Soul Song #3:
A Change Is Gonna Come
by Sam Cooke
Soul Song #3: A Change Is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke. (Post last edited on 12/27/20)
During the energy of the winter solstice 56 years ago, “A Change is Gonna Come” was released as a single on Dec. 22, 1964 (just 11 days after the murder of Sam Cooke) exactly one month before Cooke’s 34th birthday. Next month, January 22, 2021, marks what would have been Sam Cooke’s 90th birthday.
Sam Cooke, born Samuel Dale Cook on 01/22/1931, was a wonderful singer-songwriter. He possessed a unique gift for writing hit song lyrics and had a one-of-a-kind quality in his singing voice. In his short life, in addition to being a top performer, Cooke managed to own his own record label and publishing company and was known for breaking barriers (especially with regards to insisting on performing before truly integrated audiences, during the times of segregation), funding Black organizations, and for his determination to help other Black singing artist to own their publishing rights and masters.
Most fans know that the song, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was written as a sort of Black counterpart to the song ‘Blowing in the Wind’ which was written and performed by Bob Dylan. Cooke was deeply touched by Dylan’s song but, according to Sam’s brother – L.C., felt that Dylan’s “song should have been written by a Black person”; so, Sam set out to write his own version of a protest song by digging deep to tap into and express his soul’s truth.
Prior to ‘A Change is Gonna Come (ACGC)’, Cooke primarily wrote and performed pop music (referred to as R&B/Soul when performed by Black artist in America). Cooke felt that ACGC was his greatest composition and that he had written a song that would – without a doubt – have made his father proud; in a sense, it was a return to his roots and the gospel sound he grew up singing in his father’s church. Not long after ACGC was released as a single in 1964, the song came to represent the 1960s Civil Rights Movement and became soul music’s first direct engagement with Black politics; over the years the song has been called on again and again, during subsequent protests for Black rights and equality. Unfortunately, the need for its use as a protest song for Blacks in America continues in 2020.
‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was written in 1963 but not recorded until January 1964; the combination of the song’s music, Rene’ Hall’s arrangement, and Cooke’s heart wrenching and mournful performance of the lyrics, led friends and family to comment that it was “eerie’, “made them shiver”, and “reminded them of death”. Some people still believe that the song was a harbinger of death, an omen of what was to come. Yet there is the presence of hope, in this “eerie” song, that is not evident in “Blowin’ in the Wind”. ACGC has that same hopefulness that can be found in M.L.K, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech’ (also written in 1963) which called for jobs, freedom, civil and economic rights, and an end to racism. Both of these authors had a sense of certainty in their vision for a better future, but they also had a menacing awareness that they may not get to see the mountaintop (the vision realized) with us.
Sam told his brother that ACGC was his most difficult song to write, but that it came easily and quickly. Similar to the description of SS#2 – “Love The One You’re With”, ACGC seemed to be a song that came ‘through’ Cooke. One of his biographers, Peter Guralnick, recalls Cooke saying, “It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him, … it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air, and it came to him whole; still – in many ways, it was probably the most complex song that he wrote.” Even though Cooke’s song was written in first-person, it undeniably speaks of the experiences of a generation of Blacks in this country.
Cooke agreed that the song had an ominous mood and for that reason decided he would never perform it live. Sadly, Cooke was killed in December of the same year that he recorded the song, apparently having performed it only once in public. The song was originally published on Cooke’s album “Ain’t That Good News” which was released in February 1964. Cooke was murdered on December 11, 1964 at the age of 33, just short of his 34th birthday. The song, with the lyrics slightly edited by RCA Victor, was released as a single on December 22, 1964, eleven days after Cooke’s death; promoters were clearly hoping to take advantage of the record sales that the news of Cooke’s death would generate.
Although this song has had over 300 covers (as well as numerous samples and remixes) – many by high profile celebrity performers, no one has been able to match the vocal sincerity or authenticity of Cooke’s personal pain being shared in his own voice.
The song “A Change is Gonna Come” and the writer/singer, Sam Cooke, have been close to my heart since my early teen years. It has been subtly in my essence through dreams and personal experiences even before I had any understanding of the events that took place in the U.S. during the 1960s. In mid-2019, I was drawn to listen to many of his songs (primarily ACGC – repeatedly), read articles, and watch videos about his life and death. For these reasons, I feel extremely close to this song and artist.
