A Change Is Gonna Come

Sam Cooke, 1964

What was occurring in the United States in the 1960s that might have given Cooke optimism that "a change is gonna come"?

The song uses a river as a metaphor. What is it a metaphor for?

Rivers were often metaphors in spirituals (see "Roll, Jordan, Roll" and "Follow the Drinking Gourd"). How is Cooke's use of the river metaphor similar to and different from the rivers in spirituals? Do you think Cooke consciously invoked the spiritual in his lyrics?

Cooke's lyrics tell a story about individual events of oppression. How are these events symbolic of the broader African American experience?

"A Change is Gonna Come," performed by Sam Cooke on Ain't That Good News, © 1964. Available on Itunes, Spotify, and YouTube.


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Sam Cooke (1931–64) was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi. He was the son of a Baptist minister who moved the family to Chicago soon after Sam was born. Cooke's father often had his children sing during services at his church, and he eventually organized them as a formal group called the Singing Children, which sang in churches around Chicago. In 1945 Sam began singing with a small gospel group called the Highway QC, named for the church to which they all belonged, the Highway Baptist Church. The group traveled extensively and competed in gospel quartet competitions, which were popular in Chicago at the time.

In 1950 Cooke was invited to join the Soul Stirrers, one of the leading and most influential traveling gospel groups of the time. In 1956 he first recorded secular music, and he initiated a string of hits with "You Send Me" in 1957. Cooke's ambition was to bring together Black and white audiences with his blend of gospel and popular singing styles. He was particularly impressed by the sound of the Ink Spots and infused his songs with their melodious characteristics.

In 1963 Cooke was introduced to Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and was surprised that a white man had written the rebellious lyrics. He reportedly commented, "Geez, a white boy writing a song like that?" (Wolff, p. 291). He began working on a socially and politically charged response, "A Change Is Gonna Come," which was inspired by his experience being turned away from a whites-only hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Old Man River sheet music
Sheet Music cover for "Ol' Man River."

The melody of the orchestral introduction paraphrases the song "Old Man River" from Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's 1927 Broadway musical, Show Boat, especially the end of the introduction, which resembles the line "he just keeps rolling along." The lyrics of "A Change Is Gonna Come" are also like "Old Man River" in that both songs compare their singer's struggles (and metaphorically the African American struggle for civil rights) to a river that keeps moving despite the obstacles in its way. Also like "Old Man River," "A Change Is Gonna Come" invokes the spiritual in its metaphorical use of entering into heaven to represent the hope of entering a new age of racial progress.

The song's remarkable arrangement, created by Cooke's longtime associate René Hall, deepens its political meanings by adding another stylistic element with social associations. Whereas Cooke's lyrics and vocals invoke the spiritual, gospel, blues, and Broadway, the orchestral arrangement invokes the symphony in that each verse is presented in a new arrangement, a technique similar to the development and variation commonly found in classical orchestral music. Through its diverse musical references the song makes a powerful statement about racial harmony.

"A Change Is Gonna Come" was composed, recorded, and debuted just prior to Cooke's death in a shooting incident at a Los Angeles motel under questionable circumstances.



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