One of the more impressive elements (among many) of the Obama campaign, to my mind, has been its capacity to strike an almost-perfect balance between a long-standing narrative (the Civil Rights movement) which was both vital to his candidacy but potentially deeply divisive, and a “new” narrative (post-race, post-culture-war politics) that was incredibly inclusive. (Think of it as the political version fourth series of The Wire, if you want).
Key to this was ability to manage iconography that delivered against both objectives, often simply by exploiting the imagery of a black man playing the role stereotypically taken by a white man: Obama not as MLK, but JFK; Obama as Lincoln, Obama vs Jesse Jackson, Obama the iceman intellectual. More subtle than this, though, has been the capacity of Obama the man, and the Obama organisation, to condense the semitotics of both these narratives into one set of images that is equally relevant to the constituencies of each. (check me out…) There’s an excellent article (from the beginning of the year, and consequently chock-a-block with unintended irony) here, which shows in detail how this was achieved in the rhetoric of the campaign.
Interestingly, Raban’s article focuses on the idea of Hope, which is very convenient, as what I’m going to talk about (yeah, you heard me, going to, I’ll get there eventually) is Change – a pillar of the Obama campaign which is often considered by critics to be a New Labour-style cipher, that can be picked up and used by anyone.
Actually, it’s a concept freighted with specific meaning, relating mostly to one song: “A Change is Gonna Come”, by Sam Cooke. Don’t believe me? One of the more rapturously received passages of Obama’s victory speech was the following:
“It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.”
There are two things I love about Obama’s delivery of that passage. First, it’s a beautiful example of his mastery of mode: always sounding exactly like himself, but somehow getting a little bit country in the phrasing of “bin” and the dropping of the “g” in comin’. Second is the classic set-em-up-knock-em-down structure: dangling the reference out there – teasing the audience with the prospect of an open acknowledgement of the reference by a man who had been so careful to (openly) present himself as beyond the shibboleths of the civil rights movement – then hammering home the emphatic delivery of the final clause. It’s old school, almost shameless stagecraft, and it’s possibly a moment as vital in sealing the inclusion of the Civil Rights generation in his victory as Obama’s repudiation of Jeffrey Wright was in bringing white America to the polls.
It’s possibly the most care and attention that has been paid to delivering a lyrical reference in political history. Which is only right, as “A Change is Gonna Come” (I told you I was getting there) is a masterpiece by a genius who not only ruled two different fields of music and enormously influenced every singer who cites soul or R and B music as a reference, but also redefined what it meant to be a black musician, and then threw in the great anthem of the civil rights movement for good measure. And he was pretty good looking as well, rather annoyingly.
The first thing about Sam Cooke (and if it was the ONLY thing about Sam Cooke, people would still be talking about Sam Cooke) is the Voice. Jerry Wexler called Cooke “the best singer who ever lived, no contest”, and I’m not about to argue with the man who made Dire Straits sound good (among other things). Christgau puts it well by saying that Cooke’s voice has “its lucid calm, its built-in smile”, but that (and his argument about Cooke’s “shallowness”) ignores the passion he could express, particularly in his gospel singing, and in “A Change….”. It also ignores how that voice, and the amazing rasp it produced, would go on to prove influential not only to sweet crooners like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Smokey Robinson, but white RnB singers, particularly in Britain in the sixties. Listen to “What’s goin on?” or “ Maggie May”, and you’re hearing people grasping for that voice.
Talty argues that Cooke’s gospel singing had “joy without reverence”, and I think that’s a very accurate description. I’d disagree with him, though, on whether that made him secular (at that time). Cooke just seems to be singing to an entirely different god to rest of the Soul Stirrers, or any other gospel singer. A more joyful, less judgemental god who would probably be better company in a bar and perhaps not entirely averse to stealing your girlfriend. Listening to Sam Cooke sing about his God is, like much great religious art, almost enough to make you wish you had one yourself.
Cooke could do it all, and he did. He had the clarity and richness of Sinatra, but sang religious songs; he was the most popular gospel singer in America by 26, then spent the following years becoming a pop legend by reigning his voice in; and when he was established as a pop star he let the voice go again and tore the roof off the Harlem Square club with a performance that is one of the best ever recorded. All of this while setting up his own label and managing and producing himself and others. He’s been called the black Elvis, but imagine (if you will) if Aled Jones has turned into Frank Sinatra, then gone electric at Newport, managed the Beatles and written “Blowin’ in the wind”. It’s a push, I know. But Sam managed it, over the course of more than 120 recorded songs alone.
The “Blowin’ in the Wind comparison is particularly apt, as it was a direct inspiration for “A Change is Gonna Come”. Cooke was, by repute, astounded both by the song itself, and the fact that it had been written by a white man. Deciding that just covering the song wasn’t enough (though he made a pretty good stab at it ) – famously following an incident at a whites-only Louisiana motel in 1963 when he and his band were arrested for disturbing the peace when attempting to check in – he wrote his and recorded his response in 1964.
It’s an extraordinary record, opening with Rene Hall’s “spooky” lush orchestration wrapping round the most beautiful howl of anguish you’ll ever hear, and ending with a note of the cautious optimism that Obama placed the seal on in Chicago in November. In the intervening 3 minutes, Cooke’s voice tears into a first-person account of racism and despair, transforming the famous melisma of songs like “You send me” into something between a roar and a sigh before bringing home, through the Hall’s “anthem” ending, the prospect of what Jeremiah Wright calls, in Raban’s article, “Great Joy…coming in the morning”.
The record was broadly ignored as a commercial entity at first, finally released as the B-side to “Shake” two weeks after Sam Cookes death in December 1964, and its highest recorded chart position was at No.9 in the black singles chart in 1965. It’s fair to say that it had considerably more influence than that chart position may suggest. It was, among many other things, the song Rosa Parks and her mother played when they heard Martin Luther King had died.
I was brought up believing that Cooke hadn’t died arguing with a prostitute and a motel about payment, that he hadn’t been shot down while trying to break into a locked motel lobby containing two (admittedly probably grifting) scared women. It’s not a story many people want to hear. It’s much more palatable to assume that this was somehow a cover story for a martyrdom – Sam as a victim of race and ignorance, not lust. The more I read about it, however, the less this would appear to be the case. Sam Cooke was undeniably a great man. He was also, undeniably, just a man. The incapacity of any man – no matter how seemingly-bottomless their potential for greatness – to be anything more than human, might well be something we want to bear in mind as a good man tries to tidy up after the worst president since James Buchanan.
(If you want to hear anything of Sam’s, I would suggest, as a starter “Portrait of a Legend”, which is a good greatest hits compilation, and “Sam Cooke and The Soul Stirrers” which is excellent for the gospel recordings, which are vital. His best actual albums are probably “Night Beat” and “Live at the Harlem Square Club”. A good recounting of his life and influence is covered in “Sweet Soul Music”, Peter Guralnick’s classic book on Southern Soul, and expanded on enormously in “Dream Boogie: the Triumph of Sam Cooke”, which I haven’t yet read.)
(PS – I’m painfully aware that this may be blindingly obvious to many people. But I wrote it down anyway. God bless you, wordpress.)