A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (2024)

The American century

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A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (1)

By Greg Tate14th October 2020

A Change Is Gonna Come was a smooth soul tune that became the unofficial anthem of the US civil rights movement. In the latest of BBC Culture’s American Century series, Greg Tate looks at the song of ‘plaintive aspirational optimism’.

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Sam Cooke never got to bear witness to his song A Change Is Gonna Come becoming the unofficial anthem of the civil rights movement. Or how its prophetic lamentations would reverberate across the decades to become a rallying cry for Barack Obama, and Beyoncé, well into the 21st Century.

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Cooke was an early casualty of an era that proved merciless in devouring some of its most luminous artistic and political figures in their prime. He also fell into another category with a high career mortality rate – ‘The Soul Man’ – whose cursed line had already put Little Willie John and Johnny Ace in premature graves before Cooke, and would soon consume Otis Redding and David Ruffin (with career and/or life side-lining events awaiting Jackie Wilson, Al Green, Teddy Pendergrass, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Michael Jackson and Prince).

A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (2)

Questions have been raised over accounts of how Cooke died (Credit: Getty Images)

‘A Change’ was released as a single in December 1964, two weeks after Cooke was murdered in a Los Angeles motel in controversial circ*mstances that still remain contestable, unacceptable and unresolved to some surviving friends and family members.

A spark to a flame

The professed inspirations by Cooke for the song were twofold: Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind (BITW), which Cooke said made him embarrassed for not having written his own forthright take on racism and racial protest. Mavis Staples later said that when she first heard the song, she’d been astonished that something written by a young white man could so perfectly express the frustrations and hopes of black people, and Cooke added it to his set-list. Peter Paul and Mary’s 1963 cover version raced up the Billboard charts to secure the number two position and sold a million copies.

Dylan had drawn his melody from the black gospel standard No More Auction Block/We Shall Overcome. Within the civil rights movement, it was near-immediately adapted as a dream-tinged frontline battle-cry. One can readily assume Cooke was moved by all three aspects of BITW’s success – artistic, political and financial.

The inner circle of confidants Cooke ballyhooed with at the time consisted of three now historic fire-starters

Change’s second muse was more prosaic and personal: an enraging incident of discrimination in October 1963 by a hotel clerk at a Shreveport, Louisiana establishment. Cooke had booked on the road only to be turned away when he and his wife showed up at the check-in desk.

By 1963, Cooke was no stranger to the daily toxic humiliations doled out by Jim Crow America or the ways in which young black men and women were confronting the nation’s white skin-privileging status quo. The inner circle of confidants Cooke ballyhooed with at the time consisted of three now historic fire-starters: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali (née Cassius Clay), and footballer Jim Brown. None were as famous as Cooke at the time. Of course, each made up for that discrepancy in notoriety in some quite noteworthy ways. In 1968, Brown stepped up magnificently when Ali faced Federal prison-time for refusing to serve in Vietnam and was subsequently punitively stripped of his heavyweight championship title by an all-white jury of boxing authorities. Brown rallied support for Ali from other major black athletes and, in so doing, he set the precedent for Colin Kaepernick and the wave of activism we’re seeing now by Black Lives Matter-aligned professional athletes.

A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (3)

The friendship between Cooke and Muhammad Ali (pictured together) – and Malcolm X and Jim Brown – is told in new film One Night in Miami (Credit: Getty Images)

By 1968, answers were no longer vaguely floating about in the nation’s radical storm-winds. A few changes had arrived in the wake of the movement’s fire, as President Lyndon Johnson pushed the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act through the US Congress. Dylan’s song had become a wistful wake-up call from a bygone phase of anti-racist struggle – but Cooke’s Change still resonated, beyond the 1965 Watts riots against racial injustices, those in 1967 in Detroit and Newark, and with Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis, with the Black Power movement’s unfinished business with white America.

Cooke was no hard sell to his female fans, with his leading-man looks and swagger, bespoke suits and a voice made for seducing sinners, society women, and holy rollers alike

Cooke departed the gospel record world and became a secular pop idol in 1957. By the time he recorded Change, the race for equal rights and black empowerment had accelerated exponentially. Cooke was no hard sell to his female fans on both sides of the colour lines, with his leading-man looks and swagger, bespoke suits and a voice made for seducing sinners, society women, and holy rollers alike.

