A blast from the past; “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke remains one of the most impactful songs ever written. If our previous posts talked of how a song became immortalized due to its catchy melody or lyrics, then this one stands apart from them. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was celebrated for its message. The hope and yearning expressed by Cooke on behalf of his people are at the core of this song. He wished that all African-Americans would see a day where they’d be treated as equals – a wish that remains relevant even after more than 50 years have passed since the composition of “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” is a song that is placed side-by-side with Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” for its impact alone. It was “Blowin’ In The Wind” that started the trend of social criticism being incorporated into popular songs of the day. “A Change Is Gonna Come” established this trend, and became the anthem of the civil rights movement in America.
The song was far removed from Cooke’s usual repertoire. He came from a gospel background and was known as the ‘King of Soul’ – an achievement unheard of for an African-American at the time. Yet despite his success, “A Change Is Gonna Come” was inspired by a painful incident tied to his identity. Cooke was turned away from a whites-only hotel in Louisiana and was later arrested for causing a scene when he was refused admission. His popularity was irrelevant to those who just saw him as another African-American to be discriminated against.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” was recorded on January 30, 1964. It was a B-side to the single “Shake” from Cooke’s final studio album ‘Ain’t That Good News’ released in February 1964. Cooke’s untimely death, mere days before the song was released, meant that he didn’t get to talk much about it. However, Cooke’s biographer Peter Guralnick described how “A Change Is Gonna Come” was composed;
“It was less work than any song he’d ever written. It almost scared him that the song – 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, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular – in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ – but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.”
Another distinct feature of “A Change Is Gonna Come” is its masterful symphonic arrangement done by René Hall. Strings in the first verse, horns carry the second, and the timpani accompanies the bridge. This arrangement added a certain grandeur to the song, almost like that of a movie score, and marked its place among the greatest hits of all time.
The legacy of “A Change Is Gonna Come” has grown over time. The song retained the #3 spot on Rolling Stone’s The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list published in 2021. The song charted at #9 on Billboard R&B Singles and #31 on Billboard Hot 100. In 2007, “A Change Is Gonna Come” received the unique honor of being preserved at the Library of Congress, and was added to the National Recording Registry.
Listen to “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
Sam Cooke “A Change Is Gonna Come” Lyrics Review and Song Meaning
Cooke’s poignant wish for a better tomorrow for his people is the essence of “A Change Is Gonna Come”. He starts out with a seemingly innocuous line:
“I was born by the river, in a little tent
Oh, and just like the river
I’ve been running ever since”
However, these words carry a wealth of meaning. Here Cooke talks of not just himself, but the humble origins of his people – African-Americans who arrived in the US as slaves. And ever since, they have been fighting for their freedom, to be viewed and treated as equals.
Then we come to the iconic hook of the song, “But I know, a change is gonna come”. Cooke insists that this change will come, perhaps not in his lifetime, but he knows that it will come someday. It’s not surprising that this cry was immediately picked up by civil rights protesters of the time.
He then refers to how hard life was for an African-American during the 50s and 60s;
“It’s been too hard living
But I’m afraid to die”
Cooke was giving voice to the fears of his people. The African-Americans were living and fighting because they didn’t want to die as downtrodden people. Because they wanted to know and experience true freedom and leave that legacy behind for the future generations. And so Cooke continued to insist that this change will take time, but it will happen one day.
And now we come to the central part of the song, where Cooke describes the incident that shaped this whole song.
“And I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me
‘Don’t hang around’”
We feel Cooke’s anger and sadness in these lines. He sees how often his people are mistreated and called social outcasts. He talks of how his ‘brother’ – the white men – would oppress his people instead of helping them out. We see how keen of a social observer Cooke was. He was aware of the fact that the only thing that separated the black and white men was their skin color. And so it was a grave injustice that they are not of equal status! It is not surprising at all that these lines were omitted when the song was being aired on the radio during the 60s.
The song draws to a close with Cooke claiming that he thought that there were times that his people would lose this battle. But he ends it with the most hopeful message that he could convey to his people. That he knows his people will see this through and that the change that he yearns for will be true one day.
The prominence of “A Change Is Gonna Come” lies in the fact that it continued to inspire generation after generation of African-Americans. Indeed, one could say that Cooke’s poignant message transcended time! What better proof can we give than Barack Obama quoting the song in his speech after his 2008 Presidential Election win;
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
This is definitely an acknowledgment of the great impact “A Change Is Gonna Come” and Cooke had on the history of America, and the long battle fought by the African-Americans over the years.
Let us hear what you think about this song in the comments below. Check out the complete lyrics on Genius.