A FAN’S NOTES
For the past year or so I’ve been utterly entranced by a single song. That song is the gospel-inflected, protest reverie If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me) by the Staple Singers and released by the Stax label in 1973. It’s just too damn simple to describe it as an obvious follow-up to their 1972 hit I’ll Take You There.
Back in 1973 the civil rights movement in the United States did register with a Canadian Catholic boy attempting to cope with puberty and the extravagant cost of Rolling Stones albums at Woolworth’s five and dime. The marvel of the arts of course is that an admirer of a particular stream can always go against the current, that is, travel backward from the present and even from the avant-garde. I did not, could not, fully appreciate the Staple Singers then but I get them now.
The song’s trio of writers, Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson, are only familiar to me because Rod Stewart floundered his way through their lament (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right. These composers like their parentheses. If You’re Ready’s groove is positively Memphis, shimmering ten feet off of Beale Street but its words are transcendent. The bridge rhymes “economical exploitation” with “political domination,” metered, polysyllabic tongue-twisters. If that’s not enough, Mavis scats to Pop’s guitar solo on the outro and her phrasing is uncanny.
“Love is the only transportation.” That line and the word “ready” in the song’s title suggests to me the Impressions’ People Get Ready, a song whose central metaphor is the salvation train, first class for all, all down the line. “You don’t need a ticket, you just get on board.” This is the same train that travels through Bruce Springsteen’s Land of Hopes and Dreams; it carries “winners and losers, whores and gamblers,” and you may even encounter Willie Nelson’s somewhat shady Railroad Lady.
Canada’s most fascinating and enigmatic prime minister, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau once described sharing a continent with the United States as “sleeping with an elephant.” These days the entire globe “feels every twitch and grunt” as the bloated orange, pink-eyed beast thrashes through nightmares and the night sweats. When I think about the idea of America, a girl I once knew now redolent in fusty myth, I don’t conjure Lady Liberty or Detroit muscle on Jack Kerouac’s roads; no, I see and hear locomotives straddling endless twin silver lines.
A train ticket is the only sure way into the conflicted heart of the American Dream and, conversely, the only way out of a small and suffocating place like Winesburg, Ohio. American cinema as we understand it flickered to life in 1903’s The Great Train Robbery. Among the nation’s first crop of capitalists were newly forged railway barons. The young republic’s Manifest Destiny rode an iron horse to its Pacific shores. I believe the subversive heroism of the Underground Railroad network is a fundamental chapter in the African-American historical narrative. Actual steel wheels enabled the Great Migration, those fifty years of demographic change dating from near the end of the First World War when southern, rural African-Americans streamed north in search of better wages and slightly less back-breaking work in factories.
Musical trains have kept a-rollin’ through the blues, gospel, country, folk, rock and soul. Sometimes their departures are heartbreaking but more often than not trains symbolize hope, unity and social progress, ways to a better station in life and beyond where “no hatred will be tolerated.” It’s a wonder to me that a simple song from 1973 which doesn’t even mention trains specifically can take me on such a marvelous journey. Its sentiments still spark my imagination and dreams of a just society.