After reading over the chapter “Train Travel and the Black Religious Imagination” from John M. Giggie’s book After redemption: Jim Crow and the transformation of African American religion in the Delta, 1875-1915, I was most interested in Giggie’s analysis of the chanted railroad sermons of the early twentieth century. After the widespread construction of railroads post-Civil War, Giggie writes that Black religious communities like the Delta Blacks began to see trains as “vehicle[s] of religious and racial deliverance” and incorporated train imagery into their religious traditions (53). This is apparent in the recording of Rev. J. M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” as the train serves as the mode of transportation to get to heaven. Beyond just the song lyrics, Giggie provides insightful commentary on how the performance itself mimics the sounds and movements of a train–he points out how Gates uses his voice to replicate “the building acceleration of a train” before adopting “a steady chugging rhythm, like that of a train at moving at top speed” (51-52). Thus, the chanted railroad sermon uses a combination of audio cues in the lyrics and vocal performance to suggest the image of Death’s black train coming for the audience.
These elements of a chanted railroad sermon were also seen in the film Hallelujah, when Zeke performs a similar sermon. Zeke themes his sermon around a train’s journey, mentioning that the audience members are passengers and must get on the train at one of its stops, providing one set of audio cues. We also see that Zeke uses the performance techniques that Giggie found in “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” including the “steady rhythm” that builds up to suggest urgency at the end of his sermon. An additional technique that I noticed is that Zeke uses visual cues–including putting on a conductor’s hat and shuffling his feet along the stage–to add further to the train imagery in the sermon. It was really interesting to have a visual reference and see how preachers may have performed their own chanted railroad sermons, since we lose that aspect of the performance with audio recordings.
In the film, Zeke’s sermon performance was clearly effective–he convinces every member of the audience, including Chick, to join him on the train. I’m left wondering if Zeke’s portrayal of the conductor of the train leading to religious absolution could lead us to other conclusions about his character. Does he, like the train, lead others around him to better ways of life? Or is his position as the conductor leading others astray?