A Change Is Gonna Come

In A Change Is Gonna Come: Music, Race and the Soul of America, Craig Werner, an African American Studies professor at the University of Wisconsin, attempts an interpretation of American popular music in light of the quest to achieve Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” of a racially harmonious and racially just America. Beginning with the assertion that this dream was one expressed musically well before King came to prominence, Werner traces the history of the music from the 1950’s to the 1990’s, conceptualizing three interrelated approaches to the quest for social justice.

The “gospel impulse” expresses communitarian hope for a better future despite the bleak reality of the present. The “blues impulse” details the grim facts and concordant emotions inherent in this reality. The brave experiments of the “jazz impulse” express the freedom needed to transcend dead ends that block the path to a better future. Werner sets this musical survey against the rise and fall of the Civil Rights movement, the divisiveness that triumphed over the promising but ultimately illusory solidarity of the early and mid-1960’s, and the promotion of unadulterated greed which defined the Reagan years. Along the way, he offers stimulating discussion of numerous musicians, including such diverse figures as Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Curtis Mayfield, George Clinton, Tupac Shakur, Bruce Springsteen, and Ani DiFranco.

This book is easy to criticize. The organization is loose. At times, the analysis is strained, as when Werner (following Miles Davis) compares the contributions of Prince with those of Duke Ellington. More generally, the very crucial relation between aesthetic, commercial, and political motives is never discussed systematically.

This is, nevertheless, a remarkably suggestive and entertaining book. It will provide an excellent reading experience for anyone with an interest in music and social justice.