Clip: Dave Hoekstra on the significance of "A Change is Gonna Come"
- Third of three Hoekstra articles on Cooke.
The significance of 'Change'
October 30, 2005
One of the most remarkable crossover singles of the 20th century was
Sam Cooke's "Shake" / "A Change Is Gonna Come," which scaled the
Billboard singles charts in January 1965, a month after the singer was
murdered in a Los Angeles motel.
With its unusual rhythm patterns, "Shake" took soul music in a modern
direction. And the ballad "A Change Is Gonna Come," which Cooke sang
with poignant introspection, signaled a new era of societal change.
"That song seemed to be written for us," said civil rights activist
Julian Bond in an interview earlier this week. "A ... Change ... Is
... Gonna ... Come. Things were in the air. Things may not be OK right
now, but they're going to get better. That was a protective song."
"'A Change Is Gonna Come' was what we called a 'message' song," said
Bond, who will appear Nov. 5 at a daylong conference on Sam Cooke at
Case Western Reserve University's Ford Theatre in Cleveland, part of
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's "American Music Masters" series.
(Other guests will include keynote speaker Peter Guralnick, author of
Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke; Leroy Crume of the Soul
Stirrers, and legendary R&B emcees Early Byrd and Gorgeous George.)
"That was unusual. I now know that people had been putting messages
into songs for decades before that. But for me, Sam Cooke represented
my first consciousness of message music. You wanted something that
spoke not just to your teenage romantic fantasies, you wanted
something else. Not something better than that, but something
different than that. Message songs confirmed how you felt about
Bond began to realize the empowerment of music and the movement as
early as 1960, when folk singer Guy Carawan was traveling through the
South singing the melodic "We Shall Overcome," which became the theme
song for the civil rights movement.
"I saw Guy Carawan sing in Raleigh, N.C., at the initial conference of
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in April 1960," Bond
said. "That was the first time I heard 'We Shall Overcome.' He led
about 200, 300 of us gathered there from around the South. I don't
think anyone said, 'Hey, this will be our theme song.' But it quickly
became the movement song. He has the credit for making it our song."
Bond, 65, became the first president of the Southern Poverty Law
Center when it was established in 1971. He spent more than 20 years of
service in the Georgia General Assembly. He currently teaches civil
rights history at American University in Washington, D.C., and at the
University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "I like to joke they won't
let me teach physics," he said.
Soul singer Solomon Burke first heard Cooke sing "A Change Is Gonna
Come" in Spartanburg, S.C., on a package tour with Jackie Wilson and
comic Moms Mabley. "It was an incredible moment," Burke said earlier
this week from Los Angeles. "J.W. [Alexander, Cooke's personal manager
and confidant] was coaching him backstage of how important it was to
just play it without introducing it. Jackie Wilson said, 'Just hit
"Sam had such a presence. Women were screaming and then he'd sing, 'I
was born by the river ... [the song's lead-in]. The impact wasn't
spiritually that the world was going to change; it was 'Oh, my, he's
telling us about his life.' It became a political situation as it grew
and the things that were happening around Sam: integration,
segregation, marches and demonstrations. It became a song of
remembrance and a song of tears."