Today’s song is ‘A Change is Gonna Come’. This song has been sung by several artists, the most prominent being Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. The song initially appeared on Cooke's album ‘Aint that Good News’ which was released mid-February 1964. A slightly edited version of the recording was released as a single on December 22, 1964. Produced by Hugo and Luigi the song was arranged and conducted by ‘Rene Hall’ as the ‘B’ side to ‘Shake’.
The song was inspired by various personal events in Cooke's life, most prominently being an event in which he and his entourage were turned away from a ‘Whites only’ motel in Louisiana. Cooke felt compelled to write a song that spoke to his struggle and of those around him, and that pertained to the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ and ‘African Americans’. The song contains the refrain, "It's been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come."
Though only a modest hit for Cooke in comparison with his previous singles, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ is widely considered Cooke's best composition and has been voted among the best songs ever released by various publications. In 2007, the song was selected for preservation in the ‘Library of Congress’ with the ‘National Recording Registry’, deeming the song ‘culturally, historically and aesthetically important.’
‘A Change is Gonna Come’ was also chosen for the Spike Lee-directed movie, Malcolm X, for the scene at the end of the movie as actor Denzel Washington walks into the ballroom where Malcolm X will be shot and killed.
On October 8, 1963, whilst travelling to Shreveport, Louisiana, Cooke called ahead to the ‘Holiday Inn’ to make reservations for his wife, Barbara, and himself, but when he and his group arrived, the desk clerk glanced nervously and explained there were no vacancies.]While his brother Charles protested, Sam was furious, yelling to see the manager and refusing to leave until he received an answer. His wife nudged him, attempting to calm him down, telling him, "They'll kill you," to which he responded, "They ain't gonna kill me because I'm Sam Cooke." When they eventually persuaded Cooke to leave, the group drove away but when they arrived at the ‘Castle Motel’ on Sprague Street downtown, the police were waiting for them and arresting them for disturbing the peace. The incident was reported in ‘The New York Times’ the next day headlined, ‘Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport,’] but African-Americans were outraged. In 2019, then-Shreveport mayor Adrian Perkins apologized to Cooke's family for the event and posthumously awarded Cooke the key to the city. Ironically, he was given the key to the city which had closed their doors to him and his family fifty -six years earlier because they were black-skinned.
Cooke incorporated his own personal experiences as well into the song, such as encounters in Memphis, Shreveport and Birmingham, to reflect the lives and struggles of all African-Americans of the time. The lines "I don't know what's up there / Beyond the sky" could possibly refer to Cooke's doubt for absolute true justice on earth. The final verse, in which Cooke pleads for his ‘brother to help him’, is a metaphor for what Alexander described as ‘the establishment’ and what most believe to be represented in his fellow man (meaning his white fellowman). The verse continues, 'But he winds up knocking me / back down on my knees’ reflecting that over centuries, the white race kept the black race on their knees each time they rose up to demand equality. Cooke was also aware of the significance on non-action and a failure to protest by many of his black brothers and sisters who kept quiet about such injustice. He viewed such failure to ‘speak out and resist injustice’ as essentially colluding with the whites; thereby ensuring that the black race stayed on their knees, and delayed the coming of change that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s heralded.
It is appropriate that a song that became an anthem for the ‘Civil Rights Movement’, and is widely considered Cooke's best composition, has garnered significant praise. In 2005, the song was voted Number 12 by representatives of the music industry and press in ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine's ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’. The song is also among three hundred songs deemed the most important ever recorded by ‘National Public Radio’ (NPR) and was selected by the ‘Library of Congress’ as one of twenty-five selected recordings to the ‘National Recording Registry’ as of March 2007. Acclaimed Music ranked it as ‘The 46th Greatest Song of All Time’, as well as the third best song of 1964. NPR called the song "one of the most important songs of the civil rights era."
Despite its acclaim, legal troubles have haunted the single since its release. A dispute between Cooke's music publisher, ‘ABKCO’, and record company, ‘RCA Records’, made the recording unavailable for much of the four decades since its release. Although the song was featured prominently in the 1992 film’ Malcolm X’, it could not be included in the film's soundtrack. By 2003, however, the disputes had been settled in time for the song to be included on the remastered version of ‘Aint that Good News’, as well as the Cooke anthology ‘Portrait of a Legend’.
Ever since my life was saved by the skilful hands of a West Indian surgeon at Batley Hospital in 1954 after a serious accident I incurred left me with multiple life-threatening injuries and a damaged spine that prevented me walking for three years, I have been a person who has fought against all manner of discrimination; and in particular, racism and sexism.
One saw very few black-skinned citizens in Great Britain during the 1950s, yet the black faces one did see were always viewed with unwarranted suspicion. By 1960, Great Britain was witnessing increased migration from the West Indies and Pakistan and racism raised its ugly head high. The irrational fear of being ‘culturally swamped’ by black migrants was fanned by white bigots as racism spread rampantly across the land.
I recall black workers being denied trade union membership during the early 1960s. I regularly witnessed black customers in shops being served behind a white customer they had been before in the queue, and I have even heard the shop keeper tell a black customer they were out of stock of a particular item they asked for, even when the said item could be seen in large quantity on the shopkeeper’s shelves for all to see. I have seen a black man refused entry to a Working Men’s Club and I have seen landlords place signs in their windows that said ‘No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish!’ A common slogan by gangs of young racists who deliberately used physical violence on many new immigrants was 'Paki Bashing'.
When we went dancing in Halifax weekly (where they had a higher ratio of black citizens), the British had their own cultural divide separating white from black rock and rollers. All the black dancers would congregate and dance at one side of the circular dance floor and all the white boppers would be at the other side of the room. The strange thing was that, unlike America, where racism was more openly practised, this culturally divide had appeared in the Halifax dance hall, not through any official design. It was as though a cultural (unspoken) understanding had emerged telling the black dancers, ‘You’d better not hang around on our side’. The West Indians could out dance any white person on the floor and when some of the white girls (for some reason black girls never came dancing here) joined them and set up some inter-racial partnerships, the white girls were looked down upon and were thereafter considered persona non-grata (damaged goods).
At the age of 18 years, I became the youngest trade union shop steward in Great Britain. Within a few months of taking up the post, a West Indian mill worker who applied to fill a vacancy was refused the job by the mill owners because of the colour of his skin. Two days later, I brought the 300 mill workers out on strike; with one of the reasons being their refusal to employ a black man. The strike made the national press and although the firm eventually backed down and offered the black man the job, he turned it down.
I emigrated to Canada in 1964 and travelled around a lot of America over the following years. I was saddened to see that racism in the U.S.A. was even far worse than I’d ever witnessed it in England.
I jointly dedicate my song today to three Facebook friends of mine, Elaine Craven, Lorna Gregory from London and Linda Sippio from America; along with all my Facebook friends of darker than white skin who have experienced racism first hand. Elaine. Lorna and Linda are all ladies who are more than capable of taking care of themselves and defending their own rights. They are women of substance who have spent most of their life fighting for civil rights and equality of justice for all whilst serving their communities in their professional fields. I am proud to call them all friends.
Love and peace Bill xxx