“When (Sam Cooke) first heard ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ on the new Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album J.W. (Alexander) had just given him, he was so carried away with the message, and the fact that a white boy had written it, that he was almost ashamed not to have written something like that himself. It wasn’t the way Dylan sang, he told Bobby Womack. It was what he had to say. ‘I’m going to write something,’ Sam told J.W. But he didn’t know what it was.”
—Peter Guralnick, Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke, pp. 512-13
Sam Cooke – Blowin’ In The Wind
September 16, 1964
That “something” turned out to be Sam Cooke’s finest moment as a songwriter and one of the artistic high points of the 1960s, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” But, before writing “Change,” Sam took Dylan’s civil rights anthem uptown, covering it during his July 1964 gigs at the Copacabana (aka The Copa) in New York City. This video was filmed a few months later for the premiere episode of Shindig. Sam takes Dylan to church, despite the overbearing whiteness in the room. An amazing performance, really. Also, keep in mind that this was probably one of the first televised instances of a black man being surrounded by white kids, some of whom were dancing females. GASP!
IT’S BEEN TOO HARD LIVING, BUT I’M AFRAID TO DIE
I can’t finish this post without paying homage to “A Change Is Gonna Come.” A monumental songwriting effort, it’s unfortunate that we live in a world where this song needed to be written. It’s even more unfortunate that we live in a world where its lyrics and sentiment are still totally relevant. Systemic, intractable racism — and the culture that nurtures such dumb motherfuckery — puts a chokehold on human progress, which is why “Change” remains so powerful 50 years after its release.
Some songs carry themselves with a humanity and gravity that transcends notes and chords and the various elements we associate with songwriting. Billie Holiday‘s “Strange Fruit” is one, “A Change Is Gonna Come” is another. When Sam comes out of the bridge, having been knocked back down on his knees, and swoops way up into his upper register to sing, “And oh! There’ve been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long,” he’s conveying a suffering that came over in chains from Africa. You know how Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and said, “It’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind?” This song is in the “giant leap” column, right near the top.
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
RIP Sam Cooke: January 22, 1931 – December 11, 1964
The first part of this post was originally published on Star Maker Machine, October 5, 2008