People Get Ready: In Honor of Curtis Mayfield

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles/PNN
Thursday, October 2, 2008;

People get ready
There's a train-a-comin
You dont need no baggage
You just get on board

--Curtis Mayfield

People Get Ready by Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions--to me it's the greatest song ever written. Rolling Stone Magazine named it the 24th greatest song of all time (It named Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone"#1). Forget Rolling Stone. People Get Ready--when I hear it I reflect, sometimes cry. More often, I feel inspired in a world full of war and bad news. In the late 80's I was a student at San Francisco State University majoring in broadcasting. I wanted to be a radio DJ. I succeeded--sort of. I worked in small towns spinning dusty records. One such station was in a wheat field in Stockton where cows sauntered by the window, shooting occasional glances and dropping mounds of steaming cowshit everywhere--including the parking lot. When I got to my car, I'd dodged so much cowshit that I thought I was in a field of landmines. As they say in radio, it was paying your dues.

At SF State I saw a flyer announcing that Curtis Mayfield would be performing in a small theater in the student union. I immediately bought a ticket. The girl I was dating was younger than I was--Curtis who, she asked.

I remember when I was a kid. My uncles and father used to hang out listening to records. My father had about a thousand albums and loved to sing. He and my uncles would sing with the records, hitting the highs, lows and in-betweens. They had a singing group called "The Brothers of Minority". My uncles were like the United Nations--one looked black, the other Chinese, the other, Chicano--they were a cross section of the people of color in San Francisco gentrified out of the Fillmore. My family was gentrified. They never lost their music.

I got to the small theater that was half-filled. I thought, how could this so? Curtis Mayfield is a legend, a man whose music inspired young people, the civil rights and anti-war movements. Anything less than standing room only seemed insulting. I sat down and he came out. He greeted the audience. He picked up his guitar and started playing,accompanied by a pianist. It was part music, part Q & A. One audience member asked, "Curtis, where have you been?" Curtis just shook his head and said that just because you're not recording, doesn't mean that life doesn't go on--that he'd been busy with other things, like everybody else.

He played his songs. It was the soundtrack of my Uncles lives. He played Gypsy Woman, the song about a lovely woman in motion, with hair as "dark as night", and eyes like a "cat in the dark". He stopped occasionally to speak to the audience. I wanted to ask him something but my mind went blank. I requested a song. "Can you play, I'm so proud?" I asked. He played it and I sat thinking of all the girls I liked that I never had the courage to talk to.

Prettier than all the world
And I'm so proud
I'm so proud, I'm so proud of you

Curtis Mayfield recorded the song, "People Get Ready" in 1965. Hearing it reminds me of my Uncle Anthony. Uncle Anthony is a street minister. You might have seen him on Market Street donning a black hat and bright red sweatshirt. He gives out tracts with a message--a message that breathes the lyrics of Curtis Mayfield.

There ain't no room for the hopeless sinner
Who would hurt all mankind just to save his own
Have pity on those whose chances grow thinner
For there's no hiding place against the kingdom's throne

My street minister uncle reaches out to the players, the pimps and those in the life. I see him at times--times that I need him most. He appears--telling me the little things I worry about ain't nothing, that I have to get ready for the lord. He says that God doesn't differentiate between a person's color. "Let me ask you this", he says, "When you die and meet God, do you think he's gonna ask you what color you was down there? He always makes me laugh but his insights make me think. "I'm working for the lord now , he says. "It may not pay much but the retirement plan is out of this world".

I sometimes think of the words of a Filipino minister that I heard one Sunday morning. "God is an equal opportunity lover", he said.

A little more than a year after that intimate performance by Curtis Mayfield I learned that he had been involved in a tragic accident. While on stage in New York, the wind blew down a utility pole, which struck Curtis on stage. He became paralyzed as a result. Regardless, he went on performing--releasing the critically acclaimed, "New World Order" album in 1999.

I walk through the gentrified streets and I'm sad. I see my city dying but if you look close enough, you can see life--a spark. The writer Charles Bukowski once wrote, "Keep a little bit for yourself, a spark. One spark can set a whole forest ablaze".

"People get ready" is a universal message that honors the creator. It honors the blood and bones creation in us held together in poetry and ancestral voices reaching far into the soul waiting to breathe and praise the goodness in us as the sun beats its pulse upon our chests.

The world has gone crazy and in this inching towards insanity there is pause. It is given in the pages of a book, the sound of a trumpet in the Bart Station, the tap dancer tapping stories on pavement and in the words of songs.

People get ready is a song that gives you hope. In it you'll hear the voices of your grandmothers and grandfathers and their grandfathers and grandmothers. It will take you back to interdependence--mother, father and daughter and son and neighbor and creator. The way it was meant.

All you need
Is faith to hear
The diesels hummin

Need no ticket
You just thank
The lord


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