Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a civil rights anthem.

Sam Cooke and the Power and Limits of the Pop Anthem

Sam Cooke and the Power and Limits of the Pop Anthem

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Oct. 18 2016 2:11 PM
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To Shift the Way the World Is Heard

How “A Change Is Gonna Come” reveals the powers—and the limits—of political pop music.

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circa 1960: Promotional studio portrait of American soul singer Sam Cooke (1935-1964).

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This article is excerpted from The Political Force of Musical Beauty by Barry Shank. It supplements Episode 1 of Pop, Race, and the ’60s, a Slate Academy featuring Slate pop critic Jack Hamilton. To learn more, visit Slate.com/PopAcademy

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Sam Cooke, circa 1960

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By the early ’60s, Sam Cooke was already a crossover star with a well-established cross-racial audience. “You Send Me” had hit No. 1 on Billboard’s pop chart in 1957. In the years after this success, Cooke toured the Southern R&B circuit, occasionally performing on gospel bills, occasionally playing in white-oriented supper clubs. Working in a recording industry that was organized by racial categories as well as genre labels, Cooke found himself, like so many other black artists before him, having to balance carefully his desires for large sales and the mainstream recognition that his talent deserved with the need to stay connected to the intimate public out of which his art grew. As a major pop artist in 1958, Cooke was booked as part of a package called the Biggest Show of Stars with performers such as Paul Anka and the Everly Brothers. But that tour had to be rerouted out of Southern cities such as Columbus, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, because white and black performers were not allowed to share the same stage. A year later, when touring on his own, Cooke refused to perform separate shows for black and white audiences in Little Rock, Arkansas, and settled for a rope down the center of the floor separating his crossover audience. By 1960, as the sit-in movement spread across the South, Cooke toured the South as part of the Supersonic Attractions tour. The musicians on this tour could not ignore the rising racial tensions that surrounded their appearances. After Jackie Wilson refused to play a second show for whites only in Little Rock, the tires were slashed on one of the tour’s cars. Scheduled to play Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1961, Cooke and Clyde McPhatter refused to go on when they found out that the audience for their show was not only segregated, but that blacks were forced into the back and sides of the hall. The constant pressure of dealing with segregated shows and segregated hotels, of having to carry with them food cooked by fans and friends of the local bookers in order to be able to eat when restaurants refused service, of confronting white police officers who saw the musicians’ popularity as a threat to their authority, grew more intense as the music performed by Cooke, Wilson, McPhatter, Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, and a very young Aretha Franklin, along with other R&B acts, drew ever larger audiences from both sides of the color line. Under these conditions, the everyday contradictions of show business became inescapably politicized. Faced with the undeniable evidence that their music crossed the color line and that some whites were determined to maintain racial privilege in the face of this shared experience of musical pleasure, Cooke had to confront the fact that shared musical taste did not lead directly to shared values. He responded to this conundrum in the best way a musician can.

As Peter Guralnick tells the story, it was the Christmas season of 1963 when Cooke put together the chords, melody, and lyrics for “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The fundamental ambiguity that is characteristic of the pop anthem is present in the song’s basic structure. Ostensibly in the key of B flat (as both the highest and lowest notes in the melody), the vocal line works its way down, around, and through a G minor blues scale. Using the same time signature as “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song suggests both a double and a triple meter. The basic feel of the song is simultaneously melancholy and earnestly determined as the harmonies reinforce the minor key tendency while resolving on B flat major. This basic structure is both simple and complex, perhaps signifying the straightforward sincerity required to respond to a violently insane world.

The theme of simple complexity carries the lyrics as well. “I was born by a river, in a little tent”: The double meaning of that opening line could not have been lost on Cooke’s gospel audience. But Cooke piles on the multiple meanings by following the trope of rivers and (re)birth with the classic connection between rivers and time and eternity, knowing that the significance of rivers in the history of slavery would conjure dreams of escape and hopes for salvation—hopes and dreams that had often been pushed into the future as the river of history continued only to run by.

