Behind the Song: Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”

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“A Change Is Gonna Come” | Written by Sam Cooke

When Bettye LaVette performed “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in duet with Jon Bon Jovi, at the first inaugural concert for President Obama, a new generation of listeners was introduced to a classic composition by one of the most influential writers and vocalists in pop history, Sam Cooke. In the 45 years since it was first released, “Change” has grown into an anthem of the civil rights movement, an epitaph for a great performer, and an iconic piece of music. Few works have been as eloquent in their depiction of triumph over adversity (“there’s been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/But now I think I’m able to carry on”), and indeed the history behind “A Change Is Gonna Come” is every bit as interesting, and conflicted, as the song itself.

For starters, radio listeners in 1965 were not even able to hear the whole song.  In his writing of “Change” Sam Cooke had been inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the 1963 protest song by Bob Dylan. At the time Cooke, a gospel music veteran whose creamy voice and good looks had carried him to pop crossover fame, was longing to explore something more serious in his music. This new sense of urgency, the desire to make a political statement, was manifested in one of “Change’s” most striking lines: “I go to the movies and I go downtown/But somebody keeps telling me, don’t hang around.”  But according to Cooke’s business partner, gospel vocalist J.W. Alexander (speaking in Peter Guralnick’s 1986 book, Sweet Soul Music), the potentially controversial line was cut when “Change” was issued posthumously as a single in late 1964. Only long-playing album buyers heard the full version, with politicized lyrics intact. Ironically, those in charge of promoting “Change” subjected it to the same inequitable standards Cooke had meant to criticize.

In addition, Cooke’s sudden and tragic death ensured that “Change” was already imbued with an elegiac air by the time it was released. To date, no one is quite sure what happened that night on December 11, 1964, when Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel in a downtrodden section of Los Angeles.  Biographer Guralnick clearly believes that, rather than being linked to a deliberate plot to kill an African-American singer who had become too successful for his own good (as some have argued), Cooke’s murder came as the combined result of a fast lifestyle and bad timing. Still, the questions and conspiracy theories remain, and they lend poignancy to another of “Change’s” memorable lines: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.” Sam Cooke was only 33.

From its initial release as a B-side (to the fun but largely forgettable “Shake”), “A Change Is Gonna Come” grew in stature slowly, building a reputation as the civil rights and other social movements reached full flowering in the years to come. In time it became a metaphor for human uplift, recast in numerous versions by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, the Nylons, and Israeli performer Anat Cohen.  Few of these interpretations have been as moving, however, as LaVette’s rendition on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the Sunday prior to Obama’s inauguration. For one thing, LaVette is one of the few contemporary rhythm & blues artists whose own career dates to the years of Cooke’s prime. She lived through the “package tours” in the South during the early 1960s, when African-American performers were turned away from whites-only hotels and other establishments (it was one such incident, in fact, which was said to inspire Cooke’s own writing of “Change”).

For another, LaVette brought to the song her own sense of improvisation, proving that a classic need not be frozen in time; its meaning can shift and deepen with the passage of years.  She restored the once-contested line in her own way (“I used to try to go to the movies, and I’d try to go downtown, but somebody was always telling me, little girl, you can’t come around”) then sang “but I know change has come,” in acknowledgement of battles fought and, at least for now, won.

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Comments

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7 COMMENTS

  1. I just ran across this website recently. I enjoyed reading about the history of A Change Is Going To Come. Sam Cooke is one of my favorite artist and Change is my favorite song of his.

  2. Really didn’t all the song when I was a kid . Had heard it a few times but It didn’t resonate Until I saw Malcolm X . Spike Lee put it in the Final scene of the movie I’ve been a fan ever since . A Touching song That still applies to this day

  3. After All Of These Years, A Change is Gonna Come is A True Song but Unfortunately as of 2019 We As A People are Further Going Backward, instead of Advancing, Our Young African American/Black Men Are Being Beat & Killed by The Very Same People that Should Be Protecting Them, The Police, The Lawyers, The Judges and Such, Not Only The Black Men but Now The Black Women As Well, The Police is Getting Away with Murder, Even though there are Black People on The Jury of The Murderous Police, they Do Not Care, No One Cares, African Americans now a days Have Millions in their Bank Accounts, They Refuse to Help Another Black Man, They Do Not Care, It’s Like Crabs In a Pot, One almost get to the top, The others Pull Them Back Down With Them. In 2019 The Elected President Of The United States of America, Donald Trump Promote Racial Hatred, He Lies, He Steals, He’s A Sexual Predator, He Or Any of His Children, Male Or Females has ever Volunteered for Our Countries Military, They are All Cowards, Yes, A Change Has To Come.

  4. I wrote. Over 20 songs through the. YEARS
    Just come across them in the attic. Not
    Long. Ago
    These songs varies in genre over the time span when first written. Some are
    More revelent today then when first
    Written

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