The trombone is Johnson’s metaphor for “the wonderful voice” of the “old-time Negro preacher.” In the book’s preface, Johnson asserts that the “trombone possesses above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice—and with greater amplitude.” The rhythmic, free-verse lines of the sermons make clear that the Southern preacher intones, moans, pleads, blares, crashes, and thunders. Furthermore, the preacher loves “the sonorous, mouth-filling, ear-filling phrase because it gratifies a highly developed sense of sound and rhythm in himself and his hearers.” Creating a picture in words out of his own imagination becomes the most personal aspect of the preacher’s mission.

Portrayed in the sentimental plantation tradition and the comic minstrel tradition as a buffoon, the stereotypical “old-time Negro preacher” was characterized as an ignorant lazybones, contented with guffawing and strumming the guitar or banjo, or as “a semi-comic figure.” In contrast, Johnson’s preacher not only laughs and is witty but also weeps, struggles, and suffers. Crushed all too often beneath the heaviness of injustice, as is made plain in “Let My People Go,” the poet’s preacher is described as a human being, confronting crises both personal and cultural.

Preaching a personal God, the preacher reproduces in his oratory themes, imagery, and idioms familiar to his congregation. When Eve succumbs to the serpent’s wiles, the preacher is a witness. When the prodigal son journeys to a far-off country and yields himself to debauchery and dissipation, the preacher is an onlooker. Together with his listeners, the preacher relives the betrayal by Judas: “Oh, look at black-hearted Judas—/ Sneaking through the dark of the Garden/ Leading his crucifying mob/ Oh, God!/ Strike him down!” Sweeping his listeners (and oftentimes himself) to “a sure-enough heaven,” he makes concrete a blissful abode for “those who’ve come through great tribulations.”

Frequently appearing in the prayers and sermons are the thoughts and feelings of the Eternal Father. With the aim of inspiring his listeners, the preacher addresses God with an anthropomorphism that brings Him down to the human level: “O Lord—open up a window of heaven,/ And lean out far over the battlements of glory,/ And listen this morning.”

In “The Creation,” the preacher posits a God who ponders His reasons for being alone while He self-assuredly plans His masterwork, the world. Stepping forth to design, sitting to think, and kneeling “to make man,” the...

(The entire section is 1074 words.)