Personal life events contributed to Cooke writing more introspective songs and to his deeper interest in Black history and politics. ACGC is a song about Sam Cooke’s life, a short autobiography in song, that also holds a message/an indication of a process that each adult must go through in their lifetime.
As I followed the videos and articles that document Cooke’s life experiences, a pattern revealed itself; he transforms from a young man chasing after acceptance and approval to a grown man who has come to love and accept his authentic self, no longer begging/pandering for love, acceptance, and approval outside of himself. He no longer needed to change who he was to belong or be accepted. You can see this in the changes in his appearance/style, interests, and sense of right and wrong in the world.
So, in the exploration of this Soul Song, I went first to Spirit for advice on how to approach connecting with the deeper spiritual understanding of this song.
Yes, Beloved, it is finally time to take a deeper and in-depth look at this song which has been so close to your soul. There is much to uncover about the lyrics and the writer, and we look forward to taking this journey with you. It will be beautiful and touching to all who read it. The teaser message [given at the end of SS #2] will become clear as we interact with the lyrics and the soul of the writer Sam Cooke. It will be an inspiring journey – Indeed!
Your excitement regarding the blog and its content pleases us, but there is more to learn regarding how this will work. Each entry, song, blog post may read differently. In this case of the current song, Beloved, ask the song what it would like to reveal, ask the artist/writer what his desire was in creating such a haunting composition. Go where many others yet cannot go and collect the answers they wait to know and hear. This journey, through Soul Songs, will change you and change those who read the words. Teach the world of the connectedness, the Oneness, that exists in all things. Indeed!
Soul of the Song’s Response:
It is with great joy that we respond to your request/inquiry. The energy we provide as a conglomeration/collection of words and music is one of sadness, a breaking open of the heart space much like one would feel at the death of a loved one. It is designed to cause a release of trapped emotions – sometimes through tears other times just through thoughtful reflection. It is why some people remark that, “It feels like death”. This cracking open of the heart’s hardened shell (formed/accumulated over many heartaches) allows space for one to grow and rise to a higher level within themselves. The song drags you down, to pick you up. You are going into the cocoon in order to emerge as a butterfly. So, not so much a harbinger of death as a harbinger of transformation.
The song became the song of the Civil Rights movement for that very reason – it is a song of transformation, a call for the death of the old way. It spoke of the hopes and dreams of a people in despair. It spoke of the inability of brothers and sisters on the planet to see the humanity in each other, to open their hearts, their ears, their eyes. It was very much an accompaniment piece to Dylan’s creation. As mentioned earlier, Cooke went deep into his soul to write/create/find these lyrics – it is the soul connection that anyone on the planet can make within themselves to connect with their soul plan. It is, in fact, a ‘remembering’ of the soul’s plan.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
Yes, as you know I have reached out a few times in anticipation for this connection and as a hint to the experiences ahead for you. [Yes, I understand that now.] This song was my greatest collaboration and I call it that because I did not walk alone in the writing and composing of the music. I spoke of believing my father would be proud of this piece – but the truth is he was right there with me in the creation of it along with scores of ancestors from over the years. It was a collaboration in the truest sense of the word, and I did go deep to receive it. Yes, my life was cut short, “before my time” – in the eyes of many, but I live on through my body of work and in this song which I consider my greatest contribution to the music world and toward the healing of humanity. My purpose for that life was fulfilled.
I want to thank you for allowing my song to be a part of your offering to the world, and for setting the record straight on the energy and significance of the song.
[Would you care to ‘set the record straight’ on your death and what happened that night? Who killed or had you killed?]
I’ll hold that story for another time – although it is a great story – would make a great movie – espionage, romance, infidelity, theft, contracts, and betrayal. It will keep for now. Today, we will focus on the Soul Song.
Beloved, the truth that you seek is within reach and only requires that you speak directly to the soul of Sam Cooke, himself, and allow his soul to verbalize the significance of the major lyrical stanzas. Just ask for his input, Beloved.
~ ~ ~
While the lyrics are painfully clear in many ways, there are a several areas, lines, and metaphors, which could use the help of some clarification, background, or interpretation. So, let’s step our way through the lyrics side by side with Sam’s guidance.
