How the enduring message of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” still brings us light in our darkest hour
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers has dominated the news cycle since it happened and will likely do so for as long as justice slowly works its way towards a resolution.
Whether that resolution will result in true justice being served upon Floyd’s murderer and his accomplices, I can’t honestly say. There was a time when I’d have been confident that a modern-day lynching, caught on camera, would result in a swift and decisive blow for the forces of equality and decency in this country. I am not so naive as I once was.
In times like these, as a white person who considers himself an ally to the black and brown communities but who doesn’t know how to express the rage and anger roiling through that community, I turn to words from those who have had the experiences of being marginalized, neglected, and murdered by a power structure which is dominated by people with my skin color. The first song that sprung to mind, the first song that seemed more an elegy for the lost than an expression of rage and anger, was “A Change Is Gonna Come,” by Sam Cooke. From the minute the first strings of the orchestral section kick in, “Change” is heartbreakingly beautiful and devastating.
The song is rooted in the experiences of Cooke, an entertainer who could play the front of the room but wasn’t allowed to enter through the entrance, or to eat amongst the diners who came to his shows at clubs in the late Fifties and early Sixties. He achieved a measure of success unparalleled at the time, as co-founder of his own record label and able to enjoy solo success in the secular pop market after first making his name in a gospel group. Cooke should’ve been one of the longest-tenured entertainers in popular music, making great albums and songs well into his old age.
But he was gunned down under mysterious circumstances in December 1964 (mysterious in that the explanation of the woman running the disreputable motel he had gone to for a sexual encounter alleged that Cooke attacked her and that she feared for her life. Might it not be said that we’ve heard that “reason” put forward again and again?).
Cooke recorded “Change” well before his death, but it only saw release as a single in the days immediately following that event (it was featured on his “Ain’t That Good News” album early in 1964). It became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement, a beautiful plea for dignity and respect as echoed in the words of both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X (and director Spike Lee used it to great effect in his biopic of Malcolm almost thirty years later). Somber and yet full of life, the song captures in many ways the divide often found in black artists who grew up singing in church but who found fame in nightclubs and amidst the charts for pop music. Demanding justice in this life, because you couldn’t wait for the promise of the afterlife to set right the wrongs you had suffered in America, is a common theme in civil-rights protests to this day.
Music is one of the best aspects of life, so far as I’m concerned; it can say so much in such a short amount of time. And it can invoke empathy in even the most hardened of hearts. I do not pretend to think that there will ever be a change in the national anthem of this country, but I once wrote a column for another website proposing that just such a change be considered.
I had a list of songs that I was going to write about, some funny, some serious, some I was just kidding about and some I was deadly serious about. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was the first song I wrote about, and that was by design. In this time of anger and rage, it doesn’t soothe that so much as articulate it in ways that may bring the point across to some of my white friends.
Because a change is going to come, and it’s going to come whether we get on board or if we stand in the way. And I will not mourn the passing of any era in which someone can die simply because the color of their skin isn’t the same as mine.
VIDEO: Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come”