A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (4)

With film-star good looks, Cooke made the crossover from gospel to pop easily (Credit: Getty Images)

He was an instant pop star, scoring 30 top 40 singles before his death and three more after the fact. He tightly managed every aspect of his career, forming his own publishing company and recording label years before that was commonplace for black artists. He was one of the first in the field to sport a modest Afro instead of the slicked-down flattened-out ‘conk’ or processed cliffs favoured by contemporaries Jackie Wilson and James Brown.

Being ‘political’ in those days hardly meant being as radical as his friend Malcolm. He instead was following the desegregationist lead of The Movement, as were industry peers like Berry Gordy, founder and CEO of Motown. Cooke and Gordy had decided the most radical thing to do was to cross over into the apartheid-bedevilled privy of US radio and concert venues.

A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (5)

Cooke was a rare black artist to run his own record label in the early 1960s (Credit: Getty Images)

Cooke managed to move back and forth across the music businesses’ colour lines with savvy aplomb and not too much alienating discomfort. His 1963 Live at the Harlem Square Club album was a boisterous shouting and grinding affair graced with a wild and untethered Cooke roughneck juke joint ensemble. By contrast, his 1964 Live at the Copa found him saddled with a house big band covering two Broadway show tunes, The Best Things In Life Are Free, country music staple Tennessee Waltz, Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home, the campfire warhorse Frankie and Johnny, Pete Seeger’s If I had A Hammer, Dylan’s Blowin’ In The Wind – that latter triumvirate of ditties reflecting how humongously popular folk music had become in whitebread America.

When Cooke went in to record A Change, he had already bent and yoked himself into acceptable form for those Americans not acculturated to fire-and-brimstone emotionality

Cooke had been chastened to rein in his Harlem-style full-tilt boogie by an earlier Copa performance that prompted a chilly response from the predominantly non-black audience. When Cooke went in to record A Change, he had already bent and yoked himself into acceptable form for those Americans not acculturated to the fire-and-brimstone emotionality of black Pentecostalism and uptown R&B. His intentions with Change could not have been more apposite and carried none of the self-neutering baggage of his Copa crossover.

A Change Is Gonna Come: One of soul’s greatest songs (6)

A Change is an anthem of black suffering – as well as an expression of hope (Credit: Getty Images)

The opening lyrics paint a scene of impoverished birth in the country’s Delta outback. Then on a dime, his high and lonesome tenor alludes to the days of slavery and fugitive escapes, particularly when he croons “like the river I’ve been running ever since”. The song’s concluding lyrics euphemistically refer to a brother and a mother who won’t hear his pleas for help even when he’s down on his knees, lines about the government’s indifference to black suffering as poignant and pertinent today as when they were written. They also obliquely command we note how long those pleas have gone unheard. The chorus’ promises of change coming aren’t as subtly ominous as Dylan’s concluding verse’s “How many deaths will it take ‘til he knows/ That too many people have died?” But what it lacks in urgency, Change makes up for with a plaintive aspirational optimism. One befitting the generations’-deep endurance and resilience of those perpetual radical change agents, American blackfolk.

Ironically, Cooke’s song contained fearsome portents for him and not the earthly and systemic salvation of his people. He’d been handed a premonition about Change by his steadfast guitarist and running buddy Bobby Womack, who observed it “sounded deathly” – later revised to just “spooky”, but the damage was done. After debuting the song on Johnny Carson’s Tonight show in February 1964, he played it on the number one-rated Ed Sullivan show. Though both performances went well, Cooke resolved to never perform Change in his live set again. Speculation varies as to exactly why – whether it was Womack’s scythe-rattling read, the complexity of the orchestral arrangement, Cooke’s jitters about losing white fans or some combination of those.

Nevertheless, the after-life of the composition in the African-American protest hymnal canon finds it still essential and indelible. In the Smithsonian National Museum of African History and Culture, which opened in 2016, there is a space for reflection designated as the ‘Contemplative Court’, where A Change Is Gonna Come is inscribed on the walls, looming like an everlasting mantra for meditation.

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