As an expression of Harlem Renaissance inventiveness and as a part of the continuum of cultural creativity during the 1920’s, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse is James Weldon Johnson’s adaptation of African American folk sermons into an artistic form. The book contains eight poetic sermons—“Listen Lord,” “The Creation,” “The Prodigal Son,” “Go Down, Death,” “Noah Built the Ark,” “The Crucifixion,” “Let My People Go,” and “The Judgment Day”—written as monologues in the familiar call-and-response mode associated with the plantation preacher. Unlike Paul Laurence Dunbar, the author’s distinguished forerunner who became famous for writing dialect poetry, Johnson elects not to use dialect in his poems. Nevertheless, God’s Trombones does offer African rhythms and African American folk expressions, although Johnson maintains that the sermons are also saturated with Old Testament phraseology and King James English.
Genesis provides the basic material for “The Creation” and “Noah Built the Ark”; the Exodus account of Moses and the burning bush unfolds into distinct contemporaneous overtones in “Let My People Go”; details taken from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are recognizable in “The Crucifixion”; from Luke, Jesus’ parable on intemperance is made picturesque in “The Prodigal Son”; and Revelation provides a heavenward vision in “Go Down, Death” and “The Judgment Day.” Of particular note, the sermons are studded with echoes of actual spirituals and delivered in the tradition of the nineteenth century orator, where message and art (gestures and phonology) are intertwined.