People Get Ready
Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee
My father was a huge fan of Woody Guthrie. In his darkened workshop he played me songs like Deportees, So Long Its Been Good To Know You, Union Maid, and As I Go Rambling Round.
Many more besides.
A word man, my father called him.
Meaning, I suppose, a poet.
From my father there was no higher praise.
I remember watching a documentary in which Woody sang a dust bowl ballad with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, the three of them in a dilapidated barn. Who are they, I asked my father and he said, I have no idea.
A week later he’d found a record by them and gave it to me.
I didn’t know what to make of it. I was twelve. A white kid in a rural community in the mid-west. Perhaps it was too intense, too ragged, too like the preachers on late night radio; too feral. I played it a few times and then went back to more familiar territory.
Seventeen years later I bought this record in New York. I bought it not because it was Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, but because of the song: People Get Ready.
Curtis Mayfield, who wrote it, was my Woody Guthrie.
A word man, I thought.
Like Guthrie, a believer in better ways, a dissenter, a radical.
I loved the original version he’d sung with The Impressions. And I’d loved countless other versions as well; The Persuasions, The Staple Singers, Dusty Springfield, The Chambers Brothers, Al Green.
The Five Blind Boys Of Alabama.
Bob Marley too.
This version is unlike any other version. When I first put it on I thought they’d mislabelled it – the acoustic guitar sounded more like a Woody Guthrie song than a Curtis Mayfield song – surely this couldn’t be People Get Ready. Just as I was about to take the needle off, something strange happened: an electric guitar squealed, drums leapt in out of nowhere, a harmonica began to pulse and a falsetto wail introduced the vocals.
Where Curtis’s original version had been all grace and gentle good hope, this version was a train out of control. It screamed through stations and rattled across the plains. Get the hell on board, it warned, or be left behind! This wasn’t the peaceful fellowship of church, this was battle. This was a last chance express.
This record is the voice of Woody Guthrie filtered through the church, through the blues, through soul music – through electric guitars and drums – this is a demand: People Get Ready!