In an astonishing move for a pop song, however, the second verse presents a harsh contrast to the hope of eternity. Where a gospel number might have followed the trope of the river with a promise of salvation, this verse instead leads us to a direct confrontation with mortality. Salvation is not guaranteed in the next world; heaven is not assured. No one, certainly not the singer, really knows what is up beyond the sky. The third verse is even more concrete: “I go to the movies and I go downtown/ Somebody keep tellin’ me, don’t hang around.” There is no overt effort at poetry here. These words are not gussied up. They are not made pretty in any way. Nor is this evocation of segregation intensified with images of violence. The not-quite-present violence hides quietly behind the authority of the voice that simply says, “Don’t hang around.” Like the second verse’s refusal of guarantees, this verse states the real conditions that confronted musicians such as Cooke. Threats did not have to be spoken aloud. They were part of the social order. The bridge marks a turn, though, as violence does appear, this time in response to a direct plea for help. After being knocked back on his knees, the singer reaches up for that high B flat that opens each verse and, through the beauty of the descending twists of the melody, assures all listeners that he will carry on. No wonder that his business partner, J.W. Alexander, thought “A Change Is Gonna Come” might be the best song Cooke had ever written.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” demonstrates both the strengths and the weaknesses of the pop anthem. Unlike anthems anchored in the full political or religious context, pop anthems have to construct and present the object of feeling that can center the equality of the juxtapolitical intimate public they call into being. They have to work with simple musical forms while creating moments of intense beauty capable of inspiring the desire to belong while eschewing any sign of propaganda or enforced authority. They must, even if only for a moment, shift the way the world is heard. They work through an appeal that does sentimentalize, that does suggest, perhaps even propose, a larger equality of feeling than it can really produce. For the only equality a pop anthem can truly construct is an equality of relation to itself.

“A Change Is Gonna Come” is not just a pop anthem, however. It is one created with the tools of the emergent genre of soul music. The timbre of Cooke’s voice carries with it the authority and power of the great male gospel singers. His trick of allowing you to hear him reach for the highest note in the melody while still seeming to exert no effort at all in the process reinforces that power and authority. The arrangement by Cooke’s musical partner, René Hall, layers simple lines of strings and horns that convey a sense of independent motives coming together for a collective purpose, each in its own time, each with its own specific contribution to make. “A Change Is Gonna Come” demonstrates the potential that a specific anthemic tradition can carry in its generic markers. As gospel secularized into soul, the musical sounds that had confirmed the already existing unity of a political community confirmed by its congregational context were transformed into musical agents capable of generating new and expansive inclining communities united for a moment by a song. It is highly doubtful that this song directly changed the attitudes toward civil rights of anyone listening in 1964. But its beauty, once apprehended, did produce in each listener the awareness that the civil rights movement was a political struggle that involved all of them. In so doing, it produced an intimate public that embraced more than those who had already known that they belonged as it redistributed the sensible.

* * *

I want to be clear here about the claims that I’m making for the pop anthem. “A Change Is Gonna Come” internalizes and textualizes the context out of which it developed. The intensity of Cooke’s performance and the clarity of its musical and lyrical rhetoric ensures that no one listening could misunderstand the force it carries. One might shrug it off, but no listener is unaffected. Yet the very act of distilling this complex context into a recorded song that could be experienced apart from its historical moment requires an act of abstraction that brings with it an element of openness and ambivalence. A masterful recorded song like this one carries with it the history that brought it into existence. In the absence of the living, breathing, swaying, dancing, and singing collective, however, the song’s specific power risks being diluted by the sentimentality that an intimate public requires. Even a song this strong can become little more than the pleasant background to a contentious community, unwilling to stand by the mutual equality the song asserts.

This is the limit of the political agency of musical beauty. It cannot enforce a relation of equality among its listeners. It can only make those listeners aware of that demand while it implicates its auditors as its mutually responsible recipients. That is what a great pop anthem can achieve, and it is no small thing. It shifts the way the world is heard. This achievement, this ability to reconstruct in a moment of listening the struggles of history and to command the attentive awareness of its audience is the quality shared by pop anthems such as “I Will Survive,” “I Am Woman,” and “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” to name only a few. These songs do not hail us into subject positions, and they do not force us to agree with any policies they support. Ever ambivalent, ever haunted by clichés, these songs work instead, simply and directly, through the power music has to catch our ear, fix us in place, and get us to listen.

Copyright Duke University Press 2014.