A “Change” from Colette

09 Aug

Another thoughtful contribution from Colette….One short observation — It had been at least a decade since I had heard “Change Gonna Come” until a very unique and brave young man used it at his American Idol audition. I’m quite sure that were only a handful of contestants that knew that song in 2005, yet the very next year it was one of the most used songs in the audition process. Even a fellow contestant tried to pull it off in competition. Point being, good music is timeless and it kun-NECKs through generations when it’s really good. And, “Change” is good.

Given Music Maven’s calling our attention to the Stax/Volt documentary and Otis Redding and the Neville Brothers, it seems time to listen again to one of the greatest songs written in the ferment of the 1960s Civil Rights era and covered so memorably by the Nevilles, Aretha Franklin, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison and so many other artists, and brought to the attention of a new generation in Spike Lee‘s “Malcolm X” movie. To me, it is startlingly relevant again, but always poignant.

Sam Cooke‘s “Change is Gonna Come” has a fascinating history which illustrates the synergy and inspiration that black and white musicians have shared with one another. Cooke was, of course, a genius singer-songwriter who in the late 1950s, after making the transition from gospel superstar (he started with the wonderful Soul Stirrersgospel group), shot up to the top of the pops. We all know this irresistible song of Sam’s, his first major secular hit (1.7 million copies sold), which Taylor Hicks covered with gusto on “American Idol“:

— “You Send Me” — Sam Cooke, 1957 from a documentary with comments by Lou Rawls, Gladys Knight and others who knew him.

In 1963, Cooke heard a recording of the young folksinger Bob Dylan, performing his watershed anthem, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” By all accounts, Cooke was moved and impressed by this white artist’s comprehension of racism and desire for a future free of it. He recorded the tune, upping the tempo and giving it a pop energy:

— “Blowin’ in the Wind” — Sam Cooke

Cooke was also moved to write his own response to the questions Dylan posed about “how many roads” a man must walk down “before they call him a man.” There are varying explanations in biographies about the incidents that inspired Cooke to take pen in hand in 1963 to compose “A Change is Gonna Come,” in addition to his reaction to the Dylan tune. These included personal matters (the tragic accidental downing death of his 18-month old son), matters stirring in the news (his discussions with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, NC after playing a concert in the city) and the bigotry he had endured (when he tried to check into a “whites only” hotel in Shreveport, LA, he was arrested for “disturbing the peace.” The fact was, fortune and fame didn’t shield black artists from discrimination back then — but at least they had a public voice to protest it.

Whatever triggers there were, Cook’s song was quickly recognized as a masterwork, a personal and universal expression of the urgent need for change, for the end to ignorance and despair. A song of weariness and hope, despair and belief, drawn in part from his own memories of growing up in rural Mississippi. From the wailing open line, to the bluesy bridge, it never fails to transmit a transcendent power. The first two verses:

I was born by the river, in a little tent
And just like the river, I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come
It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long time coming
But I know a change is gonna come

The song has not only been sung and recorded countless times, its title has also found its way into our vernacular as a figure of speech. Could there be any greater tribute to a songwriter (or any writer) than that?

When Cooke sang it on TV’s “The Tonight Show” in 1964, it was considered a heroic act. Sadly, the tape of that live show was erased, but the original recording is timeless:

— “A Change is Gonna Come” — Sam Cooke, 1963

Of the many great covers of “ACGC”, I want to highlight a few. I was moved by this raw, modern acoustic version of The FugeesLauryn Hill and Wyclef. Hill is a stunning singer, and I wish she recorded and toured more consistently. Notice that she substitutes “I was born by the river in a tenement” for “in a little tent”:

Lauryn Hill & Wyclef

Al Green is an artistic progeny of Cooke, the next generation of southern, gospel-fired soul singer whose music grabs and pulls your heart. Here’s his tremendous homage, which he sang at the Rock ‘n Roll Museum. There’s a bonus starter, the irresistible Green tune “Tired of Being Alone”:

— Al Green

NOTE: This very wild performance is anchored by a band led by two of the great MG’s:  keyboard player Booker T. and guitarist Steve Cropper.