I was born by the river, in a little tent
Sam was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi – along the Mississippi River in 1931. This was a time of great poverty; following all the excess of the “Roaring Twenties” came the Stock Market Crash and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many banks shut down and the U.S. experienced the highest levels of unemployment ever; bread lines, soup kitchens, and homelessness were commonplace. This time was particularly hard on the already struggling Black population in the area along the Mississippi. So, it is likely that Cooke was literally born in a tent or in the poorly made tenant housing/sharecropper cabins (often called tent cities) along the river; created, in part, because of the floods and poverty of the late 1920s and early 1930s. As a result, when Sam was only two, his father moved the whole family to the Chicago, Illinois area with the hope of finding better opportunities.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
This line comes from the stories I was told about my birth by those, older than I, who remembered my birth. But you are correct in that those were hard times and especially dangerous for people of color.
And just like that river, I’ve been running ever since
The river is a common metaphor for life. It is always flowing forward, in search of its Source. Life is so much like a river; sometimes it moves slowly, quickly, or totally changes course, but it never stops moving on. In life you are going to face different external circumstances – some favorable and some not, and some painful; you are exposed to lots of changes that have different impacts on one’s outlook on life, but life goes on. You can’t fight the current, can’t go back and change things – just keep moving forward. No matter what happens you are never staying the same; life flows like a river – changing and evolving, adapting to its surroundings, moving accordingly, and seeking new opportunities and freedom. The river also represents the passage of time. When the river meets obstacles in nature, it builds and rises until it can transcend the obstacles, then the river flows on to meet its destiny. Spiritually, water represents life’s emotions; the goal is the ability to rise above your emotions and walk on the water. It is about having the ability to understand your emotions, internal feelings, and how to emotionally respond to life – better, and be at peace with life.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
This line in the lyrics pertains to the fact that throughout my life I’d been moving from place to place, starting at age 2. I was always on the go travelling for performances/shows or trying to stay a step ahead of those who wanted to own or control me.
It’s been a long, long time coming,
but I know a change is gonna come
I would like to suggest here that “the change” that “is gonna come” is not solely about the change most of us think of when we hear this song – a change in the mistreatment of Blacks in America. The change is also not one of death of the body, although that change is guaranteed for each of us. It is a soul journey, a deep night of the soul, a going down into the belly of the beast – the transformation caused by loss of vision, grief, and suffering. It is a part of the maturation process of every adult. There was grief and pain that Sam Cooke had not addressed, but rather suppressed, numbed, and ignored. Ultimately, as it does for everyone, it brought him to a low place in his life where he could no longer ignore its call. It is here where you must feel your emotions and sit in your grief, then you can receive a new vision, and sing your ‘song of grief’ (literally sing it in Sam Cooke’s case). In the remaining lyrics we’ll take a closer look at Cooke’s grief and suffering.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
It was not death (although that change/transition comes to everyone). It was not the recognition, equality, and impartiality that people of color continue to call for through protests. It is the transformative change that each person must address in their life – the journey from worm, to caterpillar, to butterfly.
It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
In 1963, Cooke was deeply grieving and distressed by the death of his 18-month-old son, Vincent Lance Cooke (12/19/1961-6/17/1963), who drowned in the family swimming pool after wandering away from his mom’s supervision. According to friends, Sam never talked about the death, but rather threw himself into his work, working even harder and staying on the go.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
I had reached a point where I was in so much emotional/psyche pain that felt so much like how I imagined death to be – that I would rather die. At the same time, I was fearful of what waited on the other side of life, – fearful of what Death truly held.
I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
In 1963 Cooke witnessed lunch counter sit-ins, and he also first heard Dylan’s song. Friends say he was ashamed that he had not yet written a socially conscious song himself. However, Cooke had worked hard to develop and maintain the image that made him attractive and acceptable to largely white audiences; fears of losing that fan base prevented him from doing so. His music crossed color lines, but he was discovering that did not mean he was loved, respected, and accepted by those same audiences.
