Sam Cooke

Fifty years ago today, on 22 December 1964, Sam Cooke’s iconic ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was released as a single. The song had been recorded in February 1964, and included on Cooke’s album Ain’t That Good News released a few months later. Perhaps more than any other song of its time, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ now seems the quintessential song evoking the era of civil rights protest.

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

The Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights March 1965

But, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick has told of how, as well as being inspired by the political context of the times, the song also emerged from two specific experiences. One was Cooke hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and being both inspired by its ability to encapsulate America’s problem with racism, and frustrated that it should have been a white American who had composed the song. The second was an incident in late 1963 when Cooke and his bandmates had tried to check into a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and been refused – because they were black. Guralnick says:

He just went off. And became obstreperous to the point where his wife, Barbara, said, ‘Sam, we’d better get out of here. They’re going to kill you.’ And he says, ‘They’re not gonna kill me; I’m Sam Cooke.’ To which his wife said, ‘No, to them you’re just another …’ you know.

Cooke was arrested and jailed, along with several of his entourage, for disturbing the peace. ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was written sometime in the next month, before being recorded in February 1964.  After the session, writes Guralnick, Cooke played the song for Bobby Womack:

When he first played it for Bobby Womack, who was his protégé, he said, ‘What’s it sound like?’ And Bobby said, ‘It sounds like death.’ Sam said, ‘Man, that’s kind of how it sounds like to me. That’s why I’m never going to play it in public.’ And Bobby sort of rethought it and said, ‘Well, it’s not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky.

You could call it that. When ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ was finally released as a single, it was eleven days after Cooke had been shot and killed at a Los Angeles motel, in what was later ruled a justifiable homicide.

The song wasn’t a big hit at the time, but it became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and remains an enduring symbol of that era, an enduring cry of protest against injustice and inequality in a country that is still – as seen this year – wracked with both.

‘Each verse is a different movement: The strings have their movement, the horns have their movement. The timpani carries the bridge. It was like a movie score. He wanted it to have a grandeur to it,’ says Guralnick.  He says that ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ has become a universal message of hope, one that does not age:

Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact,” he says. “We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.

It is, as Manjula Martin writes in an essay on the Aeon website, both prayer and warning.

Crowds rally in New York City over Eric Garner indictment verdict

Crowds protest in New York City after the failure to indict in the case Eric Garner 

In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner wrote:

The song expresses the soul of the freedom movement as clearly and powerfully as  Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.  The opening measures verge on melodrama: a searching French horn rises over a lush swell of symphonic strings accompanied by tympani.  But Cooke brings it back to earth, bearing witness to the restlessness that keeps him moving like the muddy river bordering the Delta where he was born.  Maintaining his belief in something up there beyond the sky, Cooke draws sustenance from his gospel roots.  He testifies that its been a long, long time – the second ‘long’ carries all the weight of a bone-deep gospel weariness.  Then he sings the midnight back toward dawn.  The hard-won hope that comes through in the way he uses his signature ‘whoa-whoa-whoa’ to emphasize the word ‘know’ in the climactic line – ‘I know that a change gonna come’ – feels as real as anything America has ever been able to imagine.

Peter Guralnick:

He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.

Fifty years later, following the non-indictments in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, both unarmed black men killed by white police officers, Cooke’s lyrics remain stirringly relevant to the systematic problems faced by black Americans. According to the NAACP, police have killed at least 76 black men and women since 1999, 14 of them in 2014 alone. Racialized violence is still an institutionalized problem.

'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 'I Can't Breathe',  Eric Garner's plea becomes a rallying cry for justice 2

‘I Can’t Breathe’,  Eric Garner’s plea becomes a rallying cry for justice

Cooke sang of how black men and women were harassed for everyday activities:

I go to the movie and I go down town
Somebody keep telling me don’t hang around

Cooke sang of a climate of distrust – still there in a society where 70% of black Americans believe the country is doing a ‘poor’ job holding police officers accountable when misconduct occurs. That same 70% also believes the police forces are doing a ‘poor’ job treating ethnic groups equally.

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please.”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Michael Brown's father holds a sign in protest of his son's killing

A few days ago, in the Guardian, Syreeta McFadden wrote:

It pains me that, in 2014, in America, we have to publicly affirm that black lives matter. And yet, in 2014, we’ve seen so many examples of when they didn’t.

In July … video quickly spread of Officer Daniel Pantaleo choking Garner to death on 17 July. The NYPD banned the manoeuvre in 1993, in the aftermath of the 1991 death of Federico Pereira. … I was miles away from Ferguson, Missouri, when I saw a photo of a grieved father with his handmade sign immediately after his stepson, Michael Brown, was killed by now-former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson and his body was left in the street for over four hours on 9 August. Months later, on 23 November, Cleveland police shot and killed 12 year old Tamir Rice within seconds of spotting him in a park. They waited four minutes before administering, or allowing anyone to administer, first aid to him. And there were others besides: John Crawford. Darrien Hunt. Vonderrit Myers. Yvette Smith. Pearlie Golden. The year blurs as we track the deaths of unarmed black civilians from police violence, whether they were captured on video or not.

Sam Cooke: A Change Is Gonna Come

Ferguson and Michael Brown: A Change Is Gonna Come

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One thought on “A Change Is Gonna Come: 50 years after its release, black Americans still can’t breathe

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