In honor of Martin Luther King Day, today’s song is a recording by Sam Cooke, whose birthday is later this week, the 22nd, written after Cooke was struck by the message of Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Cooke decided to write a song that would call for change in racial relations and this song—after Cooke’s shocking and sudden death in 1964—became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement.
Unlike other anthems, though, the song doesn’t strike one as anthemic. It’s not strident, it’s not preachy, it’s not a call to arms. It feels much more like a hymn, a prayer for change, but, at the same time, it sounds like an elegy for all those harmed by the status quo—which is why I think it may be the best song to commemorate both Cooke and MLK. There’s a stirring certainty in the song—“I know change is gonna come”—that was one of the motivating forces in the speeches of Dr. King.
Cooke’s lyrics seem to me deliberately vague about the kinds of injustice that he wants the song to address: there’s no mention of race, even the verse about going to the movies and being told not to hang around downtown could describe the treatment of teens in general, not only black youths. Cooke seemed to sense that the song, to get airplay and be acceptable to radio stations for whites, couldn’t be overt in its protest. To black listeners, there could be no doubt what he was trying to say, but whites, possibly, could overlook the message and just hear a soulful song about being poor and unfortunate. Even so, the song is powerful in its evocation of trials and hardships, and is certainly like nothing else recorded by Cooke, and is even rather in the vanguard, since “protest” was primarily a theme in folk records, if at all, and not in R&B or pop songs.
Released in 1964, the song came along too early for me to be familiar with it from the radio, and it’s certainly not the Cooke song I remember hearing first or the most. That would probably be “Cupid” or “You Send Me”—both very polished gems of early Soul music. In fact, I’d have to say that Cooke possessed one of the most pleasant-sounding singing voices I can think of. That very mellifluousness might make him an unlikely protest singer, but on this song it works.
Had he lived, Cooke might have written more such songs with a message, or recorded, with his immediately recognizable voice, other songs expressing support of social change in the U.S. As it is, the song became easy to associate not only with the legacy of MLK, who was killed four years after Cooke, but also with the election of Barack Obama as the first non-white President of the United States. The murder of King, as a point of reference in listening to the song, gave the song even more poignancy and urgency when it was played in the latter Sixties. Even if treated as celebratory—as if change done come in 2008—the song, becoming more timeless as time goes on, continues to call for change.
“There were times when I thought I couldn't last for long / But now I think I'm able to carry on / It's been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gone come, oh yes it will”—the final verse is perhaps the one most evocative for the struggle from slavery to something like equality for blacks in the United States, and it could be said that the change is not only of something that must be altered in our society but a change that also happens inside the singer: “I thought I couldn’t last for long / But now I think I’m able to carry on.” The change is one of perspective and outlook, a sense of possibility, finding in oneself the means of moving from suffering to, if not salvation, then to something worth achieving.
I also give Cooke credit for including the lines “I don’t know what’s out there beyond the sky.” Much of the music in support of the Civil Rights movement was gospel-based, and much of such music includes the fervant hope for something beyond the sky—the promise of rewards in the after life to make up for hardships on earth. Cooke, without overstating it, clearly has in mind changes that will have material effect in the here and now, the kind of change one must believe in to get anything done.