Bob Dylan admired Cooke enormously, and was very flattered that a song of his own would inspire another civil rights anthem that had such impact. Dylan is who he is, his voice is craggy and uncompromising and idiosyncratic. It always gets to me, but if you can’t stand the cracks and crevices you might want to walk on by:

Dylan, live performance

Beverly Knight is Britain’s “Queen of Soul,” and while she’s no Aretha she is a potent R & B artist who gives every tune her all. In this live performance on British TV she takes a cue from Cooke’s recording by adding a few strings to her arrangement:

Beverly Knight

I also like Corneille’s version. Born in Rwanda, and raised in Montreal, he sings “Change is Gonna Come” with great feeling. A star in France and Canada, he’s issuing his first “cross over” English language album this year, which I can’t wait to hear — great high soul tenor voice. Music (especially Sam Cooke‘s) truly transcends borders:

— Corneille

This is a very touching version by Luther Vandross, another musical heir to Cooke, when you consider how short and strife-worn his own life was. Sometimes with Vandross, the vocal embellishments obscure the tune itself and its meaning. But I think he got to the heart and marrow of this one:

Luther Vandross, in a televised tribute to Sam Cooke

Though the song was especially meaningful for the African American community, anyone can relate to its depth and questing. I don’t know much about this Alabama native in her 30’s (anyone care to enlighten me?), but I really respect her raw, direct and meaningful interpretation of this song. Not the most polished video, but worth a listen:

Music Maven NOTE:  See comments for “enlightenment”

Allison Moorer, live at the Blue Note

Last, we must again go to Otis Redding for a rendition that ranks right up there with Cooke’s. Thank you MM for all your recent attention to an artist who, like Cooke, shone so brightly and left us far too soon. You feel like every inch of Otis’ being understands the torment and faith in “A Change is Gonna Come”:

Otis Redding

Music Mavin Epilogue: Interestingly, I came across this version of “Change” recently and I was saddened. Somehow, it seems a bit sac religious to me and not what I think that Sam Cooke had in mind when he penned the poignant words of this song. Maybe I don’t understand the rap genre, but this seems like a mockery of all that folks like Sam Cooke endured to pioneer a path for future musical generations.



Posted by on August 9, 2007 in Music History, Soul


10 responses to “A “Change” from Colette

  1. colette

    August 9, 2007 at 9:21 pm

    Love that c-r-a-z-y Al Green performance, He just kills me. but I musta screwed up the URL — so here’s the audio of him singing “Change is Gonna Come” with Cropper, Booker T., etc. in Cleveland:

  2. Little Deb

    August 10, 2007 at 6:41 am

    Morning. Great stuff Colette. I really really like Corneille’s voice.

  3. music maven

    August 10, 2007 at 10:05 am

    Colette…Allison Moorer

    Since you mentioned Alabama, got me curious and I got my little research fingers moving. Allison Moorer is originally from Jackson, AL, just north of BEE-U-TEE-FULL Mobile. She is the little sister of Country Singer Shelby Lynne. Today’s Trivia: Shelby Lynne played Johnny Cash’s young mother, Carrie, in Walk the Line.

    Allison was nominated for an Academy Award for her song, “A Soft Place to Fall” in Horse Whisperer.

    She also sings the song, “Tumbling Down” in the movie, The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid. (Love me some Dennis.)

    However, I REALLY like her Alabama Song.

    Her back story is a bit tragic as her parents died in a murder-suicide when she was in high school and was largely raised after that by big sister, Shelby. Interestingly, wikipedia states that Allison’s music “has been critically acclaimed but has never caught on in radio”.

  4. colette

    August 10, 2007 at 10:48 am

    I knew I could count on you to sleuth this one…What a gorgeous voice she has, low and velvety and soulful. Radio play? Wow, not even someone with great country chops can be assured of that anymore…..

  5. jenfera

    August 10, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    Ooo, Luther! I’ve always had a soft spot for Luther. I love this version. Gives me little tingles on my neck.

  6. mouser

    August 11, 2007 at 8:48 am

    For my taste
    it is Otis Redding all the way; followed by Al Green and Sam Cooke. Women don’t fair as well to my ear, for some reason and Dylan has never been a fav of mine. Won’t say a thang about GMoney…please !!

  7. Colette

    August 11, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Hey Mouser —

    Glad to hear your thoughts. what I found so interesting putting this together is how many singers respond deeply to this tune, and are moved to deliver it in their own way. Even the ones you may not like so much are infused with great feeling and commitment. It just tells me how special a song it is, and how it has a life of its own independent from its maker, a life that can go on and on….

  8. morewines

    August 16, 2007 at 1:23 pm

    I’ll get my turn to see Al Green live
    Sept 8th with B.B. King and Etta James.
    Should be good.

  9. Jan

    August 20, 2007 at 12:56 am

    I really love the this song by Storyville with Malford Milligan on lead.

    It gives me chills every single time I hear it.

  10. Colette

    August 20, 2007 at 1:52 pm

    What a beautiful, soulful rendition of “Change Is Gonna Come” by Storyville, Jan! Thanks so much for turning me on to it, and to this band…..


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