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I was born by the river in a little tent
Sam Cooke was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, on January 22nd, 1931.
Cooke was indeed born by the river. Clarksdale is located in northwestern Mississippi along the Sunflower River in the Mississippi Delta. It's hard to say whether or not Cooke was really raised in a little tent—we're guessing probably not—but this line captures the sense that Cooke was born to a family of humble means in the Jim Crow South.
Just like the river I've been running ever since
Sam Cooke's family, like many other African Americans fleeing the Jim Crow South, participated in the early twentieth-century Great Migration to northern urban areas.
Sam Cooke's family moved to Chicago in 1933, when young Sam was just two years old. Like many Southern Black families at the time, the Cookes probably moved to Chicago both to escape racism in the South and to look for the better jobs then coming available in northern industrial centers. And once Sam Cooke became a musician—a career which took him touring all over the land—he really never stopped moving.
It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky
Sam Cooke's father was a Baptist minister, but here the singer hints that the hardships of his life may have undermined his faith.
Cooke first gained recognition as a gospel singer in the group the Soul Stirrers. As a member of the Soul Stirrers, Cooke recorded several gospel hits, including "Jesus Paid the Debt," "How Far Am I From Canaan?" and "Peace in the Valley."
Sam Cooke would eventually break away from his gospel music roots, crossing over to mainstream pop. This move from the spiritual to the secular in his music may have been paralleled by a crisis in his private faith. When Sam Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come," he was still mourning the 1963 drowning death of his eighteen-year-old son Vincent, which shook the singer to the core.
Somebody keep telling me don't hang around
This is most likely a reference to an actual event that occurred in Louisiana in 1963, just two months before Cooke wrote "A Change Is Gonna Come."
While touring in 1963, Sam Cooke and his band tried to stay at a Holiday Inn located in Shreveport, Louisiana. They were turned away by the motel management, which had earlier accepted their reservation, because the motel had a whites-only policy.
Cooke refused to be Jim Crowed, insisting that he and his bandmates had a right to stay. The incident eventually ended only with Cooke's arrest, which made headlines across the country.
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees
Cooke called for a greater sense of unity among African Americans, knowing that only in unity could they hope to overcome white racism.
This line creates a powerful visual, with Sam Cooke asking for help from one of his fellow Black brothers, only to get knocked down to his knees. This line serves as a personal appeal to the African Americans in 1963 to start looking after one another and fully embrace the notion of a self-sufficient, mutually caring Black community.