“Train I Ride:” The Downfall of the Train in Twentieth Century African American Religious Perspectives of the Mississippi Delta

In the early twentieth century, the symbolism of the train in the Mississippi Delta was at the center of African American religious perspectives. As noted in John M. Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915, “the practice of constructing both institutional and individual spiritual journeys from elements of train travel laid the groundwork the development of a new part of the oral tradition in black religion during the early twentieth century, the chanted railroad sermon.” This new form of sermon is seen in Reverend J. M. Gates’s Death’s Black Train Is Coming. While the train was the the core of African American religion, this would all change in the 1920s. In King Vidor’s Hallelujah, the chanted railroad sermon, as embodied by Ezekiel the prophet’s express, is not able to persevere in the face of 1920’s social movements, the jazz age and flappers. Through Zeke’s failure to overcome these movements, the train loses its central position as a symbol in African American religion, as shown in later pieces of music from the Mississippi Delta.

Our first glimpse of the train in Hallelujah is seen at 49:49 when Ezekiel the Prophet’s railroad car roars into the Delta community of Greenville, Mississippi, with a crowd singing a chorus of a spiritual journey,

“Get on board, get on board, o’ children get on board”

As the crowd cheers, Ezekiel the prophet declares to the crowd,

The service is here to give you a campaign ride to glory

This moment of the film symbolizes the chanted railroad sermon at its peak and represents the importance of the train in African American religion in the heart of the Delta. The symbolism of the train is seen again in Ezekiel’s service in the woods. Ezekiel refers to a train called cannonball, which, as Ezekiel puts it, “is leaving for hell today.” (59:01). During this service, Ezekiel impersonates a train and conductor, which Giggie points to as traditional for railroad sermons 

“They followed a common pattern, beginning with spoken prose but swiftly moving to a rhythmic cadence punctuated by cries of encouragement from the audience. They usually climaxed in a near tonal chant, (p.51) when the preacher successfully brought the listeners to their feet, singing and swaying with him. Beginning in the 1900s though, ministers included bells, horns, and whistles into their chanted sermons and mimicked the boom of a conductor’s voice as devices to enliven their delivery, order its tempo, and pace its lyrics” (Giggie p. 27).

Given Giggie’s analysis, we see that the train was a central symbol of Ezekiel the prophet’s career. While Zeke’s career as a prophet is briefly successful and his influence is seen throughout the delta, trouble is followed shortly after, as seen in the character Chick. King Vidor uses the character Chick to embody the movements of the 1920s. The jazz age is seen with the performance of jazz music in the film and the flapper movement is seen with the resemblance of Chick to flappers of the 1920s. When Zeke’s career as a preacher comes to an end, it is due to his desire for Chick. Through Zeke’s downfall as a preacher, we see that the African American religious perspective which focuses on the symbolism of the train, is unable to withstand the social movements of the 1920s. So where does this leave trains in the culture of the Mississippi Delta?

To look into this question, I have identified two songs that could show us the symbolism of the train in the Delta from the 1950s to the present. The first song I am looking into is called “Mystery Train,” written by Junior Parker in 1953. 

Recording of Mystery Train

“Little” Junior Parker was born in the small Delta town of Bobo, Mississippi, located in Coahoma County. While the train is a major symbol in this song, it does not have the same religious undertone of Hallelujah and Death’s Black Train is Coming, as seen in the lyrics

Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well that long black train carry my baby belong

Train train, comin’ around the bend
Train train, comin’ around the bend
Well it took my baby, is gone do it again

Train train, comin’ on down the line
Train train, comin’ on down the line
Well it’s bringin’ my baby, ’cause she’s mine, all mine

Little Junior Parker’s Mystery Train

Through these lyrics, we find that the train still focuses on individual journey’s, but I would argue that the journey is not based on religion as much as it’s based on personal stories that do not directly involve religion. The symbolism of the train away from religion is also seen in more contemporary art from delta musicians, such as Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ Train Train (2019).

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is based in the delta town of Bentonia, Mississippi. Through his lyrics, we also found that the train is used more in personal stories rather than religious messages.

Tell me one train ran at midnight

Yeah they tell me one train ran at midnight

One train, ran just before day

I wonder and I wonder

Would train carry my gal away?

Verse from Train Train

At the beginning of the 20th century, we find that the symbolism of the train was largely based in institutional and individual spiritual journeys, shown in chanted religious sermons. Through social movements of the 1920s, we see that that the symbolism of the train, along with African American religion as a whole, changes, as foreshadowed in King Vidor’s Hallelujah. In the later half of the twentieth century to the present, the train has moved away from its religious position and now symbolizes the personal struggles of an individual.

2 thoughts on ““Train I Ride:” The Downfall of the Train in Twentieth Century African American Religious Perspectives of the Mississippi Delta

  1. First, I really enjoyed your analysis. You took your research a step further contrasting the symbolism of the train during the time of the film until today. It is interesting how the theme of religion drifted away as time progressed. The connection between Chick and the flapper movement had also not crossed my mine.

  2. Great work tracing the roles of the train in religious symbolism of this period, Sam. We’ve talked before about how trains can represent industrialism and inevitability. Do any of your sources suggest that maybe the downfall of this symbol could have been linked to a lessened sense of inevitability in a post-industrial society?

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