Sam Cooke, Shreveport, and “A Change Is Gonna Come”

Sam Cooke’s plaintive, moving civil rights ballad “A Change Is Gonna Come” was born in 1963 of discrimination after he and his wife were turned away from a segregated Holiday Inn at Shreveport, Louisiana. Incensed when the desk clerk lied and claimed no vacancies, Sam made a scene in the lobby, vociferously protesting, and while driving off, he and his entourage honked horns and lobbed insults like Molotovs as their taillights disappeared into the night. 

When Sam and company arrived at the Black hotel downtown, the police were waiting. However, the arrests created abysmal p.r. north of the Mason-Dixon line after the NY Times and UPI caught wind and publicized the discriminatory arrest of an affable fellow (at least he sounded affable on his records) who only wanted a place to sleep after twisting the night away. In 2019, Shreveport’s mayor apologized to the Cooke family and awarded Sam a key to the city – a mere fifty-six years after Cooke’s death at thirty-three. Nothing like a posthumous award to salve the wounds of a no-longer-sentient being.

According to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” also spurred Sam to compose “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Sam, the story goes, felt chagrined that a White fellow had written such a moving civil rights song. In fact, Sam admired “Blowin’ in the Wind” so much that he included it in his live performances not long after its release. 

Of course, the songs are much different. In “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Dylan asks in third person a series of questions that ponder “how long” it’s going to take to end discrimination. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” on the other hand, is deeply personal, written in first person, and cites incidents of hurtful slights and expresses existential despair. However, despite the dirge-like tone of the song, the narrator feels certain that eventually “a change is gonna come” and justice will prevail, so the overall effect is hopeful rather than depressing.

Well, despite the election of Obama and the proliferation of people of color in national advertising, we’re not quite there yet, and it seems that many in the South have recently become emboldened to unfurl and wave their inner Stars-and-Bars, not to mention Republican-led state legislatures’ ongoing successful attempts to make voting more difficult for African Americans. 

In fact, to me, 2021 feels an awful lot like 1961, though at least now, Sam would have no trouble checking into a Holiday Inn – though he might turn up his nose at one – and Confederate statues are coming down as opposed to being erected.