The song, “People Get Ready” was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr’s march on Washington and his “I have a dream” speech. In writing it the following year (1964), Curtis Mayfield not only captured the spirit of the march but created a song that caught the mood of the times and injected hope: “There’s a train a-comin’… . You don’t need no ticket, you just thank the Lord.”
Music critic Stanley Crouch commented that “by saying, ‘There’s a train a-comin’, get ready,’ that was like saying, OK, so regardless of what happens, get yourself together for this because you are going to get a chance. Your chance is coming.”
And social commentator Juan Williams says, “The train that is coming in the song speaks to a chance for redemption—the long-sought chance to rise above racism, to stand apart from despair and any desire for retaliation—an end to the cycle of pain.”
Mayfield himself says that the song probably came from the subconscious “preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.” His singing career began in the church choir.
His song has stood the test of time. In 2000 it was chosen by a panel of 20 songwriters—including Paul McCartney, the former Beatle, and Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys—as among the top 10 songs of all time. They ranked it at number nine. In 2004, Rolling Stone placed it at number 24 in its 500 greatest hits of all time. These are unusual places to find a song listed that deals with the issues it does. It’s true that social issues are being addressed, but there’s also the underlying theme of God’s intervention.
Mayfield and social issues
Mayfield wrote “People Get Ready” at a time of major change in America. Segregation had to be fought and the march on Washington signalled that it would be. President John F Kennedy had just been assassinated. There was unrest about the war in Vietnam. By 1965 thousands of people were marching against the war. The ’60s saw teenagers begin to openly question the values of their parents and they had the freedom to act on their newfound beliefs. That brought more pressure.
Time magazine asked a startling question on its April 8, 1966, cover: “Is God Dead?” While articles in the magazine seriously considered trends within Christian academia, the cover question destroyed a small forest when some 3500 letters were sent to the editor (the most ever on any topic). Most letters simply condemned the assumption.
“People Get Ready” was written during a time of social upheaval. The message from the song is clear: There’s a train a-coming, it’s going to be all right. Somehow it’s going to work out.
Unfortunately, almost 50 years on, we can look around and say that the issues may have changed, but there are still big problems to be addressed. You can create your own list of issues from daily news reports. You’ll always find things that are not how they should be.
We need the train a-comin’.
Mayfield and God
The Bible clearly shows that the second coming of Jesus is the final answer to whatever issues we face. It has been the hope of Christians since Jesus said to His first disciples, “I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).
When Jesus ascended to heaven after His resurrection, two angels told His disciples that “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The apostle Peter recorded how we look forward to a new heaven and a new earth (2 Peter 3:13), calling this the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
And in the Bible’s final chapter, we find Jesus three times declaring, “Behold, I am coming soon!”; “Behold, I am coming soon!”; “Yes, I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:7, 12, 20).
Mayfield’s song may have come out of the experiences of the 1960s, but in “People Get Ready,” he recognised that our ultimate human hope is in the second coming of Jesus—the train that’s a-comin’.
People, get ready?
This instruction isn’t about buying your way with a ticket or packing the right stuff; it’s about faith and trust in God. As John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (italics added).
Accept what God offers through Jesus and you’re ready. Now!
Having done that, though, we wait. We’re waiting for the train to come. We don’t know the schedule. The question is, what do we do while we wait?
Jesus answered this question in Matthew 24 and 25. He talked about what would happen before His return, but He said we would never know exactly when it was, so, “Keep watch.”
Then, in the story of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom who was delayed, He made the point that we should live in expectation, and be always ready. In the story of three servants who are given various amounts of money, it’s about being faithful with what God has entrusted us.
Finally, He said, it’s about us treating everyone, especially the weak and disenfranchised (“the least of these my brothers and sisters”), as if we were dealing with Him. This is about acts of service and kindness.
Three things to do as we wait: live in expectation; be faithful with what we have; and serve others. Mayfield probably heard that, too, in the “preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible.”
Mayfield remained socially aware until his death in 1999. The title song “New World Order” from his final album two years earlier called for “a new world order, a brand new day. A change of mind for the human race.”
In the song you find recognition again that all is not right with our world. There are still evils to be fought. But he’d already signalled that the ultimate solution is found in the train a-comin’—God’s train. So, people, get ready.
Bruce Manners is an author, retired pastor and former editor of Signs of the Times based in Lilydale, Victoria. A version of this article first appeared on the Signs of the Times Australia/New Zealand website and is republished with permission.