James Weldon Johnson was an author and songwriter during the Harlem Renaissance who was dedicated to displaying the excellence and intelligence of the African American people during this time. His collection of sermons, God’s Trombones, was inspired by his attention to the folk-like qualities of sermons, as many themes and ideas were passed on from preacher to preacher. Some church goers even recall hearing sermons similar to Johnson’s from their own pastors today. Our viewing of Hallelujah and Death’s Black Train is Coming shows that ideas pass through not only pastors, but various art forms as well.
Two articles (here and here) about performances of God’s Trombones, made interesting point about Christian themes that appear both in the film Hallelujah and the song Death’s Black Train is Coming. The imagery of trains appears multiple times throughout Hallelujah, but the most obvious example is when Ezekiel gives his sermon after becoming a preacher. He references the train bringing worshippers to heaven and represents himself as the conductor of the train, not as though he’s a God-like figure himself, but simply a leader in bringing others to heaven’s gates “at the end of the road”. He invites everyone to follow, even the sinners we know in the crowd. Everyone is told to “repent before it’s too late” echoing similar ideas from Death’s Black Train is Coming”. I found powerful imagery in seeing Chick being the last one left to not join the “train”. As she looks around to see no one else left with her, she feels the physical representation of her fate of being left behind, ultimately leader her to repent.
However, my understanding of this scene and the metaphor of the train was deepened by the articles on James Weldon Johnson’s inspiration for his sermons. He describes hearing from his pastor “the Train sermon” in which there was one train going to hell and another to heaven, one with God as the conductor and the other run by the devil. In these ideas, those choosing to follow God have to both board his train and deny the other one as well. This means that in this scene, Chick feels that she is not only being left behind and left out of heaven, but is boarding the other train to hell.