Originally published in 1927, James Weldon Johnson’s book, God’s Trombones, is a slim volume composed of a prayer and seven poems: Listen, Lord–A Prayer, The Creation, The Prodigal Son, Go Down Death, Noah Built the Ark, The Crucifixion, Let My People Go, and The Judgement Day. The verses were inspired by his experiences attending black churches throughout the American south. The preachers’ oratory inspired Johnson to write these poems and, in the book’s preface, to reflect upon the nature of oration and folk traditions. His poems, I assume, inspired his artistic collaborators, Aaron Douglas and Charles B. Falls. The signature styles of two very different artists were brought together to complement Johnson’s words.
A publication was produced that is really quite distinctive with regard to words, images and overall concept. Johnson as scholar as well as poet produced a tome that captured in a unique way the power and importance of religion in the African American experience. He makes real even for those not having attended black churches how the preachers – God’s trombones – used word, rhyme and rhythm to give voice to the stories in the bible even when no bible was present.
It would be easy to pick up this book, to skip the preface and go straight to the poems. But don’t. Johnson’s preface is critical, for his brief and cohesive insights into religion and the American experience, and for his guidance in how to truly appreciate what he was attempting to do with this book.
“I claim no more for these poems than that I have written them after the manner of the primitive sermons. In the writing of them I have, naturally, felt the influence of the Spirituals. There is, of course, no way of recreating the atmosphere — the fervor of the congregation, the amens and hallelujahs, the undertone of singing which was often a soft accompaniment to parts of the sermon; nor the personality of the preacher — his physical magnetism, his gestures and gesticulations, his changes of tempo, his pauses for effect, and, more than all, his tones of voice. These poems would better be intoned than read; especially does this apply to “Listen, Lord,” “The Crucifixion,” and “The Judgment Day.” But the intoning practiced by the old-time preacher is a thing next to impossible to describe; it must be heard, and it is extremely difficult to imitate even when heard. …”
“… The tempos of the preacher I have endeavored to indicate by the line arrangement of the poems, and a certain sort of pause that is marked by a quick intaking and an audible expulsion of the breath I have indicated by dashes. There is a decided syncopation of speech — the crowding in of many syllables or the lengthening out of a few to fill one metrical foot, the sensing of which must be left to the reader’s ear. The rhythmical stress of this syncopation is partly obtained by a marked silent fraction of a beat; frequently this silent fraction is filled in by a hand clap. …”
The ensuing poems do read like song and the power of the words are echoed and strengthened by the complementary visusals.
Both Johnson and Aaron Douglas are considered key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Charles B. Falls was a noted illustrator and designer especially remembered for the posters he created during World War I and II as part of the Victory Books Campaign.
Over time the book has been reprinted numerous times including an edition by Penguin Classics, edited by Henry Louis Gates and with an introduction by Maya Angelou. As Johnson wrote in his preface the poems are really meant to be performed and over the years many individuals and institutions have done just that. Recordings can be found online. You can also find the book fully digitized and viewable online thanks to the Documenting the American South project at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, my primary source for this post. I hope you have the opportunity to view the book in-hand or online: http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html
Sources & Additional Readings
God’s Trombones (digitized) – http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/johnson/johnson.html
James Weldon Johnson – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Weldon_Johnson
Aaron Douglas – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Douglas
Charles Buckles Falls – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Buckles_Falls
The New Negro Renaissance – http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-renaissance.html
More about the Victory Books Campaign – http://arcweb.sos.state.or.us/pages/exhibits/ww2/services/books.htm