Bob Dylan & Sam Cooke: Their Intersection

Bob Dylan 1965 Courtesy of Getty Images

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.

Related: “The 10 Best Bob Dylan Songs You May Have Never Heard”

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.

Related: “If You Dig Curtis Mayfield…”

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.

-Anthony Arrieta

Photo of Bob Dylan, 1965 courtesy of Getty Images




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8 comments on “Bob Dylan & Sam Cooke: Their Intersection

  1. Thanks for writing that. Well put and connected. I wrote a tribute song to Sam Cooke called “Sam Said.” My goal was to encapsulate all of Cooke’s interests and influences in one song, from gospel to romantic to social change. It wrote itself.

  2. Lloyd Eby

    The line, ” Such a profound piece of work should have been written by a person of color;” is a racist comment.

    • Bob Taylor

      Indeed it is. Will we ever get past this sick and petty obsessiveness about “cultural appropriation?” Both songs are superb, deeply significant songs, and it wouldn’t have mattered one damn if each man had somehow managed to write the other man’s song.

    • George Greene

      You’re a racist for callung Sam Cooke’s reaction to a song about his own endurance of racism “racist”.
      If you had ever actually been oppressed, THE SAME thing could have happened to you — you too could have been surprised to the point of embarrassment that an ally RATHER THAN yourself actually living through your oppression could write such a good song about it.

      I hope you learn something more about this before the next time you embarrass yourself.

  3. Lloyd Eby

    Forced to say which of these two great songs I think is better, I’d probably say that Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” tops Dylan’s “Blowin In the Wind.” The recording of Cooke singing it, however, seems to my taste to be overproduced — too much instrumental background . I’ve heard covers of the song that seem better to my ear than Cooke’s. I especially like this one by Brian Owens and his father Thomas Owens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEXhZ8PwM-Y

    • George Greene

      Well, you weren’t and aren’t forced. Acoustic/folk is A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GENRE from pop (or soul) ballad.
      “Overproduced” would be fatuous as a criticism of a big-band record and it’s almost equally so as one of this version.

  4. Tony Tengs

    This piece is a stretch. I can’t see how the two were related, they are so different, and Cooke’s is much more powerful. Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”, is one of his many over-rated songs. I say this having been a big fan in the past, but who has lost that religion. True, with “Blowing..” Dylan had something to say, or tried to broadly and safely say with it, but it is a safe scribble. There is no call to action langue, or commitment that comes close to “A Change Is Gonna Come”. Dylan salted his claim as a profound folk singer having something to say with both it and Masters of War, but pretty much laid in the crypto weeds after that, taking the challenging political meaning out of Folk Music (and “it’s all Folk Music..” as the legendary quote goes “I ain’t heard no cow do it”). The song itself asks a lot of questions, but doesn’t take a stand. Both John Lennon and John Fogerty didn’t need the pretense or story-connection when it came to continuing Woody Guthrie’s in-yo-face type musical legacy. They both had far stronger Guthrie-style political bones and guts than Dylan ever has shown since 1964 with Masters of War. Obviously, you can tell I’m not as interested in style as I am content with some stank on it. As far as it’s caliber of musical sustenance goes, “Change..” is the far more honest, brave, and full-filling soul food.

    • You’d almost have to admire that the aftermath of Newport 1965 still blows a fuse, even long after most of those that were there are gone; with Dylan almost the only one to tell the tale (Joe Boyd too). All that anger just because Dylan decided to change his tune and blow with the wind that was ever changing like the times were. I’m surprised you don’t blame Cooke for only ever writing one song about society.

      The main intersection between Dyland Cooke were that they were sonwriters that admired each other.

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