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Sam Cooke gave the musician and composer Rene Hall free reign to write the musical arrangement of "A Change Is Gonna Come." The arrangement that Hall created is at times haunting, even jarring . Just listen to the prelude with the strings.
Hall's composition included parts for strings, the French horn, and the timpani, in what proves to be an interesting mix of sounds and textures. The parts that the strings and the horns play change during each of the first three verses, and then the song builds to a towering crescendo, as Cooke sings:
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees. Oooohhhhhh!
What's incredible here is the way in which the orchestral arrangement and Sam Cooke's vocals work so well together. It doesn't seem like they would complement each other so well, but they do. And if anything, this is a testament to Cooke's incredible singing abilities. He had tremendous control over his voice and could use it like a musical instrument. Cooke was able to convey tremendous feeling and emotion without having to scream or shout. This is no small feat.
In "A Change Is Gonna Come," Cooke harkens back to his gospel roots, busting out a vocal style that sounds much more spiritual than most of his pop hits. You can feel the pain in his voice, just as you can feel the hope. If Martin Luther King, Jr. provided the political vision for Black Americans in the mid-1960s, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" most certainly served as their anthem of hope despite the pain.
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 doesn't mention just what river he was born by, and the fact is, 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? There are many ways to interpret these beautiful and complex opening lines. Maybe he's describing himself as a wanderer or maybe it's a reference to his constant touring and performing. Or he's been struggling with his identity, running from his misconceptions about his race, and running from white racism...to no avail.
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'll 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's 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's no wonder that this song served as an anthem for generations of Americans.