BEHIND THE SONG: “A Change Is Gonna Come”
“A Change Is Gonna Come”
Written by Sam Cooke
When Bettye LaVette performed “A Change Is Gonna Come,” in duet with Jon Bon Jovi, at the first inaugural concert for President Obama, a new generation of listeners was introduced to a classic composition by one of the most influential writers and vocalists in pop history, Sam Cooke. In the 45 years since it was first released, “Change” has grown into an anthem of the civil rights movement, an epitaph for a great performer, and an iconic piece of music. Few works have been as eloquent in their depiction of triumph over adversity (“there’s been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long/But now I think I’m able to carry on”), and indeed the history behind “A Change Is Gonna Come” is every bit as interesting, and conflicted, as the song itself.
For starters, radio listeners in 1965 were not even able to hear the whole song. In his writing of “Change” Sam Cooke had been inspired by “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the 1963 protest song by Bob Dylan. At the time Cooke, a gospel music veteran whose creamy voice and good looks had carried him to pop crossover fame, was longing to explore something more serious in his music. This new sense of urgency, the desire to make a political statement, was manifested in one of “Change’s” most striking lines: “I go to the movies and I go downtown/But somebody keeps telling me, don’t hang around.” But according to Cooke’s business partner, gospel vocalist J.W. Alexander (speaking in Peter Guralnick’s 1986 book, Sweet Soul Music), the potentially controversial line was cut when “Change” was issued posthumously as a single in late 1964. Only long-playing album buyers heard the full version, with politicized lyrics intact. Ironically, those in charge of promoting “Change” subjected it to the same inequitable standards Cooke had meant to criticize.
In addition, Cooke’s sudden and tragic death ensured that “Change” was already imbued with an elegiac air by the time it was released. To date, no one is quite sure what happened that night on December 11, 1964, when Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel in a downtrodden section of Los Angeles. Biographer Guralnick clearly believes that, rather than being linked to a deliberate plot to kill an African-American singer who had become too successful for his own good (as some have argued), Cooke’s murder came as the combined result of a fast lifestyle and bad timing. Still, the questions and conspiracy theories remain, and they lend poignancy to another of “Change’s” memorable lines: “It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die/Cause I don’t know what’s up there, beyond the sky.” Sam Cooke was only 33.
From its initial release as a B-side (to the fun but largely forgettable “Shake”), “A Change Is Gonna Come” grew in stature slowly, building a reputation as the civil rights and other social movements reached full flowering in the years to come. In time it became a metaphor for human uplift, recast in numerous versions by artists as diverse as Aretha Franklin, the Nylons, and Israeli performer Anat Cohen. Few of these interpretations have been as moving, however, as LaVette’s rendition on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial the Sunday prior to Obama’s inauguration. For one thing, LaVette is one of the few contemporary rhythm & blues artists whose own career dates to the years of Cooke’s prime. She lived through the “package tours” in the South during the early 1960s, when African-American performers were turned away from whites-only hotels and other establishments (it was one such incident, in fact, which was said to inspire Cooke’s own writing of “Change”).
For another, LaVette brought to the song her own sense of improvisation, proving that a classic need not be frozen in time; its meaning can shift and deepen with the passage of years. She restored the once-contested line in her own way (“I used to try to go to the movies, and I’d try to go downtown, but somebody was always telling me, little girl, you can’t come around”) then sang “but I know change has come,” in acknowledgement of battles fought and, at least for now, won.