Even before the words, it opens with yearning and a promise, a lush orchestral indication that this is not your average pop hit. Then come the words: “I was born by the river, in a little tent/Oh, and just like the river/I’ve been running ever since.” That’s followed by the chorus that’s both so simple and so deep that I always stop whatever I’m doing and listen: “It's been a long/A long time coming/But I know a change gonna come/Oh, yes it will.” In those words—mournful, hopeful, pleading for better—decades of hard-fought history and the future emerge.
Sam Cooke said “A Change is Gonna Come” came to him in a dream just after Christmas in 1963, and he recorded it several months later. He had heard and was moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” not long before. And he was still smarting over a Holiday Inn manager in Shreveport, Louisiana, who refused him and his band, an angry confrontation which led to his being arrested and jailed. “Change” was released in March of 1964 on his album, Ain’t that Good News, and he only performed it live one time—on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. The single of the song was released two weeks after his murder on December 11, 1964, at the heartbreaking age of 33.
“It's been too hard living/But I'm afraid to die/'Cause I don't know what's up there/Beyond the sky,” Cooke sings in the second verse. Then he tells us other stories: He goes to the movies and someone tells him “don’t hang around.” He goes to his brother and asks for help, but he ends up getting knocked “back down on my knees.” His final verse ends with considered optimism: “Oh, there been times that I thought/I couldn't last for long/But now I think I'm able, to carry on.”
I hope you’ll give this song a listen. Often remembered as a civil rights anthem, it hasn’t lost any of its impact as the decades pass. It’s a song that always makes me stop and listen.
What about you? What song always makes you stop and listen? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and listening to your suggestions, and the chance for this community to share with each other.
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*Photo Credit: Jess Rand/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
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