This is part of a series of reflections on current or future repertoire as I take on the role of Musical Director for the Madrid International Choir, the English speaking choir in Madrid.
What is this music?
People get ready was composed by Curtis Mayfield 1942 - 1999 and recorded by The Impressions, of which he was a member, in 1965*. Mayfield was born in Chicago and the church and its music were an important part of his early life. When he refers to travelling to Jordan, he does not have to spell out the links to Hebrew slaves and hopes of freedom: his listeners had also been steeped in biblical themes and could fill in the dots.
Mayfield brings the song into a contemporary setting with references to the diesel train: he was fully involved in the civil rights movement in Chicago and he used his music to send a message:
“I’m an entertainer first”, he often stated. Through my way of writing I was capable of being able to say these things and yet not make a person feel as though they’re being preached at.”**
This gentle song is not a full reflection of Mayfield’s output. In the following years he played a major role in composing and producing for other soul artists and in the emergence of funk music as a style, he wrote music for numerous films and from the early 70’s was one of the first musicians to establish his own publishing company to control the rights to his work.
Why are we singing it?
It’s a beautiful song. It uses a repeating chord sequence of three chords, one repeated. The melody has a sense of calm because of this and because the vocal range is limited to an octave plus one tone, a ninth, and because there is so much repetition: in a total of eight bars, bar 1 is repeated in bar 3, bar 2 is repeated in bar 6, and bar 4 in bar 8.
The highest note at the start of bar 7 if followed by a lovely falling figure to end the song. Three short verses of lyrics pack plenty of theological punch: freedom is not to be paid for, it’s God’s gift; there is room for all God’s children: don’t we all want to feel we are “among those loved the most”? There is also hope for social justice: for the hopeless sinner who would hurt all mankind there is “no hiding place against the kingdom’s throne”.
Is it relevant to us today?
For some of us this song has been a part of our musical memory dating from then we first started listening to music. From a strictly musical point of view, soul music is a comfort zone to which we keep returning, it soothes our aching heart.
Seen as a form of social commentary, tragically the song has not lost its relevance. Although the song tells us that those who “would hurt all mankind just to save his own” will some day receive judgement at the kingdom’s throne, for the moment those who harm others and spread false information to promote their own interests seem to be doing very nicely.
We are taking as our starting point an arrangement from an Oxford University Press choir series, which gives scope for our own creativity and improvisation, by Charlie Beale b1964:
“A passionate campaigner for stylistic diversity within choral singing.”***