One aspect of music is that the right song inspires a feeling: it could make you believe in yourself, help you get pumped up or bring back memories of summer love.
Then, there are those times when one great song inspires the creation of another one.
This is the case of two of the most beloved tracks in ’60s social justice history: “Blowin’ In the Wind” by Bob Dylan, and “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.
How are these two masterpieces linked? Think in terms of inspiration.
It started on Dylan’s side. Written by the future Nobel laureate, “Blowin’ In The Wind” quickly became one of the most iconic works of its time. The thought-provoking language dared to ask some of the hardest questions around matters of violence, change, and the human condition, and soon found its place in popular culture. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it became one of the most covered songs of the 20th century.
And yet, maybe it was a little too good… or so another genius of popular music thought at that moment.
By the time Dylan started his career, Sam Cooke was already a household name. His debut single, “You Send Me,” reached number one on the Billboard chart, and he had several other hit songs. In a time when it wasn’t easy for African-American artists to cross over to mainstream audiences, Cooke excelled.
But a new challenge appeared: trying to come up with a new piece in reaction to Dylan’s song.
Cooke’s biographer Peter Gulnarick made it very clear: the singer loved it, but there was something off. Such a profound piece of work should have been written by a person of color; Cooke was nearly ashamed for not having written it himself.
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Nonetheless, the musician quickly adopted it into his repertoire.
In 1963, Cooke faced a hard reminder of the times, having been turned away by a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana. In the end, it didn’t matter that he was one of the most successful musicians in America: no amount of fame could change the cold facts of segregation and racism.
After being arrested for disturbing the peace, Cooke set his mind on a new artistic goal. A couple of months after the incident, “A Change is Gonna Come” was written, and became part of Ain’t That Good News, Cooke’s thirteenth and final album.
For such a profound song, the time spent on its composition was surprisingly short. Guralnick states, “It almost scared him that the song — it was almost as if the song were intended for somebody else. He grabbed it out of the air and it came to him whole, despite the fact that in many ways it’s probably the most complex song that he wrote. It was both singular — in the sense that you started out, ‘I was born by the river’ — but it also told the story both of a generation and of a people.”
Cooke’s work resulted in a classic melody for the ages, with this piece becoming a signature song (unfortunately, he wouldn’t live to see it endure the test of time. The singer was shot to death at a motel in Los Angeles, on December 11, 1964).
By December 22, 1964, a slightly modified version was released as a single.
The legacy for “A Change Is Gonna Come” lives on as an anthem, as does “Blowin’ In The Wind” — showing the ripple effects of true artistry. Beauty multiplies when the right ingredients are mixed, even in the most terrible of circumstances. The cojoined visions of Bob Dylan and Sam Cooke are proof of that.
Photo of Bob Dylan, 1965 courtesy of Getty Images