(This concludes the Politiko series of Sevens: a feature on Aquarium Drunkard that pays tribute to the art of the individual song. Go vote.)
Sam Cooke was astounded by Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Seriously. “Geez, a white boy writing a song like that,” Cooke commented. Though it wasn’t so much the lyrics that affected Cooke – he liked them enough to record his own version of the song – but the fact that a song that so simply and beautifully laid out the struggles of the Civil Rights era could also be a hit song. So, inspired, Cooke wrote.
“I was born by the river in a little tent / Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since / It’s been a long, a long time coming / But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”
“A Change Is Gonna Come” is Cooke’s response. From stem to stern it is unquestionably one of the finest songs of the 1960s. Its evocation of the struggle of Black Americans, its cynical and hopeless narrator, its affirmation of a light at the end of the tunnel all serve to create this song’s crowning achievement as an anthem for the Civil Rights movement.
“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 gonna come, oh yes it will.”
In the wake of the assassination of Medger Evers, the outlook for equality was bleak. No one knew the future. Even with steps like Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas, the forces that opposed equality dragged their heels in integrating. Justice continued to be doled out in incremental amounts and egregious wrongs were persecuted against people for their political beliefs or otherwise. It’s no wonder that Cooke’s narrator professes an insecurity about his place in the afterlife – not in his destination, but whether there was anywhere to go at all.
“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.”
What’s it like to grow up somewhere where you can’t go certain places because you aren’t wanted or allowed? What’s it like to grow up the object of derision because of something you are born with? What’s it like to be an outcast in the only society and place that you know? The cinematic scope of the strings and instruments on “A Change is Gonna Come” are the type that create in a listener the intensely dramatic and tempestuous feelings of the time. Your heart nearly leaping out of your chest at each swell, at each peek of danger or threat. Yet still, that refrain – a change is going to come. Definitely going to come.
“Then I go to my brother / And I say, ‘Brother, help me please’ / But he winds up knockin’ me / Back down on my knees”
“A Change is Gonna Come” was released as the b-side of the song “Shake” – a month after Cooke was shot to death. Tragically and strangely prophetic for the man himself, it was also a bellwether for the country itself. Amidst those who had felt beaten down, both figuratively and literally, among those who had felt themselves reach a last point before giving up, it could be a stirring and emotional plea to remember that justice does exist. That it’s always darkest before the dawn. Don’t give up, Cooke was saying. I know, he said, that a change is going to come. Yes. It will.
“Oh, there’ve 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.” words/j neas