A Change is Gonna Come Songwriting
Zero in on the lyrics for deeper meaning.
The songwriting in "A Change is Gonna Come" is understated and simple, yet the words themselves carry immense emotional weight. Cooke only describes a couple individual events in the lyrics, but the way he describes each of these incidents is so poignant, it almost feels like Cooke is exposing himself in full in these lines, as if he has absolutely nothing to hide from his listeners. The song opens with a wonderful visual and simile: "I was born by the river in a little tent. Oh and just like the river I've been running ever since." Cooke does not mention just what river he was born by, and the fact is that it doesn't really matter in the context of the song, because the visual of the running river sets up the next line perfectly. But where has he been running? Who or what has he been running from? It's a little hard to gauge, but possible he has been running from white racism (to no avail). Or maybe he is describing himself as a wanderer. Or maybe this is a reference to his constant touring and performing. The point is that there are many ways to interpret these beautiful and complex opening lines.
The next few stanzas all describe different instances in which Sam Cooke felt great despair. But despite the anguish and the sadness, he ends each stanza optimistically - "it's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come." First he describes his fear of dying because his faith in God has been severely tested. Then there is the incident in which he is told to leave the white part of town. Upon asking for assistance from his fellow man, he is only knocked back down. These descriptions have the effect of creating a pretty bleak mood and tone in this song. It is this sense of defeat that makes the song so haunting to listen to. All of these events lead the listener to believe that maybe Cooke's optimism has been pushed to the limits and that he will be forced to question the meaning of his life. But no - Cooke emphatically answers any doubts the listener may have had in the song's last stanza:
There 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, a long time coming _
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will
Despite all the pain and the heartache, Cooke will continue to carry on because he wholeheartedly believes that substantive change is just around the corner. It is this dichotomy that Cooke creates in the lyrics - sadness and defeat in the present versus hope and optimism for the future - that makes the songwriting so interesting here. It perfectly captures the conflicting emotions that many blacks felt during this period in American history. It is no wonder that this song served as an anthem for generations of Americans.
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