Skip to main content

The Experiment of God's Trombones

Johnson's belated antipathy for dialect had noteworthy consequences in the free-verse sermons of God's Trombones, which he succeeded in making a typically Negro achievement while eschewing any use of dialect. Here is his own account of the origins of this experiment:

What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is something like what Synge did for the Irish; he needs to find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the Negro, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and, highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.

We will not insist on the fact that the dialect itself could have met all these demands, since the work of Sterling Brown is there to prove it. Let us simply examine the means Johnson used to carry out the program he had set himself, and estimate the extent to which his experiment may be considered a success.

His intent in writing God's Trombones is succinctly expressed in these two sentences from the preface: "The old-time Negro preacher is rapidly passing. I have here tried sincerely to fix something of him." The original idea was to begin the collection with a portrait of the preacher, "The Reverend Jasper Jones." Extant is a typewritten manuscript of this poem of twenty-four rhymed couplets with the author's annotations, but it is so poor a piece that Johnson's final decision not to use it is easily understood. Thus, but for the references made in the preface, we have no direct portrait of the preacher, and to get an adequate view of him we must turn to the oratorical skills he displays in the opening prayer "Listen, Lord," and in the following seven sermons.

The conventionality of these eight poems is already apparent from the fact that they are monologues, whereas in reality a part of the sermon, at least, would have consisted of a dialogue between preacher and congregation. Here the presence of the latter is not even suggested, as it might have been by appropriate monologue technique - for example, by using the repeated question, as Irwin Russell and Page and Gordon had done. Nor is the monologue able to reproduce the oratorical gestures, always so important for the Negro preacher, who is equally actor and orator.

Thus Johnson, from the outset, imposed limits on his experiment. He had indicated what they were in the preface, and asked the reader to accept them.

In principle, the language of God's Trombones is normal English, not Negro dialect, but here and there it is possible to note a few minor deviations from the norm. True, the dialect or familiar forms that creep in are for the most part American rather than specifically Negro. They include, for example, the intermittent usage of the double negation and of the gerundive preceded by the preposition "a" - except, however, in these two lines of "Noah Built the Ark," in which "a-going" is not just typically Negro but directly borrowed from the first line of a spiritual:


God's a-going to rain down rain on rain.

God's a-going to loosen up the bottom of the deep.


Another Negro dialect form is the parasitical "a" often used by blacks to introduce a sort of syncopation into the English sentence:


Lord -- ride by this morning --

Mount your milk-white horse,

And ride-a this morning --


or, again, in these lines:


And the old ark-a she begun to ride;

The old ark-a she begun to rock;


Yet another Negro dialect form is the redundant recourse to the auxiliary "done," as in this example:


And now, O Lord --

When I've done drunk my last cup of sorrow --


But such forms are exceptional; no more than two or three dozen of them are to be noted in the more than 900 lines of God's Trombones, and their contribution to the effect Johnson was aiming at is but subsidiary.

Much more effective in giving these sermons their Negro character are the countless, more or less extensive echoes of actual spirituals with which they are studded. Sometimes a mere word or expression that has long been familiar crops up in the sermon and by its own power suddenly evokes in the reader's mind the whole naive imagery that makes up the religious context of the spirituals, to which the preacher untiringly returns to find subject matter for his sermon. There are the pearly gates and golden streets of the New Jerusalem, mentioned in Revelation; the custom of calling Jesus "Mary’s Baby," and the warning words to sinners and backsliders that they should repent before it is too late. Elsewhere a line or two (or even an entire stanza) taken over bodily from a spiritual imperceptibly slips in at the end of a sermon. This is the signal awaited by the congregation for their voices to join in with the preacher’s; preaching then yields to song. And, finally, some, sermons are constructed from beginning to end upon spirituals, borrowing their arguments and paraphrasing their lines. Thus "The Crucifixion" relies for its details on the spirituals "Look-a How Dey Done My Lord!" and "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord." "Let My People Go" is the account of Exodus, related on the lines of "Go Down, Moses," with its classical parallel between the people of Israel and the black people; whereas in "The judgment Day," it is easy to pick out the very expressions used in the spirituals "In Dat Great Gittin' up Mornin’" "My Lord Says He’s Gwineter Rain Down Fire," "My Lord, What a Mornin’," and "Too Late, Sinnah." These describe the Last Judgment, particularly the delicate mission of the Angel Gabriel who, with one foot on the mountaintop and the other in the middle of the sea, blows his trumpet gently at first and then "like seven peals of thunder" to awaken the dead and summon them before the Lord's throne.

Because of their somewhat immoderate resort to the texts of the spirituals, these last three sermons are the least original in the volume. Yet Johnson gives a correct idea of the preacher's technique, designed to move rather than convince his audience, alternately raising the congregations hopes and filling them with terror, and arousing their pity by presenting scenes from Holy Writ as though these were taking place before their eyes. The preacher "sees" what he is describing and his hearers "see" through his eyes:


Up Golgotha's rugged road

I see my Jesus go.

I see him sink beneath the load,

I see my drooping Jesus sink.


When Eve yields to the serpent’s wiles, the preacher is a witness to the scene. Again, together with his parishioners, he relives the betrayal by Judas so vividly that one expects them at any moment to step in so as to change the course of events:


Oh, look at black-hearted Judas --

Sneaking through the dark of the Garden –

Leading his crucifying mob.

