Analysis of Martin’s Work and Gates’ ‘Death’s Black Train is Coming’

After reading the article ‘Preaching on Wax: The Phonograph and the Shaping of Modern African American Religion’ by Martin, and watching his videos ‘Black Spiritual Music’ and ‘Left of Black’, I feel I learned a lot about the black spiritual religious scene throughout history. I felt I wanted to know a bit more about Martin after reading and watching his articles and videos, however, so I found an interesting article about him.

Lerone A. Martin

Martin has won a host of awards in regards to his teaching and research, and is very well known in his field.

Martin spoke about the commoditization of spirituals and preachers, and how spirituals originally spread through preachers who travelled around. To gain popularity, preachers would often use celebrities to publicize their works to spread awareness of their sermons. Reverend Gates, writer of ‘Death’s Black Train is Coming’, made his own path in life by not signing to a record company; this allowed him to make money how he chose and with whomever he chose.

In terms of how these spirituals came to be, many of them were created as songs of hope or work songs. This knowledge leads me to wonder, what type of song is “Death’s Black Train is Coming’? Is it a song to help people not be afraid of death or a song that threatens death or hell on those who do not believe in G-d? Maybe it is a little of both. Either way, it seems like it is different than other sermons of the time. I do not know much about sermons in general, however Martin mentioned in his article that many sermons initially introduce a problem, then says that it will be alright, thus encouraging crowds to celebrate, leading me to believe that ‘Death’s Black Train is Coming’ is an unusual sermon for its time.

4 thoughts on “Analysis of Martin’s Work and Gates’ ‘Death’s Black Train is Coming’

  1. I felt the same way when I read “Death’s Black Train is Coming” as you did, with the confusion of the meaning. It doesn’t seem very clear whether it it is a warning, or an acknowledgement of death, but thinking more about all the death and violence that surrounded the US at that point, especially towards black people. It makes sense to me at least that the song is meant as a comfort and something to be embraced since many at that time felt that same burden with the loss of family members, friends, or the death of someone because they shared your same skin color.

  2. Yes, I agree that the song is meant to be comforting but only for religious people. In my opinion, “Death’s Black Train is Coming” is meant to be a warning to follow religion throughout your life, not just on your death bed. In the introduction, Rev. Gates invites sinners to come pray and he later sings “There some men and there some women that care nothing for the gospel light till they hear the bell ringing and hear the whistle blow”. Many religious people agree with this belief, that one must follow a certain religion throughout their life and not just at the end of their life in order to gain access to Heaven.

  3. I also wonder what kind of song Death’s Black Train is. Perhaps it is up to the listener and however they take it reflects on their inner character. Like if you think it’s about Hell, maybe you’re a sinner. I could see a sermon interpreting it like that.

  4. I think you’re right that Death’s Black Train is a song of both hope and fear, although the fear in this Christian message can be seen more as motivation to do good and follow God. I found it interesting that with this two train analogy, there’s no purgatory or limbo. Christians using this analogy preach that you have a very clear and distinct decision to make.

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