The Secret to Soul

Sam Cooke - Portrait of a Legend

Sam Cooke is arguably one of the finest singers in history, but he also wrote many of his own songs. These songs are deceptively simple–like any creative titan, Sam Cooke knew the recipe for brilliance. It is this: Tension. Tension is irresistable.

I’ll explain. One of my favorite songs of his is “Nothing Can Change This Love.” I urge you to listen to it first, so check out my Sam Cooke playlist on Anywhere.fm. Sam’s rich, crackly tenor is what sells it and injects it with a hint of melancholy. And here lies the secret to the song’s appeal. Check out the lyrics:

If I go a million miles away
I’d write a letter each and everyday
’cause honey nothing, nothing, nothing can ever
change this love I have for you.

Make me weak, and you can make me cry
see me coming, and you can pass me by
but I know nothing, nothing, nothing can ever
change this love I have for you

you’re the apple of my eye, you’re cherry pie
and oh, you’re cake and ice cream
you’re sugar and spice, everything nice
you’re the girl of my, my, my, my, dreams

And if you wanted to leave me and roam,
when you got back, I’d just say welcome home
’cause honey nothing, nothing, nothing can ever
change this love I have for you

I know that nothing, nothing, nothing can ever
change this love I have for you. (end)

The song is a love song, and for a long time I thought that’s all it was. But listen closely. There’s that faint sense of melancholy–a tinge of sadness and longing in the way Sam delivers these phrases. I can’t say why this is, but the effect is undeniable.

Then there’s the lyrics: Sam sings of hypothetical situations, but what would bring a man to imagine his love ignoring him as she passed him by? Or leaving him to roam the world without him? One day it hit me: This is a love song about a woman who doesn’t even know the singer. Sam isn’t singing to his beloved, but rather someone he wishes were his beloved–“the girl of [his] dreams.” A woman who ignores him yet whom he loves profoundly.

 It’s a little sad, but Sam carries it off with dignified passion. Here’s the point: All truly great soul songs have some element of sadness, and this tension is where the song’s power comes from. Love and death. Passion and loss. It’s the age old adage of taking the bitter with the sweet–you need contrast in order to make a point. You also need conflicting interpretations in order to tell a compelling story that lasts.

I still puzzle at this song. I try to listen to it as a straightahead love song, and also as an ode from a persistent man whose love has been rebuked time and again. Sam brings this tension to all of his songs, and really, that’s what Soul music is.

The next time you listen to a love song, ask yourself how happy the singer sounds. Falling in love is never one dimensional, and any love song worth a damn isn’t either…

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6 Responses to The Secret to Soul

  1. erikgreene says:

    Excellent analysis–about the “tension is irresistable” theme, that is. I don’t agree with the theory he never knew her; there’s just not enough to support your hypothesis. For example, in order for her to leave him, she would’ve had to be with him in the first place, correct? He’s saying that even after the break-up, he’s so smitten that she could pass him on the street and his feelings about her wouldn’t change. Now THAT’S some serious love!

    Sam was cricitized to shreds in an article one time for having banal lyrics by a guy named Stephen Talty, when in reality, that’s what made him such a special songwriter. I devoted Chapter 8 just on his prowess as a songwriter. In an interview with Dick Clark, Sam admitted he wrote songs for the common man to understand. The only time he really broke rank with that approach was in his extensive metaphorical use in “A Change is Gonna Come.” The result? Check Rolling Stones’ list of greatest songs all-time. It’s number 12 if my memory serves me well.

    Thanks for the mental stimulation!

    Erik Greene
    Great-nephew of Sam Cooke
    Author, “Our Uncle Sam: The Sam Cooke Story From His Family’s Perspective”
    http://www.ourunclesam.com

  2. sondan says:

    Nice blog post. Good for thought. I am a Sam Cooke fan and you have given me a fresh perspective on his songwriting. Happy Holidays sir.

  3. lithe says:

    erikgreene: It’s true. The idea that this woman doesn’t know the singer is not definitive, but I do like listening to the song from that vantage point. And I think the song holds up well to this interpretation! Imagine he’s thinking ahead to their time together, and pitting himself against her potential refusals as a way of showing how strong his love could be for her. This is a song can be sung before love, during love, or after love–the latter being the breakup that you spoke of.

    It’s a simple, and brilliant, song. The line about saying “welcome home” still gives me chills. Thanks for your comments. I’m truly envious of your bloodline…

  4. lithe says:

    Happy holidays to you too, sondan. Thanks for giving it a read…

  5. erikgreene says:

    Lithe,

    “To Each His Own…” It’s not just one of Sam’s more obscure yet beautiful ballads, it applies in this circumstance as well. If listening to the song believing Sam doesn’t know the woman works for you, then by all means hold on to that perception. And while I don’t especially agree with the pre-love scenario, I can see the argument for the during, and after-love scenarios.

    That whole “welcome home” verse gives me chills and always did! On my website, I talk about a break-up with a really special girl, and that line moved me to tears on many a nights thereafter. Sam Cooke was a special individual for so many reasons, and his songwriting genius is just one of them.

    Happy Holidays to both you and Sondan. Here’s to a 2008 none of us will soon forget!

    Erik Greene

  6. ginacos says:

    That “welcome home” line has always given me chills too, and I never knew why. I have to go back and listen to the whole song more critically.

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