional ways you can help the cause. Want to connect with leaders building grass roots campaigns? Click HERE. Are you an ally and want to learn more? Here are some anti-racism resources.