Change is Coming Theme
Charles’ song, “I’ve Got a Woman,” recorded in 1955, is credited to be the first Soul song, starting a craze of Soul that would flourish through the late 1990s. The 1960s, however, were the golden years of Soul, where the genre gave way to the fame of a few notable names like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson. The styles of these artists and many others in the realm of Soul became very versatile, appealing to audiences black and white alike (Gilmore). This music showed America a piece of what was going on in lives of African Americans, uniting them in a sense, through music (Stephens).
In 1959, Berry Gordy created the record company, “Hitsville, USA,” which would later become Motown Records. Every artist who came into this record company was African American until the late 1980s, and they all sang Soul. This record company played a vital role in the Civil Rights Movement, as many of the company’s artists were strong advocates of the movement, and they wrote their songs about it (Werner, 15). Known as “black music” in its time, songs of Soul in the 1960s frequently paralleled the civil rights issues the blacks were having in America.
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It is said that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave the Civil Rights Movement a vision, and the artists of Soul gave it a voice (Werner, 4). Because most, if not all, Soul artists at the time were African American, they could honestly sing about the true emotions they were feeling at the time and write songs that matched the reality black Americans were facing. Some of the songs that could have emulated the movement were “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and Proud” by James Brown, “Inner City Blues” by Marvin Gaye, and “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.
Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on January 22, 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression. The son of a Baptist minister, Cooke grew up singing in churches and multiple Gospel groups in the Chicago area where his family eventually moved (Bowman). In the boom of Gospel music during the time, Cooke latched onto a group known as the Soul Stirrers and became semi-famous while with the group (Gulla, 110). As a Gospel singer, Cooke was recognized to be different. He was known as the “voice of change,” having more of a pure voice compared to other artists of his time (Werner, 31).
Cooke began discovering his natural vocal technique, and while still channeling the sounds of Jesus, he drew in crowds with his elegance and composure (Gulla, 111). Bobby Womack, a singer who had sang alongside Cooke in some acts said, “He went out there and started singing and people would not believe his voice. ” Sam Cooke was a different breed of Gospel singer, and he changed the style, giving it an edge and a more youthful appeal. In 1955, Cooke began cutting secular songs to make it big with Specialty Records, and became a hit instantly with his hits, “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” and “You Send Me” (Gulla, 114).
His short career produced many memorable hits and records, and in the midst of it, Cooke served his black community in the struggle over civil rights. In parallel to the movement and in light of his son’s tragic death and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” Cooke wrote, “A Change Is Gonna Come” in 1963 (“Song Facts”). Cooke suddenly died in 1964, right before the release of the song, and black America plunged into despair because he had been a ray of light, a symbol of hope, and an emblem of equality and racial balance (Gulla, 109). He had been an icon for both blacks and whites alike.
In spite of his shorted career, “A Change Is Gonna Come” affected America with is raw lyrics and unprecedented emotion Cooke displays in his song. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released eleven days after Cooke’s death as a final farewell to his audiences that loved him. The song expresses the soul of the freedom movement as clearly as one of Dr. King’s speeches (Werner, 33). The song begins with a melodramatic playing of the strings and French horn, interrupted by Cooke’s voice bearing witness to the restlessness that keeps him moving like the muddy river bordering the Delta where he was born.
Cooke then goes vocally into what could seemingly be back to his Gospel roots, saying that “It’s been a long, long time coming,” and in the second “long,” Cooke carries the weight of of a bone-deep gospel weariness (Werner, 33). Cooke then gives reassurance to the listeners that he “know[s] a change is gonna come. ” The classic “whoa-whoa-whoa,” a Sam Cooke signature, is sang in the middle of the word “know” to give it emphasis, claiming this truth to America and the world, that a change will indeed come.
These same lines are repeated at the end of every verse, giving a clearer answer to the problems Cooke poses, saying “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will” (Werner, 34). The second verse declares, “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die,” giving way the hard troubles African Americans go through, and not to give up the fight, for what is up “beyond the sky” is unknown to Cooke. The third verse speaks of segregation: “I go to the movie and I go downtown, somebody keep telling me don’t hang around,” meaning people turning him and others down publicly because they are black.
Next is the bridge, and it is different musically: the steady beat of the percussion halts for a moment, and builds up to Cooke saying “I go to my brother… but his winds keep knockin’ me down. ” This suggests that his “brother” is the white population, denying blacks justice and peace in the midst of their trials when they continually ask for it. Cooke then lets out a deep, emotional “Ohhhhh” leading up to the climax of the last verse. The horns pick up stronger in the fourth verse, and the pace of the song gains a stronger, semi-faster tempo.
The tempo and instrumentation of the last verse gives a bolder feel to the song, making it have a “victorious sound,” which are not as sentimental as the verses in the beginning of the song. This fourth verse declares the strength of Cooke, declaring, “I think I’m able to carry on. ” This reveals that through all these troubles, he is willing to put up a fight and carry on with his life. The song is ended with the repeated lines again, and a beautiful exit of the strings and horns, ending on a harmonious chord, symbolizing a harmony in America that can be reached if a change really does come.
The reception and legacy of Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” has been extraordinary. Rolling Stone magazine declared it number 12 in the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (“Song Facts”). The song has been featured in many movies and videos about civil rights, most recently the movie, Malcolm X. Also, the song has been covered by over 50 artists, some of them today including ‘Lil Wayne, Seal, and Adam Lambert (“Song Facts”). The song still has not lost its Soul roots and meaning over time.
Despite the Civil Rights Movement being over, the song can be applied to any issue, struggle, or hard time one may face, which is why it has withstood as a legendary song. “A Change is Gonna Come” will forever be remembered as a beacon of light to the people of the Civil Rights Movement, and as a highlight of Sam Cooke’s career. He brought Soul to a new level and created a more elegant, clean style with his realistic lyrics and Gospel rooted voice. Because of his achievements and the impact his song had on America, he is remembered as the “King of Soul,” and the man who “sang the change” (“Song Facts”).