In 2008, the Song of the Year Was a 45-year-old Soul Classic

Climate Change

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When Aretha Franklin takes to the stage at President Barack Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20, it would be fitting if she were to serenade him and his guests with the late Sam Cooke’s anthemic “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

Appropriate for her, since she recorded a searching, pleading, transcendently Gospel-derived version for her breakthrough Atlantic Records album of 1967, I Never Loved a Man the Way I Love You. That’s the album that contained “Respect” and indeed brought her respect as the Queen of Soul, a designation so powerful she was just chosen by Rolling Stone the greatest singer of the Rock era. (Cooke, incidentally, ranked fourth.)

But it’s also appropriate for Obama. During 2008, the song has come to represent not just his quest to become President — the nation’s first African-American one — but also to bring about a better, post-Bush America once he’s in office. And the success of his campaign has come to signify the whole arc of the civil rights movement, from the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott to the White House.

Throughout the year, as Obama’s quest gained ground, the song also gained renewed momentum — versions kept showing up on albums by veterans like Jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and newcomers like Americana singer Ben Sollee and Jazz horn player Anat Cohen. It was as if there was a willed, telepathic connection between it and the campaign. It even made it to American Idol.

Arcade Fire, early Obama supporters, started performing it in concert. A version of the band doing it live during an Obama benefit at Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio (near Athens) made it to YouTube before being removed over copyright issues.

Not that Obama was quick to embrace Cooke’s song, however. He at first seemed to want to maintain distance from its symbolic implications that his campaign was a logical evolution of the civil rights movement. Instead of playing it at the conclusion of his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in Denver, where its use would have been striking, he instead chose the raucously patriotic Brooks & Dunn Country tune, “Only in America.”

But at his election-night victory speech in Chicago’s Grant Park, Obama seemed to embrace the song. He almost directly quoted from it when he said, “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight change has come to America.”

The connection finally made explicit, Seal then recorded “Change” as the lead cut on his new Soul album. It’s a beautifully sung version, his voice remarkably close to the bittersweet warmth of Cooke’s, but it’s marred by a production (by David Foster) that turns bombastic toward the end. It didn’t take long for someone to set images and excerpts of Obama’s acceptance speech to Seal’s version and post it on YouTube.

There are some terrific cover versions of the song out there. Besides Franklin, such great African-American singers as Tina Turner, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Patti LaBelle, Otis Redding and Baby Huey & the Babysitters have performed it. So, too, have many rockers. (YouTube has video of an arrestingly bluesy live version by the alternative-folk-rocker Will Oldham/Bonnie “Prince” Billy, performed last month at Lexington’s Old Tar Distillery.)

Long a huge star for the friendly mellifluousness of his voice (“Cupid,” “Bring It on Home to Me,” “Twistin’ the Night Away”), Cooke was first and foremost a Pop star. Although he came out of gospel, he wasn’t thought of in the same way as the more Gospel- and Blues-derived Deep Soul African- American singers of the era, like Solomon Burke or James Brown.

So “Change” represented a change for him. Cooke wrote the song in 1963 and recorded it in December of that year, moved by Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and his own observations of the heated fight then going on to end segregation in America.

Cooke, according to Peter Guralnick’s biography Dream Boogie, wrote it while on a tour of the South, then a civilrights battleground. He had been arrested in Shreveport for trying to stay at a segregated hotel.

His gorgeously melodic, sensitively arranged version came out on the Ain’t That Good Newsalbum in April 1964. But it wasn’t released as a single until late December 1964, several weeks after he was shot and killed under mysterious circumstances by a female motel manager in Los Angeles. He was just 33.

Even then, his record label released it as a B-side to the dance tune “Shake.” But “Change” eventually climbed into the lower reaches of the national Top 40, Cooke’s last major hit. It was recognized at the time as a political statement — not common in the Top 40 but not unheard of, either, in a time when “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Kingston Trio’s anti-nuclear “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushing” were also hits.

“Change” probably initially garnered attention for the unexpectedness of Cooke’s world-weary voice on chillingly prophetic lyrics, “It’s been too hard livin’ but I’m afraid to die/I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky.”

But the broader message was not lost. And it has only grown with time.

“He took all of those experiences,” Guralnick told NPR, “but he enlarged upon them and he broadened them to the point that the song … becomes a statement of what a generation had had to endure.”

(2018 UPDATE: Bettye LaVette sang the song in a duet with Jon Bon Jovi at the first inaugural concert for President Obama.)

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