If I could have dinner with one person living or dead, my answer for years has been the late, great Sam Cooke. Nicknamed the King of Soul, Sam was an American singer-songwriter and recording artist who is generally considered to be one of the greatest of all time. He is known for being a pioneer in the field of soul, credited with giving rise to musicians like James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and Marvin Gaye to name a few. In addition to this, he is also my all-time favorite musician across all genres. While I would love to talk to Sam about his music, there is another side of him which I would use this dinner to learn about. Sam Cooke was one of the first musicians to take an active role in the Civil Rights movement. The catalyst that got Sam involved in the Civil Rights movement was the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, in which four young African-American girls were murdered. The horrific events at the 16th Street Baptist Church provoked a response from Cooke, who was arguably at the height of his fame and influence in the music industry at this point. As a young black man in an industry dominated by old white men, Cooke had been focused on building his career in this regard, and stayed clear of participating actively in the civil rights movement. Until this point, his only actions were canceling dates in areas which he learned were segregated and he donating money to movement causes and fundraising albums. However he was not outspoken on media platforms, or national news outlets. The 16th Street Church Bombing marked a turning point for Sam, as in Peter Guralnick’s biography, Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, which I have read, he writes that Cooke composed “A Change is Gonna Come” in the days that followed the tragedy. “A Change is Gonna Come” is not only one of my favorite songs by Cooke, but it is widely accepted as his most powerful.
Click the link below and listen here as you read.
While the song does not seem as forceful as traditional civil rights ballads, it quickly became an anthem of the African-American civil rights movement. What is most potent about the song is its tone: It is not sung in anger; rather, there is a quiet determination which underlies each verse about suffering and eventual success. I recently read an article on the Huffington Post (link here) which offered a few quotes about the wide-ranging effect of the song.
“The most poignant testament of the song’s enduring power can be found in the biography of Rosa Parks … On hearing of King’s death, she retreated to her home where she held her mother and the two cried and hugged and rocked together over her loss, the nation’s loss. In the midst of their tears, they pulled out Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and played it over and over again. Biographer Doug Brinkley wrote that Parks said that Cooke’s voice “soothed” her and the words were “like medicine to the soul. It was as if Dr. King was speaking directly to me.”
“The song lives on, with dozens of cover versions and, more importantly, a crucial place in the soundtrack of the civil rights movement. Rolling Stone magazine’s writers voted it the twelfth best, or most important, rock ‘n’ roll song of all time.”
Apart from his contributions to the civil rights movement, I respect Sam for the powerful meaning behind each of this songs (the majority of which he wrote himself). In light of last week’s blog post about changing relationships, the work of Sam Cooke is especially pertinent. Sam’s songs about love and relationships speak of deeper connections between people, and working hard to keep them together. Songs like “Bring it on Home to Me” and “Nothing Can Change This Love”, are two of my favorites because they talk about the struggle and triumph of fostering a deep relationship with someone. And while these songs were written some 50 years ago, the words are still pertinent today.
“If you ever change your mind
About leaving, leaving me behind
Oh-oh, bring it to me
Bring your sweet loving
Bring it on home to me” –Sam Cooke, Bring It On Home to Me”, 1962
I would want to have dinner with Sam to discuss these two main themes and how they relate to his work- civil rights and relationships. I would ask him about his inspiration behind his songs, and how he captured the struggles of millions, in both civil rights and love, in his words. I am also interested to hear about how the 16th Street Church bombing was the breaking point for him. It was certainly not the first- or even arguably the most horrible- crime committed against African Americans during the civil rights movement. Why did he wait until 1963 to finally take an active stance in the civil rights movement? Was he waiting for his influence in the music industry to rise to a certain point so that his words could be more powerful? How would he feel about the impact of his music in today’s society?
His words on relationships, struggle, and civil rights remain pertinent today, which is in part why he is widely considered to be one of the most influential singer-songwriters of all time. President Obama quoted Sam in his 2008 victory speech. “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America” (Source: HuffPo article: LINK)
A few of my favorites:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZB4jcPmFGo – Bring It On Home to Me
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jSoPeZMHMf4 – Twistin the Night Away
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTk9xTQfcls -That’s Where its At