Performance Aspects of Chanted Railroad Sermons

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.

Giggie also wrote about this chanted railroad sermon, “Black Diamond Express to Hell.” I thought it was very similar to Zeke’s sermon in the film due to the focus on different stations throughout the train’s journey.

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?

3 thoughts on “Performance Aspects of Chanted Railroad Sermons

  1. That is very interesting that Giggie wrote about how the song itself sounded like a train. I would not have picked that up but going back and listening again, I can see that it does have some similarities.

  2. Hi Carly! I also liked getting to see Zeke dress up and act out the train analogy. The question you pose is interesting because even while acting as the “conductor” Zeke himself is led astray multiple times, and I think he somewhat leads others astray too. While the crowds of people in the sermon scenes may have been lead to a better way of life, he’s partially responsible for the deaths of Chick, Hotshot, and his brother. He gets to recover from his mistakes and return home to his family while the others characters don’t, which I feel is also a sign that he’s not the best conductor.

    • Thanks for trying out my questions, Hannah! I really like your last point about Zeke’s ending compared to other characters like Chick and Hotshot. While they both made individual decisions that led to their fate, Zeke was certainly not the innocent and altruistic figure that the train sermon made him out to be, and played a role in both of their demises.

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