The gospel-influenced track was written and composed by Curtis Mayfield, who displayed the growing sense of social and political awareness in his writing. Mayfield said, "That was taken from my church or from the upbringing of messages from the church. Like there's no hiding place and get on board, and images of that sort. I must have been in a very deep mood of that type of religious inspiration when I wrote that song." The song is the first Impressions hit to feature Mayfield's guitar in the break. People Get Ready is in a long tradition of Black American freedom songs to use the train imagery - other examples are Wade in the Water, The Gospel Train, and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. The imagery comes from the Underground Railroad, not a real train but an escape route North to freedom for escaped slaves in America pre-civil war, with characters such as Harriet Tubman going back time and again to the South to show people the route of the "railroad".
The song became a classic that has influenced a wide range of artists from white country singers through British, American and Australian pop and rock artists to reggae star Bob Marley.Bob Dylan recorded it twice; first in 1967 during the sessions that later became The Basement Tapes, and again in 1989 for the soundtrack to Flashback. One of the most well-known covers is by Jeff Beck and Rod Stewart in 1985, which gained considerable airplay on album rock and classic rock radio stations and had a popular video on MTV. The interpretation featured Beck's guitar carrying the melody with Stewart's signature raspy vocal set against that. It also represented a brief reunion between the two 1960s band mates, and they would perform the song again during intermittent one-off reunions in later years. Another famous version by Stewart was recorded in 1993 where he was joined by Ronnie Wood for a session of MTV Unplugged. This version appears on the album Unplugged...and Seated.