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The Night Sam Cooke Made ‘Chain Gang’ a Hymn to Freedom

·10-min read
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The studio single version of “Chain Gang” was released July 26, 1960. It becomes Cooke’s biggest hit of a year that saw him push a lot of lushly orchestrated fodder at the 45-buying public.

Cooke is always conscious of demos. He wants the white suburban girls to buy his records, the older crowd, the Black people in the cities. He doesn’t necessarily care if every demo stocks up on every record. Sam Cooke has doubtless had many Cooke completists, but you really don’t need to be one, in that sense that there are people who only listen to Dylan from 1965 to 1966, or early folkie Dylan, or fin de siècle Dylan. The more places an artist gives you to find yourself and what means the most to you, the greater the likelihood of chickens locating roosting spots.

His other big hit that year was “Wonderful World,” which has always amused and beguiled me in that it sounds like an oldie, despite rock and soul not having existed that long, and I bet it sounded like an oldie when it came out on the first day of Easter Triduum that spring.

It may be the quintessential oldie, and I don’t mean that in a way to suggest that it’s dated; rather, the song packages nostalgia for bygone times much like Rod Serling’s script for the 1959 Twilight Zone episode of “Walking Distance.” The track is autumnal—time is getting on, and we are conscious of its march. It’s a taking-stock number, an itemization of memories. There is a large helping of “Wonderful World” in “Penny Lane,” but one is English and white, and the other is American and Black.

I remember reading in Rolling Stone as a boy where Rod Stewart had said that it’s all well and good, Sam Cooke singing his “cha cha cha’s” in “Wonderful World,” but it’s not art, which is one of the more inaccurate comments I’ve encountered about a piece of music. Stewart was a huge Cooke fan, but I think he missed what was happening at the level of the writing.

“What a wonderful world this would be,” Cooke sings in this song about the past, the failures and frustrations of a boy in school to figure out what to do with his slide rule and master that damn French homework. But note how he conscripts the subjunctive—“What a wonderful world this could be.” He is talking of change, the future, but in the argot of imagination. A daydream. And what is a daydream for the future so often founded upon? The bedrock of those daydreams is hope. And it is hope that is the ligature that binds us to the possibility of all that we might ever become.

Martin Luther King famously gave oratorical voice to exactly what Sam Cooke is singing about here in his “I have a dream speech” at the end of August 1963, in Washington, D.C. King would have known the song. You pare back the schoolboy element—which Cooke also inserted so as to hit more of those demographics, to appeal to the moms and dads of the suburban white kids who enjoyed having their own conceptions of nostalgia stirred.

Cooke merely wanted to get in—he wanted to gain ingress to your home, your head space, your conversations, your memories, your plans for what to play on the jukebox that Saturday night. But Blacks recognized something else in the song’s wistful, bittersweet, daring-to-dream refrain. They understood Sam Cooke’s cipher, just as they had known exactly what Chuck Berry was singing about with 1956’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.”

“A-a-arrested on charges of unemployment / He was sitting in the witness stand / The judge’s wife called up the district attorney / She said, ‘Free that brown-eyed man.’” Thus begins the Berry number. Songs meant to scale charts do not normally start with accounts of arrests, unemployment, and brown-eyed men, which anyone with ears and a brain would have understood to mean brown-skinned man.

Berry takes us through times in history; it’s a phasic song, jumping around from point to point, scene to scene, as Cooke will jump around in a song about change not long after hearing King’s righteous, daring, oneiric speech.

“Two-three the count, with nobody on,” Berry sings, describing a baseball game in which a Willie Mays or Hank Aaron-like figure will win the day. Despite being a big baseball guy, he reverses the numbers of the count, letting us know that something is up, a game of change is afoot. It’s not hard to imagine the singer of Cooke’s “Chain Gang” as Berry’s brown-eyed man, caught up in a maelstromic system, allowing that the phone call placed by the well-meaning wife of the judge hadn’t gotten him off.

On tour, Cooke’s bus was pulled over, and he and his band came upon an actual chain gang, Cooke taking a few minutes to speak to the men who were shackled to each other, like the men at the oars in the slave ships, only now upright.

People thought it was shocking when they heard Archie Bunker flush a toilet on All in the Family, but a song about Black men manacled to each other, working as the warden sweats the life out of them, was beyond the pale in 1960. Cooke gave you some of what the Stone Roses would later term candy floss to get into your house, to establish his brand as one you deemed reliable, but when you hit as many demographics as he did, you have more opportunities for Trojan horses and maybe sending people on to worthier ideas as you yourself have been self-sent. Yes, there could have been white men on this chain gang, but you didn’t hear it that way. The Defiant Ones had chained Sidney Poitier to Tony Curtis in 1958, though if you hadn’t been cycled through the penal system yourself, the concept of race and Blackness was indivisible from the concept of a chain gang. Which Cooke was fully cognizant of.

