( – promoted by buhdydharma )
This eighth installment of the Original v. Cover series appears one day early this week for perhaps the most compelling of reasons – Martin Luther King, Jr. was born on this day in 1929. Had his life not been tragically ended on April 4, 1968, he could conceivably have celebrated his 81st birthday on this day.
Today we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s remarkable accomplishments; however, cannot escape wondering what may have been were he still alive today. Although King would most likely be encouraged by the progress that has been achieved since his time, his optimism would no doubt be tempered by an ample measure of concern as well.
Would he have celebrated the seating of an African-American on the Supreme Court at the behest of a Republican president, no less, on October 18, 1991? Would he have considered his mission to be accomplished with the election of an African-American to the highest office in this land, a term which began slightly less than one year ago on January 20, 2009? Or would his feelings, at best, be mixed?
King would undoubtedly have had much to say about those topics. And his concerns would without question be shared by many perusing this diary.
If you are truly interested in the meaning of King’s life and what it meant for this country, please consider going to the following wikipedia article, which can be found here. If we choose to listen, we will soon discover that he was not speaking just to the people of that day, but to posterity as well. His message resonates as much if not more so than it did nearly a half a century ago.
Much will be written and said about the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. during this weekend. Those whose abilities far exceed this writer’s humble talents will bring his memory to life for those who slow down long enough to remember, and in some cases, with a combination of fear and courage, consider the challenges that he sets before us in our own time.
For those in want of a quick refresher, here is one of the many excerpts from King’s August 28, 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, fittingly delivered at the Lincoln Memorial. Fewer among us may be aware that the content of this speech was toned down in response to the concerns of the then president, John F. Kennedy. Malcolm X was among those critical of this event, referring to it as “the farce on Washington.”
The challenge in choosing a featured song this week is that of selecting the best response to the response to the question, “If only one song could have been performed at the time of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, what would that song have been?” This writer has chosen to not limit the choices to those songs already in existence at the time of the speech, but rather, that which most clearly reflects the message Dr. King was attempting to impart. Although there could be many worthy nominations for such an honor, the following represents this writer’s selection for such a lofty accolade.
The vibrant era of King’s time witnessed countless demonstrations, sit ins, speeches, marches, riots and an undeniable electricity in the air that seems curiously absent today. The 1960s was a time when passionate debate existed on two levels. The first question was the matter of preserving the status quo versus that of change. For those preferring the latter to the former, there were considerable differences of opinion as to the best means for accomplishing these ends.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s energies were directed toward peaceful change, invoking the spirit of Mohandas Gandhi, ever reminding his audience to practice nonviolent civil disobedience. Those who followed his lead displayed a level of courage rarely evident today. King was clearly a great leader and a heroic figure, however, there were many thousands of others whose actions were no less courageous, whose identities were known but to only a few, and by now, in many cases, are widely forgotten.
When we consider King’s memory, we would do well to also remember these now nameless, faceless heroes of that momentous time.
To varying degrees, our advocacy for the issues of our day falls upon various points along the continuum between that of maintaining the status quo, on one hand, and that of change. Try as we might, we cannot escape change, no matter how much we may wish otherwise. Parents may want their children to always be young, sweet and innocent, before the defiance that defines the teen years makes its oftentimes less than welcome appearance. Earlier in our lives, we can easily regard our own immortality as an article of faith, before the infirmities of advancing age exact their humbling toll, inviting us to question our earlier and in retrospect, somewhat naive assumptions.
Change may occur so gradually as to be imperceptible. Continental drift would serve as a clear example. Even when there is no discernable evidence of impending change, hidden forces may sometimes build for years, or even millennia, leading to a completely unexpected and cataclysmic event of rarely witnessed magnitude. The recent earthquake in Haiti would serve as a prime example of this phenomenon.
Abraham Lincoln clearly recognized the inevitably of change, as reflected in the following quote:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.”
So, change will come, whether we want it or not. The salient question before us would then be: “What will this change look like and how can we best influence its course?”
So what song best epitomizes the spirit and message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? This writer’s nomination for this honor was first recorded on December 21,1963, too late to be included along with the “I Have a Dream” speech – Sam Cooke’s anthemic “A Change is Gonna Come.”
The wikipedia entry about “A Change is Gonna Come” provides much fascinating detail, however, is too voluminous to be included in this diary, so only a few of the more interesting points from that article will be highlighted in this space.
Although “A Change is Gonna Come” was recorded in 1963, it was not released as a single until shortly after Sam Cooke’s tragic death in late 1964. Although this song was only a modest hit at the time, it has since grown in popularity, and is considered by many as an anthem for social change.
