Song Focus: Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”

“People Get Ready” is special for three reasons. First, simply is that it is a terrific song. The second is that it’s deeply universal. Finally, a bit like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it invites tremendous covers and interpretations by other artists.

“People Get Ready” was the title track of an album released by The Impressions in 1965. The song, with both words and music by Curtis Mayfield, was a comment on the great social unrest that was coalescing. Indeed, by being non-specific, the song helped meld two threads of protest: The ongoing and by that time mature civil rights movement and the nascent movement against the war in Vietnam. While overlapping, these were distinct. The all-inclusive message is simple and beautifully put: We can change all this. All that has to happen is that people must make a decision to do so.

Curtis Mayfield

Rolling Stone – a magazine and site that is in love with lists – calls “People Get Ready” the 24th greatest song of all time. Numbering pieces of art always is a bit odd and anal, but doing so illustrates the song’s importance. It’s interesting (and, to be honest, quite strange) that it ranked higher – the twentieth spot – in Rolling Stone’s list of great guitar tracks. Indeed, that may even be a mistake of some sort. Mojo called it one the top ten songs ever.

The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998 and was a crossover hit: It reached number three on Billboard’s R&B Chart and 14 on its pop chart.

NPR ties the genesis of the song closely to The March on Washington in 1963. The story suggests that events in the two years between the august march (in which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have a Dream” speech) and the song’s release added to the song’s depth, gravity and importance. These events included the murder of four girls by a bomb at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the assassination of President Kennedy. The world was spinning quickly and not in a good direction. The song suggested that it was possible to improve things just by, in essence, doing so.

No single song can capture the essence of a time. Anyone putting together a short list of songs that captures the 1960s simply couldn’t leave “People Get Ready” off.  It had an immediate impact. Rolling Stone says that versions of the song were included in church songbooks in Chicago after it was released.

“People Get Ready” continues a popular tradition of borrowing from gospel themes and musical approach. Perhaps the best take on the song is that it is hopeful and all-inclusive, a song of redemption and hope. Perhaps it is best put by a quote near the end of the NPR story:

“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.”

Here are the lyrics. Notable covers of “People Get Ready” were recorded by Aretha Franklin, Al Green and Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart.

Above is the original. Below is a cover by Kappa Danielson, who ironically says she his covering Eva Cassidy. So, whether intended or not, it’s a second generation cover. In any case, it’s very well done. The Daily Music Break previously posted twice on Curtis Mayfield (one includes his solo version) and offered a cover by Joss Stone.