Oh, God!

Strike him down!

Why don't you strike him down,

Before he plants his traitor's kiss

Upon my Jesus' cheek?


He is present, too, "on that great gettin' up morning": he "feels" the earth shudder, "sees" the graves burst open, and "hears" how the bones of those awakened from the dead click together.

The most personal aspect of the preacher's art is what he creates out of his own fantasy with the aim of stirring the imaginations of his hearers. A ready fabulist, he constantly interpolates in order to supplement the bareness of the biblical narrative. Thus the creation of the world is unfolded before the eyes of the astounded congregation as though it were a fairy tale or a child's game:


Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,

And God rolled the light around in his hands

Until he made the sun;

And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.

And the light that was left from making the sun

God gathered it up in a shining ball

And flung it against the darkness,

Spangling the night with the moon and stars.

. . . . .

And the earth was under his feet.

And God walked, and where he trod

His footsteps hollowed the valleys out

and bulged the mountains up.

. . . . .

. . . God stepped over to the edge of the world

And he spat out the seven seas –

He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed --

He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled --


His preaching ever relies on the concrete, with an anthropomorphism that brings down to the human level the Eternal Father, who is addressed as one would speak to a friendly neighbor:


O lord -- open up a window of heaven,

And lean out far over the battlements of glory,

And listen this morning.


Particularly remarkable are the images the preacher uses to make himself understood by all. Witness the reproof administered to the Prodigal Son who has revolted against his Father:


Young man --

Young man --

Your arm's too short to box with God.


Naive, homely, and extravagant in turn, but always direct and forceful, these images have no compunction about blending in with those of the Bible so unexpectedly at times as to be almost grotesque, as in this prayer uttered by the pastor for himself:


And now, O Lord, this man of God,

Who breaks the bread of life this morning –

Shadow him in the hollow of thy hand,

And keep him out of the gunshot of the devil.

Take him, Lord -- this morning --

Wash him with hyssop inside and out,

Hang him up and drain him dry of sin,

Pin his ear to the wisdom-post,

And make his words sledge hammers of truth –

Beating on the iron heart of sin.

Lord God, this morning --

Put his eye to the telescope of eternity,

And let him look upon the paper walls of time.

Lord, turpentine his imagination,

Put perpetual motion in his arms,

Fill him full of the dynamite of thy power,

Anoint him all over with the oil of thy salvation,

And set his tongue on fire.


If allowance is made for his borrowings from the Bible, from the spirituals, and from the Negro sermons he had heard, what then is the poet’s share in God's Trombones? Johnson was certainly not the creator of these sermons but, as Synge remarked of his own indebtedness to the Irish people, every work of art results from a collaboration. In God's Trombones, the artist is clearly present on every page, and he gives even while he receives. The simplicity and clarity, so striking in these poems, are the fruits of his efforts. His musical sense is manifested in the choice of sonorities for the free-verse line which, in his hands, becomes docile and supple, and adjusts to the preaches rhythm as well as to the rise and fall of his voice. Taking what were, after all, the heterogeneous elements of his raw materials, the poet has marked them with the unity and the stamp of his own genius, so that these sermons, as they come from his hands, have undeniably become his own to some degree.

If he deserves any reproach, it might be for his excessive zeal in idealizing and refining -- or, in other words, for having thought it necessary to impose too much respectability on essentially popular material whose crudity is one of its charms, as it is also a voucher for its authenticity. His sermons are still folklore, perhaps, but stylized folklore.

Johnson's experiment is not altogether comparable to Synge's, though this had been his source of inspiration. There was some desire in both cases, no doubt, to rehabilitate a racial community that had long been oppressed and mocked by a more powerful Anglo-Saxon people. Synge’s work forms part of the Irish Renaissance, as Johnson's belongs to the Negro Renaissance. In each case the writer chose to produce a work that would be typically national or racial, while deliberately discarding the speech of the minority in favor of English. But even apart from the fact that, compared with Synge's lifework, God's Trombones is of modest dimensions, its themes were already set and its plots already mapped out, so that the role of inventiveness could only be negligible. Thus the poet's originality could hardly be exhibited except in his actual treatment of the material. While Synge did not overlook some opportunities for criticizing the Irish character, Johnson frankly aims at writing an apologia. Finally, even the linguistic experiment is not identical in the two writers. While Synge, utilizing the examples of folk speech which he had patiently collected, constructed for himself an ordinary synthetic, artificial idiom, with intricate phrases and constructions that are his alone, Johnson relied much more widely on the English language's normal turn of phrase. Though making generous use, in his sermons, of fragments from the spirituals, he almost always provided them first with the respectable externals of standard English. What is Negro in God's Trombones is not the language as such, but the style and the outlook on life it reflects.

Successful as Johnson's experiment was, its success nevertheless remained limited and contingent, for it depended in large measure on forces lying outside the work itself and from which, in view of the nature of the theme, it profited. For any subject but this, it would have been hard to find so favorable a combination of circumstances.

This work, furthermore, was the offspring of an outdated mentality. Like its author, the work set out to have a Negro soul, but one garbed in the distinction and respectability of whiteness. Despite appearances, its tendency was at odds with that total coming to awareness marked by the Negro Renaissance, and no more is needed to explain why God's Trombones remained an isolated venture.