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Stirring Up the Soul of Freedom

Saturday, January 22nd, 2011

This week’s Free Ride* muses on the music of Sam Cooke, who would have turned 80 today had he not tragically lost his life back in 1964 at the age of 33. He got his start in the 1940s and 50s in the world of gospel music, as lead singer for the Soul Stirrers. He made the leap over into popular music in the late 50s, stirring a different kind of soul. He is often credited, along with Ray Charles and James Brown, for laying the foundations of the soul music genre. When it comes to freedom, Sam Cooke understood the longing for liberty on many levels, writing songs about the sound of men working on the chain gang as well as the chains of love that tied his heart. As a businessman, he understood economic freedom, as he was one of the first black musicians to break loose from corporate captivity and start his own publishing company and recording label.

Cooke also reminded us, in a song that has found airplay in many movies and tv shows and commercials, that you don’t have to know much about history or biology or French to know that if you have love, you live in a wonderful world. It’s a world, as another of his songs reminds us, where the best things in life are free. I have been humming that song recently as I have taken walks and noticed the stunning beauty of the night sky–

The moon belongs to everyone
The best things in life they’re free
Stars belong to everyone
They cling there for you and for me


But Sam Cooke is probably best known for a song that he wrote not long before he died and didn’t get released until after his death, a song that became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. It was 1963 and someone had given him Bob Dylan’s recently released second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and as Cooke listened to Blowin’ in the Wind he wondered how in the world a white man could have captured so clearly the pathos and protest he knew as a black man in America. He played the song for one of his band mates, Bobby Womack, who cringed at the sound of Dylan’s voice. Cooke explained to Womack that from now on it won’t be important how pretty the voice is. It’s going to be about believing that the voice is telling the truth. And the truth of Dylan’s music inspired Sam Cooke to sit down and tell his own truth. The resulting song, A Change is Gonna Come, has been covered by countless artists, from Dylan to Al Green to Seal to Bettye LaVette and Bon Jovi. President Obama referenced the song in his celebration speech in Chicago on the night of the election: It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, change has come to America. It’s too bad Sam Cooke, who lived in an age when he was refused entry to motels and restaurants because of his color, didn’t live to see a black man elected President. But he lives on through his music, in songs that continue to stir the souls of a people still longing for freedom to be fully realized.

*Free Ride is a Saturday blog from Stan Dotson that takes a different song each week and muses on the lyrics of freedom. You can click on the live links in the post to hear the music referenced in the blog. If you have a favorite “freedom” song (it could be any song that has the word free or freedom in it), feel free to suggest it in the comment box below. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.

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