How Martin Luther King Jr. Influenced Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

“I hear somethin’ saying,” Cooke begins. It’s not very different from “I have a dream,” is it? I hear, I have. But it’s “something,” not “someone.” Cooke hears the times, just as Dylan heard them, and both men knew that they were changing or could be—the artist had a role to play as inducer. That “I” plants a foot firmly in the ground and drives into fresh narrative, like an edge rusher coming out of his stance to flank around the offensive line and launch himself bodily at the quarterback.

Cooke embeds the song—which went all the way to #2 in the Billboard charts—on a record called Swing Low, another concept album. After his first two LPs for Keen back in the 1950s, every Cooke album is a concept album. All of his RCA records are concept heavy. Swing Low centered on bluesy, Black tunes tinged with a spirituals component. It was Cooke’s long-player of work songs of a man working for change. A change he might have said, in keeping with these declarative sentence constructions, “I will cause to occur, help make arrive.”

With “Chain Gang” on Live at the Harlem Square Club we go to the upper regions of intensity. You almost have to acclimate to them. Were this sci-fi, a ship’s commander might intone, Set the controls for the center of soul. The studio version is a driving number, but this live performance is downright irradiating. In the 1950s, Count Basie self-described his sound as “atomic,” which meant that he’d somehow upped his rhythmic ordnances to the point that you wouldn’t have seemed like a cheeky piss-taker had you wondered aloud if he’d split some kind of sound-based atom in his own way and harvested the power. Cooke, in January 1963, is having himself not just a party but a harvest festival of that power.

He lays into the grunts—the “ooh-aah’s”—of “Chain Gang” in Miami with calcined ardor. The singer isn’t just working this land with his pick—he might as well be driving his hips through the ground itself. “Got through the crust, and now I’m coming for you, upper mantle.” It’s sexual, but also post-sexual, something beyond flesh, like in ancient Greek legends when a god fornicates with a mortal. It’s human and not human. This is a multi-orgasmic Cooke, a progenitor, a life-bequeather, loving with a purpose, not some Earl of Rochester-type debaucher. He’s a life force, soul-style, always ready to go again.

On the middle eight, June Gardner instigates a tintinnabulous rhythm on his ride cymbal that’s like this citron, gossamer bridge for Cooke’s voice to dance across. When Muhammad Ali said, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” he may have had Cooke in mind on the Lepidoptera front. Here, amid the earthiness, the grunting, the insistence of being born and being reborn—not in the Christian, Bible-thumping sense but as a person worthy of decency and dignity—Cooke sings one of his prettiest passages in the entire discography.

He sets up his own line with a quick hum, a stilling, half-a-bar intro to a lullaby. “I’m going home,” Cooke croons, caressing all the words, but the last the most, and home means so goddamn much. It’s more than abode; it’s more than away from this toil in this heat, and all of the concomitant metaphors of Blackness in America. “See my woman, whom I love so dear.” Lady Freedom. The America that this is supposed to be and often is not.

Which is not “only” a Black thing, though it can be. Cooke didn’t leave you out. Again, he understood demos, because Cooke understood people and what they needed, the forms of help most relevant to all: empathy, equity, inclusivity. He is of primal, protean, raw voice on the Harlem Square Club version of “Chain Gang,” but we experience that idea again of someone writing to reach us.

“Voices ought not be measured by how pretty they are,” Cooke once said. “Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.” Ali liked to describe himself as pretty, by which he meant real. More code. And you don’t need a decoder to know that Sam Cooke is the prettiest of singers and the most truthful.

It is Lady Freedom whom this man wishes to join with, to bed and be bedded by. We are talking of human conduct, from person to person, and principle as well, a soul-Kantian imperative of absolute right and absolute wrong. Human to human, and also human-to-idea, which is what those Grecian mortal-god pairings were really about. She goes by many names, this Lady Freedom. For King she is a dream. For Berry she’s that ballplayer who will bowl over the catcher, do whatever is necessary to score.

“Everybody help me do it,” Cooke implores the Overtown habitus, dropping the formal lyric, improvising, writing here in this present tense, writing to the crowd, bringing in their voices to join with his own. The freedom of the moment, freedom in the midst of a portion of one’s people.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Cooke says, off-mic and so low in the mix you can barely hear him. I’d say turn up the record and you will hear him better, but I also know that by the end of “Chain Gang,” there’s no way you don’t have Harlem Square Club at max volume.

Here in Miami in the last winter of Sam Cooke’s life, Lady Freedom is one comely, age-altering, miracle of a figure, with a strong back and a clean mouth perfect for kissing. For Lady Freedom is change.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing</div>
Courtesy Bloomsbury Publishing

Excerpted from Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963 by Colin Fleming, part of Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series, published September 9.

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