Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too.
Sam Cooke performed “A Change Is Gonna Come” for the first time in a live setting for the Ed Sullivan show on Feb 7, 1964, only to be unintentionally overshadowed by The Beatles who made their historic appearance two nights later. Regardless, this song was revelatory and revolutionary at the time for many reasons besides its aforementioned musical complexity and Cooke’s arguably best ever vocal performance. It’s also revelatory because of its lyrical candour, its unassuming bravery, its raw emotional gravity conveyed in a way that goes far beyond a mere showbiz performance that was expected of pop singers of the era. Cooke had had many hits up until this point. But “A Change Is Gonna Come” had instant and unparalleled impact immediately beyond the charts.
It’s impact may be because of the harrowing experiences that inspired it. At least one incident was the racially-motivated refusal by a desk clerk to admit Cooke and his entourage as hotel guests while he was touring in Louisiana in 1963. It was a situation that held Cooke’s celebrated stature in one facet of reality in contrast with his vilification in another, placing him in the role a faceless member of a “them”, instead of the singular person and artist he was. This and other acts of cruel erasure provides fuel that stokes the sorrow and frustration to be found in this song, still found in the lives of black people today. This song evokes the tremendous burden of the history and cultural inheritance of black identity marked by strength, tenacious dignity, and supreme artistry in the face of vicious and unjustifiable adversity. “A Change Is Gonna Come” is, among other things, an eloquent encapsulation of all of that. The song expresses a dance between the thought that perhaps there isn’t any justice in the world or beyond it, and the adamant conviction that there must be. It’s a spiritual struggle. But it’s a social one, too.
It’s no wonder at all that this song meant so much to so many in 1964, a time when there was a hunger to give voice to the this very same experience and struggle. It did more than that besides. It also showed that a three-minute-and-change pop song could have real-life social impact. Since it spoke so keenly to experiences that went beyond the confines of its writer’s life, it helped clarify a set of feelings held deeply by many; that something had to give, that society couldn’t continue as it was. It helped to make the hope for change into an expectation, a demand. With these things made plain, people took to the streets seeking to bring about the very change that the song itself promised.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” was released formally as a single on December 22, 1964. Two weeks earlier, Sam Cooke was shot and killed by a motel desk clerk in confusing and not entirely cut-and-dried circumstances. He would never see the full impact of his song, still recognized today as an anthem of an era, with many resonant themes that still speak to the experiences of many today.
A change is still a long time coming.
Learn more about the cultural origins of “A Change Is Gonna Come” by reading this article in the New Yorker.