With the possible exception of his famous hymn "Lift Every Voice and Sing," God's Trombones is James Weldon Johnson's most critically acclaimed work. The collection consists of an essay and seven poems that retell stories from the Bible, censure sin and sinners, and offer consolation to mourners. Reviewers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Walter White, Countee Cullen, and Alain Locke celebrated the collection for its power and simplicity.
Unlike Johnson's Fifty Years and Other Poems (1917), which
includes dialect poems in the style of the black poet Paul Laurence
Dunbar, and Johnson's many dialect songs written for Broadway in
conjunction with his brother John Johnson and musician Bob Cole, God's
Trombones shuns rhyme, meter, and the dialect style. Critics also
noted the dignity with which the poet treats his subjects. Johnson,
himself an agnostic, used religious themes freely in his earlier poetry,
but God's Trombones evokes black religious fervor using only
straightforward African American speech, as in the following excerpt from
"Go Down Death – A Funeral Sermon," in which God takes pity on a
dying woman in pain:
And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!--Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where death waits with his pale, white horses.