"The Gospel Train"

Posted on August 1, 2020.

One night trying to think of a hymn or song for the newsletter, while reading about the song keep your eyes on the sparrow,  I feel asleep. I had a dream about an old small town railroad station. I was always fascinated with the huge steam trains since I was a kid. In my dream I was driving on this country road in middle of nowhere for quite a while as the road got smaller and smaller. As I came around a bend,there it was, up ahead I saw a glimpse of it through the trees.  Finally there I was at the cutest little wooden railroad  station with an attached residence just as I imagined. I knocked on the door, it was open, no one answered, I had to go in  but no one was home.  I came back out  and someone said What are you doing  then I woke up.  Sorry guys, I don't know what happened next. By now it was 2 am and I thought maybe The Lord was helping me, so I decided to look up hymns that involved railroads. And came across the Gospel Train.                                                        "The Gospel Train (Get on Board)" is a traditional African-American spiritual that has it's roots going back to the Civil War Era but was first published in 1872.  It's a  standard Gospel song, found in the hymnals of many Protestant denominations and has been recorded by numerous artists including Bing Crosby in 1961. The first verse, including the chorus is as follows:
    The gospel train is coming
    I hear it just at hand
    I hear the car wheels moving
    And rumbling thro' the land
    Get on board, children (3×)
    For there's room for many a more                                             In Africa, music had been central to people's lives: Music making permeated important life events and daily activities. However, the white colonists of North America were alarmed by and frowned upon the slaves' African-infused way of worship because they considered it to be idolatrous and wild. As a result, the gatherings were often banned and had to be conducted in a clandestine manner. The African population in the American colonies had initially been introduced to Christianity in the seventeenth century. Acceptance of the religion was relatively slow at first. But the slave population was fascinated by Biblical stories containing parallels to their own lives and created spirituals that retold narratives about Biblical figures like Daniel and Moses.  As Africanized Christianity took hold of the slave population, spirituals served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hope.        Although "The Gospel Train" is usually cited as traditional, several sources credit a Baptist minister from New Hampshire, John Chamberlain, with writing it. Captain Asa W. Bartlett, historian for the New Hampshire Twelfth Regiment, reported Chamberlain as singing the song on April 26, 1863, during Sunday services for the regiment. The source for the melody and lyrics is unknown but developed out of a tradition which resulted in a number of similar songs about a "Gospel Train". One of the earliest known is not from the United States, but from Scotland. In 1853, Scotsman John Lyon published a song in Liverpool titled "Be in Time", the last verse of which mentions that the Gospel train is at hand.  In 1857, an editor for Knickerbocker magazine wrote about visiting a "Colored Camp-Meeting" in New York where a song called "The Warning" was sung which featured an almost identical last verse. "The Warning" used the melody from an old dance song about captain William Kidd.                                      During the Civil War era “Gospel Train” was a code-word song used in the Underground Railroad by slaves, often sung  just before an escape in an attempt to let all who wished to go know that the time was near.                                                                 The first African Free School was opened in New York City in 1787. The school's mission was to educate black children to take their place as equals to white American citizens. It began as a single-room schoolhouse with about forty students, the majority of whom were the children of slaves. This school and six others in the city began receiving public funding in 1824. In the South The Bible and Christianity played a huge roll in African American slaves learning to read as they where forbidden to go to school or taught to read. Slaves forbidden by masters to attend church or, in some cases, even to pray, risked floggings to attend secret gatherings to worship God. They would hold illicit, or at least informal, prayer meetings on weeknights in the slave cabins. Bob W.