The Greatest Tradition in Black Music

In the winter of 1963, Mississippi’s greatest jazz crooner, Sam Cooke recorded his last album ever, “Ain’t That Good News”.

Packed with majestic horns, captivating rhythms and entrancing strings, the album was an exciting combination of hard soul numbers as well as ballads. It was released March 1st of 1964 following Cooke’s tragic and untimely death at 33 years old.

The gem of that album, “A Change is Gonna Come”, is found on the B-side of the vinyl, and has become Cooke’s most memorable piece.

Over a lush orchestral arrangement, Cooke tells his story of hardship and suffering as he sang on a winter afternoon in the RCA studio in Hollywood.

“I was born by the river, in a little tent… And just like that river, I’ve running ever since… It’s been a long time, a long time coming but I know a change gon’ come”.

In few words, he gives tangibility to the weight that was on the hearts of so many black people across the nation. Through three more verses, he tells about being afraid of death after a life filled with so many tribulations “I’m afraid to die / Cause I don’t know what’s up there/ Beyond the sky.”

He speaks of a nation where he can’t even go to the movies because of his skin color, and a country so racked by division that he can’t trust his fellow man. “…he winds up knockin’ me / Back down on my knees”.

Relative to the timeline of events in America, “A Change is Gonna Come”, was a welcome anthem. It came 12 years on the heels of Emmett Till’s murder, only a decade after the Montgomery bus boycotts, and only a year after the klan planted a bomb in the 16th ST church, injuring 21, and killing four little girls.

Sam Cooke wrote this song following an event that left him shaken and fuming. On October 8, 1963 in Shreveport, Louisiana, the bandleader tried to check into a Holiday Inn, but the desk clerk informed them that there was no room. An unsatisfied Cooke refused to leave the premises until they spoke to the manager, but the police were called. Cooke was arrested, and the New York Times ran a headline the next day that read “Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport”.

From this interaction, which left Cooke depressed and disheartened, he not only told his story, but the story of millions of black people who heard it on the radio, at his show, and on his vinyl record. Many can relate to his analogy of feeling like a river that just can’t stop running as they too have demons and challenges that seem to remain in hot pursuit.

Very rarely in the history of any art form do we find a work that has been so enduring. “A Change is Gonna Come”, is perhaps the most important song written ever in black music. Rolling Stones called it the 12th most important song ever written.

The most interesting thing isn’t it’s melancholic arrangement, or masterful storytelling. The magic of this song is that it is one that nearly every single great soul singer of the 20th century performed his or her own rendition of.

After Sam Cooke was killed in December of 1964, Otis Redding put together his own version of it. The construction is vastly different — Otis relies on more trumpets, a hearty serving of piano, and his raspy, cigarette hardened voice tells the tale as if it were his very own.

Redding’s goal with his cover was to “fill the silent void” left by Cooke’s departure. It was released on his next album Otis Blue.

Take a look through the vast cannon of black music, and you’ll find hundreds of other covers, each one as beautiful as the last, passing on the same message.

Al Green performed his own rendition, Aretha Franklin did her own, Luther Vandross.. the list goes on. It’s hard to find a notable black singer who didn’t use this song at one point during their career. Spike Lee even used the song for a montage in his Malcolm X biopic, evidently connecting a great icon to a great musician.

One might argue that no piece of music would be able to survive so long unless it possessed some truly mystical quality. The enchantment of this song is contained in the idea that each artist who performs it is passing on Cooke’s message to their fans, permeating the public with a message of peace, hope, and the dream of that one fine morning..

The generational heirloom that “A Change is Gonna Come” has developed into reminds me of the negro spirituals that used to echo across cotton fields in the deep south on sweltering summer days. Songs like “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, which reminded slaves that following the big dipper on a starry night would be their passport to freedom. Or, songs like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Instead of reminding listeners and singers to stay strong under the whips that flew across backs mercilessly, Cooke’s contemporary negro spiritual reminds us to stay strong in the face of systematic oppression, and to stand firm, like in those moments when a racist hotel owner denies you a place to sleep for the evening.

On December 11th, 1964, Cooke was killed by the manager of a $3 a night motel. A bullet entered his heart and pierced his chest. Cooke was only 33. The song that was inspired by the night he was denied space at a motel was released after his death.

Cooke’s message lives on in the most magnificent way. I too, believe that one day, a change is gonna come.

Culture writer featured in Noteworthy, The Writing Cooperative, USA Today & Olustories. Comedian & Musician. Thinker.