On October 8, 1963 – Cooke, his family and friends were denied rooms at a motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, even though he had called ahead and made reservations. On arrival, they were told that the hotel had no vacancies; but it was clear they were being turned away because they were black. Sam reportedly became enraged and was shouting while his wife tried to calm him down for fear that they would kill him. His response was, “They ain’t gonna kill me, because I’m Sam Cooke.” Later, while checking-in at different hotel Sam was arrested, along with others in his group, on the charge of ‘disturbing the peace’ at the previous location.
In February of 1964 Sam Cooke openly assumed a role in the Civil rights struggle and met with Malcolm X, and Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali) motivated by lunch counter sit-ins he’d witnessed, Jim Crow laws, the treatment of chain gang workers, his own arrest for attempting to integrate a Louisiana motel, and Bob Dylan’s song. Cooke was one of the first to cut off his processed hair and allow his natural hair to grow out, saying “I’m proud of who I am.” Many others followed his lead, men and women went natural. Then, his music and the messages he shared became more serious.
“As a singer grows older his conception goes a little deeper, because he lives life and he understands what he is trying to say a little more; … If a singer tries to find out what’s happening in life, it gives him a better insight on telling the story of the song he is trying to sing.”– Sam Cooke
Note: This is the line in the lyrics that was edited out when RCA Victor originally released ACGC as a single following Cooke’s death, because they felt ‘it was speaking too boldly about segregation’.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
It is fair to say that this describes my experience in Louisiana and so many other places along the circuit that we traveled to perform. It was difficult to be embraced and shown such love for the music I created and to be invisible to the same people when it came down to where I could eat, sleep, and live. I thought I had and could transcend those barriers that kept people separated. I thought music was the key to putting everyone on equal footing.
Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees
This verse was about his then business manager and other friends/business associates stealing his company; the theft of a Black man’s wealth in the tradition of the theft of Solomon Linda’s royalties for ‘Mbube’ (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).
Cooke discovered that persons he considered to be friends and brothers had lied, cheated, and modified contracts that changed the ownership of his own record label and publishing company and made him an employee instead. Cooke discovered this while he was down sick with the flu, when his body forced him to take a break; he was still grieving his son and contemplating the realities of racism in America. It was a difficult and emotional time and I imagine Sam was finding it difficult to understand, to come to terms with, people and what lies beneath their actions with regards to peoples’ motives.
Allen Klein, an accountant who originally approached Cooke offering to help him recover missing money/royalties from the RCA Victor Record Company and free him from RCA’s control, was one in a group of parasites involved in altering the contracts. Reportedly, Cooke was preparing to get out from under Allen Klein’s ‘knee on his throat’ and return to being his own manager and having the control. In Cooke’s words, “No one is going to get rich off of my blood and sweat but me.” Friends report that Cooke had confronted and told Allen Klein off just a few days before Cooke was killed.
An investigation of the paperwork showed that Klein and others were involved in removing Cooke as owner and shareholder in his own company and made him an employee instead. They ended up owning all of Sam’s music and all the publishing rights. In the years to follow Klein also took advantage of other artists he dealt with by manipulating the contracts (reportedly the Rolling Stones and the Beatles among them).
Six months after Sam Cooke’s death, contracts showed Allen Klein listed as president, James W. Alexander (a gospel singer/musician and close friend of Sam Cooke) and Henry Newfield (a CPA and friend of Klein’s from school and the Army) as vice presidents, Klein’s wife, Betty Klein, as secretary of what was originally Sam Cooke’s businesses – including SAR, Tracey LTD; in 5 years the businesses were merged into the ABKCO-Klein Corp.
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
Back to a position of begging. I was always a proud man and I took great pride in creating something that was mine and working to help other Black artists to do the same. But I was lulled to sleep by my own belief that black and white could be brothers, regardless of color. I failed to pay attention to my responsibility to myself and my business was stolen by a man I called brother. Forced to become again a Black man sharecropping in a business that I was the rightful owner and founder of.
Oh, there been times that 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 gonna come, oh yes it will
This verse, I believe, was about Sam coming to terms with his powerlessness, the feeling and releasing of the emotions he was stuffing down and repressing (which really started to rise up in him during his reaction to being denied access to the motel); the rage and anger he was suppressing could no longer be contained. This grief included also the sadness over his powerlessness to save his son and his sense of powerlessness over the plight of Black Americans.