Cooke was described as greatly moved upon hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1963 and while on tour, after speaking with sit-in demonstrators in Durham, North Carolina in May of that year, wrote his first draft of “A Change is Gonna Come.” This song reflected a significant departure from the pleasant, but less substantive nature of his previous hits, such as “You Send Me” and “Twistin’ the Night Away.” In addition, on October 8, 1963, when Cooke and his band attempted to register at a “whites only” motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, they were arrested for disturbing the peace. The impact of these events is reflected in the lyrics to his great song.
Cooke had long felt the need to address issues of discrimination and racism in America, however, feared losing his mostly white fan base by doing so. Apparently, the impact of “Blowin’ in the Wind”, his conversation with the sit-in demonstrators and the arrests in Shreveport were sufficient to tip the balance, his courage now sufficient to overcome his fears.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” was eventually recorded on December 21, 1963; one day short of a month after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. As stated in the aforementioned wikipedia article:
According to author Peter Guralnick’s biography of Cooke, “Dream Boogie”, Cooke gave arranger Rene Hall free rein on song’s musical arrangement. Hall came up with a dramatic orchestral backing highlighted by a mournful French horn. For his vocal, Cooke reached back to his gospel roots to sing the song with an intensity and passion never heard before on his pop recordings…However, Cooke and his new manager Allen Klein thought the song deserved greater exposure. According to Guralnick’s book, Klein persuaded Cooke to sing “A Change Is Gonna Come” on his February 7, 1964 appearance on The Tonight Show. Cooke sang the song; unfortunately, any impact it made was dimmed by The Beatles’ history-making appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show just two days later. In a further misfortune, NBC did not save the tape of Cooke’s performance, which has never turned up in private collections either. RCA Records had bypassed “Change” for Cooke’s early 1964 single, instead releasing the tracks “Good Times” and “(Ain’t That) Good News”. But the company agreed to put the song out as a single late in the year, as the B-side to Cooke’s latest potential hit, “Shake.” At one of his last recording sessions, Cooke approved an edit to the song that would shorten it by about 30 seconds, increasing its chance for airplay on American radio stations.
“A Change is Gonna Come” appeared on his album, Ain’t That Good News, the last to be released during his lifetime. The album peaked at #34 on the Billboard Pop Albums chart.
On December 11, 1964, Cooke was killed at the Hacienda Motel in Los Angeles, California, under what many considered to be mysterious circumstances. You can review details of the controversy for yourself here. This writer, for one, remains unconvinced that the “official” version of events is valid.
Most unfortunately, he did not survive to witness the song’s commercial success, eventually rising to #9 on the Billboard Black Singles chart and peaking at #31 on the Billboard Pop Singles chart in February, 1965.
A measure of this song’s growing popularity over the years is reflected, in part, by the designation of “A Change is Gonna Come” at #12 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was voted #3 on Pitchfork Media’s The 200 Greatest Songs of the 1960s. This was one of 300 songs deemed the most important ever recorded by National Public Radio, and was since selected by the Library of Congress as one of twenty-five recordings included in the National Recording Registry, as of March, 2007.
Perhaps you would have chosen another song to accompany the “I Have a Dream” speech. I would encourage you to submit your nomination in the comments section. You may know of other versions of “A Change is Gonna Come” that you particularly like. There are many. Please share your recommendations with the rest of us. And, should you choose to vote for a favorite, remember that you are welcome to select one, two or several.
Sam Cooke’s original rendition (1963) of “A Change is Gonna Come” is an extremely tough act to follow, and many could rightly contend that others to follow may approach, but not exceed the passion of his performance.
The immortal Otis Redding included his version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” as the third track on his 1965 album, “Otis Blue.”
The Supremes turn in a polished rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come” on their 1965 album, “We All Remember Sam Cooke.”
Billy Preston performs a creative rendition of “A Change is Gonna Come”, playing the keyboard as well. His version was included in his 1981 album, “The Way I Am”:
How could this diary be complete without Al Green? Here is a great live version, performed in Cleveland, Ohio on September 2, 1995. The following version was included in the Michael Mann’s 2001 movie, Ali:
As mentioned previously, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” was a major source of inspiration for Sam Cooke to write this week’s featured song. Bob Dylan performs “A Change is Gonna Come”, as part of an NBC TV program entitled, “Apollo at 70: A Hot Night In Harlem, 19 June 2004.” The two minute introduction alone is worth watching, even if you don’t have time to view the rest of the video.
Terence Trent d’Arby, with the able assistance of Booker T. & the MGs, produces a stirring rendition of this week’s song, featured on his 2006 album, “Do You Love Me Like You Say: The Very Best Of Terence Trent D’Arby”:
Vel Omarr’s voice that bears an eerie resemblance to Sam Cooke’s. Here is his 2008 recording, which is definitely worth a listen.
This video, featuring Lizz Wright (2009), is unique in that it takes the viewer inside the studio, and includes occasional voiceovers during which she adds her insightful commentary:
Aaron Neville (2009) turns in a great performance, complete with lush orchestration and background vocals: