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How Sam Cooke's ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ became the definitive Civil Rights anthem

Sam Cooke’s song ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ begins with the opening line: “I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since.” The river in question is the Mississippi, which makes it perhaps the most profoundly multifaceted motif in music history. 

It can be argued that the Mississippi Delta is where modern music benevolently flowed out from into the world, but likewise, it was one of the most violently racially divided regions in modern history, setting a fluid current of fear in motion amongst the black denizens. Aside from those two notable brushstrokes in the motif, there are myriad more pertaining to the tides of change, the unburdened flow of the soul and so on until the infinities of personal corroborations are all but dried up. 

The song was released in mid-February 1964, and it would go on to become a Civil Rights anthem, delineating the truth worth fighting for in the virulently tempestuous Freedom Summer of 1964 during which six murders, 29 shootings, 50 bombings and 60 beatings of Civil Rights workers occurred during a bloody 14-week period between mid-June and the end of September. On June 21st, three Civil Rights workers disappeared. It would subsequently be found that Mississippi law officers murdered them; it would also later come to light that approximately half of Mississippi’s law enforcement officers were associated with the Ku Klux Klan to Professor Mary King. 

When discussing the song with the BBC, L.C. Cooke, Sam’s younger brother and musical collaborator recalled its origins: “I know you know ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ by Bob Dylan,” he said. “Sam always said a black man should’ve wrote ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’, it was unfair, so he said ‘Nah, if he can write a song like that surely, I can come up with something equally as good’, so he sat down to write ‘A Change Gonna Come’.”

“He was trying to write an anthem to compete with ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’,” L.C. continues, “And ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is a great song, so he sat down to write ‘I was born by the river’.”

But just like a river, the song was in motion long before Bob Dylan’s introspective lyricism began making waves. The track embodies both the social movement up until that point, but also the weaving diegesis of Cooke’s life. Perhaps the most prominent confluence being when, after a sold-out show performing to an adoring crowd, he and his entourage were turned away from a whites-only motel in Louisiana. 

At this stage, Cooke was an artist blessed with a slew of hits under his belt, including ‘You Send Me’, which according to L.C., had sold over 2.5million copies. He was a star, but the fear of retribution was still very real. According to Peter Guralnick’s novel on the subject, the story goes that Cooke had called the aforementioned Louisiana Hotel in advance, only to be turned away when he arrived. Cooke was rightfully indignant. However, his wife tried to calm him, saying, “They’ll kill you” to which Cooke responded, “They ain’t gonna kill me, because I’m Sam Cooke.”

When Cooke and his entourage arrived at the next hotel down the road, the police were waiting, and arrests were made for disturbing the peace. Up until this point, Cooke had been cautious about lending his voice to the growing Civil Rights movement, owing to both the dangers involved and the threat of alienating his largely white fan base. However, this flashpoint, along with the release of ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and Martin Luther King Jr’s iconic ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, Cooke could contain the song no longer. 

In a notion that so many songwriters have echoed over the years, the track thereafter seemed to arrive in Cooke fully formed by some sort of transfigured divine alchemy. This sensation of a song simply rising from the void is perhaps best elucidated by Hoagy Carmichael, who said of the song ‘Stardust’: “And then it happened, that queer sensation that this melody was bigger than me. Maybe I hadn’t written it all. The recollection of how, when and where it all happened became vague as the lingering strains hung in the rafters in the studio. I wanted to shout back at it, ‘maybe I didn’t write you, but I found you’.” 

If that was how Sam Cooke felt about ‘A Change Gonna Come’, then there is no doubting that he had fished something vital from the flowing ether that would stand as a testament to the sheer subversive force of music’s inherent unifying benevolence and the inviolable sanctity that it offers up. Change is a journey, the song seems to say, and the opening refrain of “I was born by the river, in a little tent, and just like that river, I’ve been running ever since” seems to embody that boldly. 

The Mississippi River was also the way that slaves were shipped south to get to the plantations of the delta. This was the despairing seeding ground where modern music crawled out of the mire and misery of one of humanity’s great atrocities and etched itself as gilded poetry written in the margins of one of the darkest pages in history. As Nina Simone once said, “funk, gospel and blues is all out of slavery times, out of depression, out of sorrow.” Whether or not Cooke coaxed the many multitudes that can be gleaned from the song into existence by design is unknowable, but what can be derived for definite is the beauty and importance that came in the undertow of the soaring melody and emboldened words. 

The song and its presence on the radio was a hopeful boon to the masses who mobilised to try and enact meaningful change. Such was the beauty of the music; it caught the attention of everyone who had the nerve to listen, as his brother L.C. said, “It’s a soulful gut-grabbing song that will move you to tears and the feeling that he put in when he sang it was just unbelievable.”

The song is the sound of the unconquerable spirit of those that suffered, and those that continue to do so, offering assurance that this torment was, and is, transfigured into something beautiful and through that change can be seeded and nurtured. This poignant assegai into the blue of brighter skies and calmer waters remains standing amidst the breakers of histories cruel tides as a monolith to the insurmountable souls that bore the hands of oppression and were left bloody but unbowed.

Now the song’s legacy is summed up by Jennifer Lawson, who was there in the Freedom Summer and has remained committed to the cause of equality ever since, “Now when I hear it, I feel it connects to the persistence of racism and the persistence of the problems we are facing, it has this tragic quality to it. […] But as it did for me in the past, the lyrics still have the quality that things will get better and things can get better, and as I felt in the past, I think that can only happen if we make it so.”

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