TDP News: ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ Turns 50

cooke2_custom-ae5445405a69dbde65787c691849562cf6bf09c0-s4-c85It was fifty years ago this week that Sam Cooke recorded one of the most important songs in American history.  The political message in “A Change is Gonna Come,” touted by Rolling Stone as “one of the greatest songs of all time,” quickly became an anthem for civil rights activists after it was released on Cooke’s album Ain’t That Good News in March of 1964. Sam Cooke, one of the few artists able to crossover from gospel to pop, did so with love songs like “You Send Me,” which went to number one on the pop charts; thus, recording this socially conscious song intended to serve as a vehicle for political change was a risky career move. Although Cooke did not want to alienate his new and growing audience with a song that encapsulated the feelings and experiences of many black Americans of the time, and highlighted the social issue that is arguably the most divisive in American history, he felt that “he could not ignore the moral outrage right in front of him” (NPR Music). The song did cause controversy and Cooke felt the impact of its message on those who were not ready to hear it. He and his band were turned away from shows and hotels; he was arrested and jailed for disturbing the peace; his family feared for his life. Cooke didn’t often play the song publicly, partly because of its complex arrangement and partly because of the threat that it could incite violence. It was not initially favored by his fans, mainly because it was not scheduled to be released as a single until December of 1964, nine months after the album dropped. Sam Cooke was shot to death at a motel in Los Angeles just before that release.

Cooke biographer, Peter Guralnick, discusses the song as being one with a message not isolated to the civil rights movement, but rather as a song with “a universal message of hope…that does not age.” “A Change is Gonna Come” has a lasting impact on all who hear it. Guralnick states that “Generation after generation has heard the promise of it…We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come.” The message is “almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement” that needs Cooke’s voice. It was, however, the civil rights movement that inspired it, and Cooke’s voice in this song will forever echo the struggle and the courage of those who fought (and continue to fight) for racial equality in America.

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