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. Read more
Here’s a clip of Austin Texas-born Ruthie Foster with her take on “Woke Up This Morning”, a civil rights anthem if ever there was one. The song was originally done by Odetta, a giant of the folk-singing, civil rights era. Odetta seems to be one of many influences on Foster, who pulls in nearly every branch of American folk music into her performances, including jazz, blues, gospel, and soul. Foster has been on the scene for over ten years, with her debut album Full Circlecoming out in 1997.
Ruthie Foster is something of a link to the past, not just because of her connection with folk songs from another era, but in her rootsy and honest approach to the material whether original or not. I got word of her through MOJO magazine (a tried and true method for me in finding new artists in any genre), where she was compared to Aretha Franklin. And you can certainly hear the gospel intonations here, and a few of Aretha’s textures too.
Usually when an artist is compared to the giants in the field, it spells disappointment. Yet, with this cover version, you can feel that Foster is really connected, really passionate, about what she’s singing about. I don’t get the feeling that she’s self-conscious in terms of the influences attributed to her. And this may be her saving grace, besides her obviously powerful voice.
She is currently on tour, booked well into 2009 and appearing with established artists such as Eric Bibb, Robben Ford, and the Blind Boys of Alabama. Her most recent album, The Phenomenal Ruthie Fosteris out now.
Little Milton was a huge talent, working equally well within the blues and soul idioms by often mixing the two, and having recorded on Sun Records, Chess Records, and on Stax – the big three! – at various points in his career. In addition to a recording career, he also served as an A&R man on a small label called Bobbin, introducing Albert King, who also recorded on the Stax by the 60s, known for his signature hit ‘Born Under A Bad Sign‘. He also developed the early career of Fontella Bass who was eventually immortalized through her hit ‘Rescue Me’. The label found a distribution channel with legendary blues and R&B label Chess Records, switching over to Chess subsidiary label Checker in the early 60s. While on the Checker label, he scored an R&B hit with this song, his breakthrough as a solo artist in 1965.
Milton had the best of all worlds, particularly here, with a voice that is both a smooth as Sam Cooke’s, and as gutsy as B.B King’s. The song itself could be about a single relationship going through a hard time. But it was recognized as something of a civil rights anthem, staring adversity in the face, acknowledging the reality that a community was facing systemic oppression, but with a firm belief that things would change for the better anyway. The song has such an emotional impact, the first time I heard it I choked up. Optimism in song is often an exercise in self-delusion, or of trying to delude an audience. But, listen to Milton’s delivery here. This is defiant optimism, pure belief in love and in all that is moral and right, even when the odds are stacked against it. It’s cliche to use the word ‘inspiring’, only because it’s a term that’s used too much. But it applies here; it really does.
By the end of the decade, Little Milton would sign with Stax records, a little late for its heyday, and at the beginning of its financial troubles. Yet, Milton continued to expand on his brand of blues-soul, with sumptuous arrangements to bolster his powerhouse voice, although with less chart action than in the 60s. By ’75, Stax was history. Milton continued on the Malaco label by the 80s where he stayed, issuing 13 albums, and winning the coveted W.C Handy Award for Blues Entertainer of the year in 1988. Little Milton died in 2005 at the age of 70.
I consider Little Milton to be something of an unsung hero. The guy had it all – great instincts for arrangments, impressive chops as a guitarist, a fantastic feel for delivering a song in a multitude of styles . And this is my favourite of his, a tune just brimming with strength and the power of belief in oneself, and in one’s fellow human being too.