1927, James Weldon Johnson
A remarkable compilation drawn from Johnson's boyhood memories, published in his 56th year. With these poems Johnson intended to capture the sonorous intonation, rich rhythms, and varied meters in which an old-time preacher would have delivered these seven classic sermons, or rather, six sermons and a prayer. It is impossible for us to know how well he succeeded, but without his efforts all trace of these amazing performances would now be lost.
Johnson avoided the use of negro dialect, wishing to dodge the stereotypes associated with it. He worked hard to create a sense of the majestic cadences, sudden stops, and range of volumes used by the masters of the artform he was trying to commit to paper, but asks us (in a Preface well worth reading) to remember that everybody in church chimed in with groans, shouts, hand claps, and low background singing, all in time with the rhythm of the preacher. These are examples from a body of folk sermons that were all well-known to their audiences; the words themselves, though often beautiful and true, were not the point. These were moments of catharsis, shared freedom and power, brief moments of exaltation in lives defined by squalor, terror, and wrenching pain.
There comes a time,
There comes a time
When ev'ry young man looks out from his father's house,
Longing for that far-off country.
You're never lonesome in Babylon.
You can always join a crowd in Babylon.
You can never be alone in Babylon,
Alone with your Jesus in Babylon.
You can never find a place, a lonesome place,
A lonesome place to go down on your knees,
And talk with your God, in Babylon.
You're always in a crowd in Babylon.
from The Prodigal Son
set these memories from the 1870
's to verse from the vantage point of his office as General Secretary for the NAACP
in the New York
of the Roaring Twenties
. He had witnessed the transformation of the New York of 1900
, with its clopping hooves and sleigh bells in the staid boulevards, into the rushing, shouting clangor of a modern town. He knew how much was being lost in the crush and saved for us, in God's Trombones
, a small vial of the essence of a lost time.