'People Get Ready'
Song Inspired by March on Washington Carries Enduring Message

audio iconListen to a 1993 Fresh Air interview with Curtis Mayfield.

Curtis Mayfield

Curtis Mayfield, seen in a late 1980s photo.
Credit: Courtesy Warner Strategic Marketing, Curtis Mayfield

Hear Selected Versions of 'People Get Ready'

audio icon Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, from The Very Best of the Impressions (Rhino Records - 1997)

audio icon Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, from Sonny & Brownie (A&M Records - 1973)

audio icon Aretha Franklin, from Lady Soul (Rhino Records - 1995)

audio icon Eva Cassidy, from Songbird (Blix Street Records - 1998)

audio icon Bob Dylan

Aug. 26, 2003 -- Part of the March on Washington's legacy is its music. Singer and songwriter Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" was written in the year after the march. For many, it captured the spirit of the march -- the song reaches across racial and religious lines to offer a message of redemption and forgiveness. It's the latest report by NPR's Juan Williams on the march, which took place 40 years ago this week.

After hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech that August day in 1963, the crowd of 250,000 sang "We Shall Overcome." In 1965, another gospel song emerged -- "People Get Ready" by Mayfield and the Impressions.

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

In addition to the march, the song followed several jarring events in American history: the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham -- which killed four little girls -- and the assassination of President Kennedy.

Music critic Stanley Crouch explains Mayfield's response to those events: "...by saying 'There's a train a-coming, get ready' that was like saying, okay, so regardless of what happens, get yourself together for this because you are going to get a chance. Your chance is coming."

"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," Williams adds.

Mayfield, who was living in Chicago at the time of the march, had grown up in the black church singing gospel. In a 1993 interview with NPR's Terry Gross, he said the song was a subconscious product of "the preachings of my grandmothers and most ministers when they reflect from the Bible."

The song became one of the first gospel crossover hits, while at the same time continuing a tradition of American folklore -- the train of salvation -- in the vein of Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash's popular versions of "This Train's Bound For Glory." Mayfield sings about the same train stopping to pick up the faithful of all colors.

"I think it's a song that touches people..." says 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."

In fact, since its debut in 1965, "People Get Ready" has become a classic for black and white musicians. Bob Marley used the guitar riff and some of the lyrics in his reggae song "One Love." A montage in Williams' report includes versions by Rod Stewart, James Taylor, Eva Cassidy, Phil Collins and Paul Jackson Jr. Bruce Springsteen has quoted from "People Get Ready" as part of his concert performances in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Curtis Mayfield died in 1999. 'People Get Ready,' the song inspired by the March on Washington, lives on. It's idealism and optimism make it the ultimate crossover -- crossing not only racial barriers but generations," Williams says.

In Depth

moreFollow NPR coverage of the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington.

moreAug. 22, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on the struggles to organize the March on Washington.

moreAug. 25, 2003: NPR's Juan Williams reports on the people who traveled to the March on Washington.

moreDec. 28, 1999: Listen to a 'Talk of the Nation' discussion on the legacy of Curtis Mayfield.

moreDec. 27, 1999: Hear a 'Morning Edition' obituary for Curtis Mayfield.

moreFeb. 4, 2002: Read a 'Present at the Creation' feature on 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' which came to be known as the national black anthem.

moreMarch 1, 2003: Hip Hop: Today's Civil Rights Movement?

moreJan. 20, 2003: A King Celebration 2003

Other Resources

  • Read about Curtis Mayfield at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Read the lyrics to 'People Get Ready.'