NEVILLE BROTHERS / “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” (it’s in this week’s jukebox) was released in 1964, the same year Congress finally passed John Kennedy’s Civil Rights Act, a bill which ostensibly outlawed racial discrimination. Click here for Mtume's interesting interview with Harold Battiste about Sam Cooke’s song. It’s been more than forty years; I don’t care what textbooks and politicians tell you—racial discrimination is alive and well in America. I will say though that reality for most Black Americans in 2004 is night-and-day different—meaning, much better—from the reality faced by most Black Americans in 1964. I wasn’t there and I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to face the daily reality of the lynchings, fire hoses, assassinations and false arrests. As such, when I hear “A Change Is Gonna Come,” I hear something different, something more abstract, than what those who listened to it in 1964 must have heard. All of the Neville Brothers are old enough to be considered products of the Civil Rights generation, but their remake of “A Change Is Gonna Come” sounds like a remake for the post-Civil Rights generation, my generation. On the original, Sam Cooke’s vocals seethe with indignation—he knows exactly who and what he’s running from and he knows exactly what change it is he’s fighting for. On the remake, Aaron Neville’s vocals sound almost wistful—he knows he’s running from something and he knows he’s looking for something but he doesn’t know what those somethings are. On the original, strings and horns provide both drama and intensity, eventually closing the song in an orchestrated crescendo—there is a sense of finality. On the remake, electronic keyboards and Daniel Lanois’ heavily echoing steel guitar replace the strings and horns. In the background, multi-tracked falsetto vocals sound like a gospel choir coming in from far, far away. There’s no crescendo, no real ending. When it’s done, the song just fades away. The Fugees’ version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” [From Greatest Hits – UK Edition (2003, Columbia/Sony – 2CD set)] is neither angry nor wistful. Instead, it is a playful yet sincere tribute to not just Sam Cooke specifically but also to the struggles and perseverance of the Civil Rights generation as a whole. The famous opening lines of the original are:
I was born by the river in a little tent And just like the river, I’ve been running ever sinceOn their remake, the Fugees recast the lyrics like this:
I was born by the river in a tenement And my poor mother, she could hardly pay the rentWhen I first heard Lauryn sing those lyrics, I thought of the New Jersey project buildings that line the Potomac river and the New York project buildings that overlook the Bronx River. I thought about how much has changed over the last forty years and about how little has changed. I thought about how much respect we—meaning, the post-Civil Rights generation—have for our parents and our parents’ parents, how much we appreciate all that they sacrificed for us, even if that appreciation isn’t always expressed appropriately. I also thought about how hip it is that Lauryn and Wyclef seem to be adlibbing throughout. They know Sam’s song well enough that their version sounds as much like a couple of young people reminiscing about their parents as it sounds like a recitation of a classic composition. —Mtume ya Salaam Click here to purchase Yellow Moon Click here to purchase Fugees - Greatest Hits We were all crying Context is where the meaning is. It was 1966. I was in the army, playing drums in a funk band. We had two female singers, one of whom, Tommy, had a deep, deep voice. We agreed to play a non-paying gig at an Army hospital for recuperating vets, most of whom were wounded in Viet Nam. By halfway through Tommy getting down on “A Change Is Gonna Come,” everybody in the joint had tears in their eyes. Literally. Some of us bawling like babies, others just stark still, the only thing moving was the tears trickling down our cheeks. It was one of those moments when the deepest meaning of the song just descended like the proverbial ton bricks, or like a bomb. Do the song for amputees, for paraplegics, men in therapy and see if you don’t hear something you don’t hear when you're listening in the comfort of your living room. I had known "A Change Is Gonna Come" as a Civil Rights anthem of sorts, but at that moment, I re-learned Sam Cooke's song in the context of Viet Nam. The impact shook me and forever colors how I hear the message. Flash forward. It’s 2005 and in the mail I get Freedom, a CD from Sunny Sumter, a sister out of the DC area, and one of the cuts is “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Her version is a killer, has both a fierce determination to overcome and a wistful melancholy that lets you know the overcoming is a major struggle that includes a lot of pain and hardship. Viet Nam is now Iraq. Racism has morphed to reveal it’s roots: economic disparity/despair. And, after all the bullshit of the last 35-years or so, we are still optimistic that a change is going to come. Thus, even in this new context the song is still relevant, indeed, perhaps even more relevant, because after all that change that has already come, we all know/need/desire yet another level of change, and from somewhere comes our belief, indeed our metaphysical knowledge that somehow, a real, for real change is definitely gonna come. Or at least that is what the music says to me. —Kalamu ya Salaam Black N' Blue Yeah. The Sunny Sumter version is by far the most blue—as in “what did I do to get so black n’ blue”—version of all. I hear a little of everything/everyone in Sunny’s song – echoes and undertones of great singers and players past and present: Cassandra Wilson, Ray Charles, Dionne Farris, Robert Johnson, Tracy Chapman, Albert King and even Sister Mavis Staples. Now that’s a hip, hip blues. —Mtume ya Salaam Tunneling through What I think it is, is that Sunny is a thirty-something adult working in the tradition, which puts her out of step with today’s popular musical culture, especially the music business that is, at this time, overtly hip-hop in its orientation. In general, there ain’t no record deals for no young, Black jazz/traditional singers. Although it’s no easy promenade for anyone, it be especially hard for non-blond women to build a career as a jazz singer in the 21st century, particularly if they’re not presenting themselves as sex symbols. Not only is there no light at the end of the tunnel, there ain’t even no tunnel. You got to dig your own damn tunnel with only a teaspoon as a pick and a shovel. Making it singing in the tradition is just that hard right now, and so, while the song Sunny is singing has historical roots and references, her work is also a literal self-portrait of a sister in blue, a sonic declaration that she's going to keep on keeping on even though it be super-hard. She deserves/has earned our admiration and support. —Kalamu ya Salaam To visit Sunny Sumter’s website click here: www.sunnysumter.com
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