I’ll admit it—I like the old stuff better than the new. For as long as I can remember, the music of yesteryear has been in my CD player or ipod. I know where I got it from. My mother use to clean house while playing the Temptations, Patsy Cline, and hits of Motown in the background. She had good taste in music to say the least. One of my favorite artists to just turn up and let croon with the windows down is Sam Cooke, the father of soul himself. Though having his life cut tragically short, he was able to supply a healthy dose of good music to the sickly youth of his day and mine. His smooth voice and catchy writing made him an instant success in both white and black communities.
Why should you listen to Sam Cooke? Let me offer a few reasons. First, his music is the music of love. I’m not referring to sex but love, the dance of desire and commitment two interested people know like they know the back of their hand. Who doesn’t enjoy a good love song that avoids descending down into immature innuendo and bad metaphors for sex (yea, I’m thinking of you Miley Cyrus and “Lady” Gaga)? Cooke’s music was made during the time when you had to call up a potential date on the phone, awkwardly ask her father to take her out, and, then with his blessing, take her for a malt and a drive-in movie. It was hard work to take a girl out. It required more than a text message or an instagram like. Second, his music is full of straightforward yet elegant poetry. Drawing on his background in Gospel music, Cooke was able to combine simple lyrics with deep themes. Everyone knows love is a weighty thing yet it requires simplicity. This comes across crystal clear throughout Cooke’s repertoire. Third, his music stood for something. Much of today’s music is about scoring with the opposite sex (pop), getting turnt up in the club (rap), or having a good time on the farm (country). Instead of being up all night to get lucky, Sam Cooke wrote “A Change is Gonna Come” after being up all night thinking about his experience as a black man in a racially divided nation. While sex is important, so is righting the wrongs of the world. There are obviously more and likely even better reasons for listening to Sam Cooke. Below I list some of my favorite songs of his.
A Change is Gonna Come– After hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and being arrested while trying to check into a whites-only motel in Shreveport, Louisiana, Sam wrote this gem. It would eventually epitomize the struggle for civil rights. “There have been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long but now I think I’m able to carry on. It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.” It is a snapshot into the African American experience of justice-seeking in the sixties and a constant encouragement for those concerned about inequality and injustice to keep working towards the goal.
Bring it on Home– Sam Cooke is known as the suffering lover. Any quick perusal of his music will find the father of soul singing sweets psalms about unrequited love. Sam sings to a girl that has done him wrong but he’s quick and ready to forgive. “One more thing. I tried to treat you right but you stayed out, stayed out in the night. But I’ll forgive you. Bring it to me. Bring your sweet loving. Bring it on home to me.” The love is so deep, he allows himself to be mistreated. Just come on back home. I’ll be here waiting. Let’s get back to business.
Nothing Can Change this Love– Love is a talkative thing and Mr. Cooke liked to chatter. Nothing can change Sam’s love for this girl, not even a little bit of wandering on her part. His love for his lady is so refreshing that he begins comparing it to food. Not in a dirty or derogatory way (he makes no mention of an apple bottom or laffy taffy) but in a winsome and sweet fashion. “You’re the apple of my eye. You’re cherry pie. And oh you’re, you’re cake and ice cream. Oh you’re sugar and spice, and everything nice. You’re the girl of my, my, my dreams.” The comparison is not meant to objectify his lover but merely to say “hey…our thing is as savory and satisfying as cake and ice cream.” Anyone with decent taste buds can catch the drift of what Sam is cooking.
(What A) Wonderful World– The crooner of soul admits ignorance in so many areas: history, biology, science, French, math, geography, and many more. Yet, he doesn’t give up. Despite not being an “A” student, Sam tries harder and harder to win the affection of a girl in his class. She values a good education so he studies to impress. “Now, I don’t claim to be an A student but I’m trying to be. For maybe by being an A student, baby, I can win your love for me.” He isn’t rescuing her from distress, beating up another to show his physical superiority, or even buying her lots of gifts. Girls like brains so he is gonna study. He may not know trigonometry but he knows “one and one is two and, if this one could be with you, what a wonderful world this would be.” It is simple math with profound implications. As long as he has her, he is the richest man in the world. Being with only one until the end does not subtract love but multiplies it.
Rome (Wasn’t Built in a Day)– Sam Cooke knew for love to have longevity, lovers had to work at it. After all, even Rome wasn’t built in a day. Just give him time and he could convince you to go steady with him. “Now, you know that I love you dear with all my heart. I know you didn’t love me from the start. But I planted a lil’ seed in your heart I know and it just needs time to grow, baby.” Time and Mr. Cooke’s longsuffering might convince the woman to stay.
Cupid– Sometimes you need a little help convincing another that you’re a worthy suitor. Who does Sam call on? None other than Cupid himself, the god of attraction and desire. If Cupid would only shoot one of his arrows in his direction, Sam might be able to impress a girl he likes. “Now Cupid if your arrow makes her love strong for me, I promise I will love her until eternity. I know between the two of us her heart we can steal. Help me if you will.” Once he has her love, he intended to treat her right. In a world where relationships literally last about two minutes these days, Sam begs for help because he wants to make it last a lifetime.
Cry Me a River– Everyone has their limits and sometimes you just got to move on. Even Sam Cooke knew this. Despite constantly singing about waiting on a returning lover, Sam also sang about letting love go. “Now you say you’re lonely for being so untrue. Well you can cry me a river. Cry me a river. I cried a river over you.” Sam isn’t a sadist who gets his knocks off from causing others pain. He is just a man tired of waiting on someone who never comes or has the good sense to know what they’re missing.
Keep Movin’ On– You just got to keep moving on and doing good to your neighbor. Why? Sam answers, “you reap what you sow” and it is a good thing to be able to sleep at night with a clear conscience. It is an uncomplicated song with a simple message— life seems unfair but you got to keep pressing onward. There is justice. No doubt Sam has in mind God and not karma who will make sure what is right is rewarded and what is wrong is punished. It was not scandalous to affirm back then what we all know to be true— we are accountable for our actions so you ought to treat one another with love.
Honorable mentions- I’ll Come Running Back to You, You Send Me, Somebody Come Ease my Troubling Mind (Les Paul, Sam Cooke, and Eric Clapton version), Another Saturday Night, Touch the Hem of His Garment, Only Sixteen, Somebody Have Mercy, and Ain’t that Good News.