The British rock/folk artist Billy Bragg informed me that Barack Obama had sampled gospel and R&B singer Sam Cooke in his victory speech Tuesday night. Mesmerized by the event, I hadn't noticed when Obama simultaneously reached forward and back, to Cooke's 1964 single "Change is Gonna Come," with his opening theme on just what this election means to him and to the rest of us: "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." Thus president elect Obama circled back to the start of his campaign twenty-two months before, and referenced both a brilliant song and the long march that has been the slow and full ripening of the civil rights movement in our nation's history, from 1776 to endless tomorrows.
Sam Cooke, like Ray Charles and a few others, was one our our masterful crossover artists. He had written "Change," in part, as a corollary and comment on Bob Dylan's early 1964 hit "Blowin' in the Wind." He also wrote from experience. In October, 1963, Cooke and his band tried to book rooms at a "whites only" motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, but instead were arrested for disturbing the peace. No militant and not outwardly political, Cooke had spent time with and admired Cassius Clay and Malcolm X, and he captured the challenges of his time, his own hope and despair at equal turns: "I go to the movies and I go downtown/But someone's always telling me/Don't hang around/It's been a long, a long time coming/But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will," a verse redacted from the released single.
How uncanny then to find this description of Sam Cooke in Peter Guralnick's Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, "Disarmingly handsome, almost breathtakingly at ease with himself and his charm, he projected an image that could perhaps best be compared to the golden-boy attraction of a William Holden or a Robert Redford, in which boy-next-door insouciance combined with dazzling good looks to appeal to men and women equally, young and old alike." Tenor for the Pilgrim Travelers, J.W. Alexander, pointed out that Cooke's appeal was "not for any sexual connotations, they just liked the guy, they could warm to him." J.J. Farley, a group mate in the Soul Stirrers, observed that during a concert, "in the old days young people took seats six rows from the back, the old folks stayed up front. When Sam cam on the scene, it reversed itself. The young people took over."
And Sam Cooke's voice and singing style? Guralnick again: With an emphasis on "clarity and articulation," Cooke conveyed "swinging without effort, passion without strain, an indefinable depth of feeling overlaid with veneer of sophistication that could convey all by a flick of an eyebrow, the tiniest modulation of tone." Listen for yourself here.
Republicans and the shouting class of Falstaffian blowhards -- minus Sir John's winning charm -- perseverated on Bill Ayers and socialism, "domestic terrorists" and dark meetings, and they crapped out. They brayed at the wrong end of the sixties.
Barack Obama could have heard "Change is Gonna Come" for the first time as a three years old. I believe that child-Obama held a fundraiser at Sam Cooke's home in early December, 1964, a few days before one our greats was killed in a Los Angeles motel. There, in his living room, Sam Cooke sang the final verse to Change, "there have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long/but now I think I'm able to carry on/It's been a long time coming/ but I know a change is gonna come," dropped a sawbuck into the cookie jar passed among the assembled guests, and sent the child on his journey.
Presidential elections in the United States are phantasmagoric, two-year fevers that call up from the depths both the demonic and the divine, the worst and the best in us. Opposing forces do battle until the fever breaks, an equilibrium of sorts is regained, a drawn out, more nuanced battle engaged. When the sweating quits, we see the world around us with a bit more clarity. We see that Bill Ayers was not Barack Obama's touchstone; rather, it was Sam Cooke and his never-ending refrain, Change is gonna come. And now change has arrived, and we embrace it at a wondrous and dangerous crossroads.
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