The Perfect Legacy of "A Change is Gonna Come"

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“A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke is the perfect companion to the annual observance of the birthday of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All that Dr. King fought for, all that he fought against, all that people around the world still struggle against every day, is beautifully summed up in the very first verse of this civil rights anthem.

“I was born by the river in a little tent
and just like that river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will.”

When a people is systematically persecuted against through war or slavery for generations, it can be generations more until they are truly free. Relentless poverty, restricted access to good education, an inability to vote are all factors that prevent people from being able to pursue opportunities that improve their lives, and the lives of their descendants. “I’ve been running ever since.”

Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” in 1963 after he and his wife were prohibited from checking into a Holiday Inn hotel in Louisiana. Even though they had made reservations weeks before, the desk clerk turned them away. Cooke had also recently heard “Blowin’ in The Wind” by Bob Dylan, and was at once awed by the artistry and beauty of the song while being ashamed that he had yet to make a similar creative statement of his own.

“It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come.”

While painting a dire portrait of the world around him and the challenges he faces, Cooke remains optimistic. He hopes…he knows…that things will change. Cooke wrote the song on guitar, but recorded the song with a 24 piece orchestra. Violins open the song with a lonely wail, soon joined by three trombones, a trumpet and a French horn. A luxurious tympani drum keeps time.

“I go to the movie, and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, don’t hang around
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees”

It’s a simple concept. Let’s welcome each other. Let’s help each other. We are all living on the same planet, in the same country, in the same cities and town. But rather than treating our neighbors with dignity and respect, we try to keep everyone separated. We exert power and control.

The song ends with optimism, with a sincere hope that we can all carry on together and find a place of peace and love.

“There have 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 is  gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Sam Cooke recorded “A Change is Gonna Come” in January of 1964, and he died in December of 1964, shot during an altercation at a hotel in Los Angeles. Though Cooke did perform the song live once, on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show with a full orchestra, he did not live long enough to see it become the universal anthem he originally envisioned.

No record of that Tonight Show performance exists, but the song has been covered thousands of times through the years. Aretha Franklin, The Band, Passenger, Al Greene, Beyonce, Otis Redding, Seal…the list goes on and on. Perhaps no cover though captures the inclusiveness and peace Sam Cooke hoped to share than the Playing for Change band performing the song live in Brazil.


“A Change is Gonna Come”
Written by Same Cooke
Released December 22, 1964

 

 

 

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