This “Shadow Work” is where he faces all the darkness that he has suppressed or imprisoned within himself; he faces it and understands, accepts, then integrates/assimilates it all – as welcomed aspects of himself. It is about bringing the shadow to the light and discovering what gifts are hidden within the exiled shadow.
This segment of the lyrics represents his coming up and out of the pit of his dark night of the soul having made a decision that he indeed had the strength and could “carry on”.
“It is the resiliency of the human spirit despite all of the problems that are attendant to being Black in America. The ability to sing that song – that spiritual song. The ability to absorb and not be broken.
[How do people find their song?]
They have it! They just need to realize that. Then they need to learn/remember how to sing it.”– August Wilson
Soul of Sam Cooke’s Response:
Everyone goes through a transformation in life – they are forced by circumstances to go down into the belly of the whale, into the underworld like Persephone, into what feels like a type of death – what it is really is the transformation of the cocoon, to be broken down into a formless goo – a dark night of the soul, to emerge a new creature as a result, a creation/product of the experience.
There were many difficult experiences in my life, but 1963-early 1964 (definitely) was my cocoon phase. In 1964 I emerged the butterfly ready to stop begging people to love me and ready to love myself, my authentic self. No longer trying to be what I thought they wanted, in order to gain acceptance, no longer afraid to speak my truth.
It was coming up and out of the darkness of the cocoon period that allowed me to believe I would be able to survive those major blows to my psyche and that I’d be able to carry on and be true to myself. It was my unwillingness to stay down, to accept the position of being back on my knees, my refusal to play the game the way others believed my race and position in life at birth dictated, that got me killed.
Be brave enough to explore your darkness. Transformation takes place inside you. Everyone has to face their dark night of the soul, and the transformation/change that results from it. If you are able to come through it and love the new creation that you are in your own eyes, then you will have the key to the kingdom. It starts by loving yourself. The love and belonging you seek is within yourself. Erase any false notions that there is something about you/yourself or something you’ve done that makes you un-loveable. Stop denying yourself your own love. It is never going to come from an external source. Realize the love and acceptance you are seeking comes from within and you’ll stop denying yourself access.
This is the change that must (“is gonna”) come to everyone. Embrace and expand into the fullness of who you were meant and need to be; the discomfort is the catalyst for growth.
Once you can love yourself – you can love humanity limitlessly, and you open the door to Universal Love. Love yourself just as you are.
Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.– August Wilson
Spirit’s Closing Comments
The main spiritual message is just that: A Change Is Gonna Come – the transformation required in each life to change, for the better, the state of humanity. This change revolves around your tendency to always looking outside of yourselves for the Source of love; you will never find it there. And yet, you spend your lives catering to and accommodating others, pretending to be something you are not in trade for the love you believe they possess, which will/can set you free. No words have ever been more truthful as the line: “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” It causes you to perform like a puppet on a string – begging for the scraps of love you can collect; when you could easily tap into the greatest resource that exist within you. Love yourself first, Beloved, before all others. Love all aspects of yourself whether you deem them: good or bad, ugly or attractive. Embrace and integrate those aspects which in the past you have exiled.
CDDoula’s Closing Comment
Winter Solstice provides an opportunity/invitation to go inward to explore and to be curious about the gifts within your shadow. Get acquainted with your shadow and love all aspects of you.
“Shadows make you whole
A life without pain is a wolf in sheep’s clothes
‘Cause if you listen to lessons that it holds, you’ll find the gold.
Child it is time to break the shell.
Life’s gonna hurt, but it’s meant to be felt.
You cannot touch the sky from inside yourself.
You can not fly until you break the shell. …
It is time to peel back all of the layers you put between who you’re meant to be and who you are … and go be who you are.”
From Break the Shell by India.Arie
The words “A Change Is Gonna Come” are on a wall of the Contemplative Court, a space for reflection, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
A Change Is Gonna Come – Wikipedia
Netflix: “Giving Voice“
Netflix: “The Lion’s Share”
Netflix: “The Two Killings of Sam Cooke”
YouTube: Beyond the Belly: The Pattern of Transformation with Artie Wu (Part 1 & 2)
YouTube: Deep Soul: The Uprising of Sam Cooke
YouTube: Who Really Killed Sam Cooke? Murder Mystery Documentary