7. Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land
Written by Unknown
Performed by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers c1952
From the CD Peace In The Valley (Prism, UK 2005)



I know Jesus is the one who came to me
When I was almost gone
He brought peace to my dying soul
And old Satan had to go
Then he reached out and took my hand
I didn’t know then,
But now I understand
It was Jesus he gave me medicine
Jesus who will lead me to that promised land

Lord one day when I was walking alone
I heard a voice but then I saw no one
Then I stopped and fell down on my knees
I told the lord how the world been treating me
Oh after a while I won’t have to worry
I know my Lord is going to call for me
Then I’m going to be with him
In that home, in that promised land

I thank you Jesus
For what you’ve done for me
Oh you died way out on Calvary
Oh you saved my soul that day
And I’ll always walk that narrow way
You promised me you would always be beside me
Promised me Lord you would hold my hand
Then I’m going, you know I’m going
You know I’m going
One day
You know I’m going
Yes I’m going
May be motherless
But I’m going
Yes I’m going
May be fatherless
But I’m going
Yes I’m going
May be blind
But I’m going
Yes I’m going
May be cripple
But I’m going
Yes I’m going
be with him lord
In that sweet home
In that promised land

An alligator, falling from the sky…


Artistic autonomy, and self interested entrepreneurship, modelled on his predecessors in the world of gospel, particularly as practiced, in regards of the ownership of one’s publishing and suchlike, by pioneers Thomas Dorsey and Sallie Martin, are but two of the many claims to fame attributed to the late Sam Cooke by people whose knowledge of the man is grounded in solid research as well as personal acquaintance.

And to this much deserved accolade such folks as singer Bobby Womack and biographer Peter Guralnick add that Cooke expanded and elaborated on this model in ways which to this day provide paradigms of self determination for contemporary African American pop musicians, most notably starting, albeit only for a while, his own record label, and for successfully managing a transition from gospel music, where he started and had been singing since he was six years old, to the secular world of rhythm and blues, and then to the white pop market where the real money and cultural power resided.

The reasons for Cooke’s Kal El (or if you prefer, Clark Kent) like leaps across genres were artistic and financial, for sure, but Cooke’s genre crossing was also a way of crossing out, symbolically (this being pop) and literally (this being commerce) the borders of racial segregation that framed, legally, and structured, informally, every aspect of American public life from pop to pedagogy and all points in between.

How much of a commercial success was Sam Cooke? Well, while he was at RCA Records, there was only one artist that sold more records, and that was Elvis Presley, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land, recorded in Hollywood around 1952 finds the young Sam Cooke in his second year as the lead vocalist in the Soul Stirrers. He was twenty one.

Sam Cooke was born in 1931 in Clarksdale Mississippi, the belly, or if it had a heart, the heartland of segregation. We don’t have any figures at hand for the number of such grisly events as lynchings in the state of Mississippi for that year, or the statistics such as would prove the economic and political inequities created by segregation; we haven’t any documentation on the activities of the Ku Klux Klan for that year or associated organisations, but since all of these activities, whose existence such statistical, anecdotal, and empirical would confirm, were a part and parcel of the lives of all Americans black and white who lived in the southern states, maybe its enough to say that the young Sam Cooke’s view of the world and his hopes for black advancement would have been shaped by the culture of segregation and its brute minutiae.

What we do have is an anecdote from the late 19th century, from July 2, 1843. During a thunderstorm in segregated Charleston, South Carolina, an alligator fell from the sky. Nothing to do with Sam Cooke, obviously, and not because he wasn’t to be born for another hundred and eight years after the event, no, the point is that if you were white, and born and bred in the south in the year Sam Cooke was born, you were more likely to see an alligator fall from the sky than consider segregation a human aberration. In fact, it’s quite likely you would have responded to the very idea of an alligator falling from the sky into a street in your town with as much incredulity as the idea that black and white children, your own, perhaps, should attend the same school. But in 1952, while Sam Cooke and his pals were recording Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land, a group of lawyers, Thurgood Marshall, George E.C Hayes, and James Nabrit Jr., were in Washington at the U.S Supreme Court, having taken it on themselves to argue against the legality of segregation in the American public school system by way of a case brought by a reverend from Topeka, Kansas, by the name of Oliver Brown, on behalf of his fifteen year old daughter, Linda. The upshot of the case was that every morning Linda had to travel fifteen blocks to a black school, even though there was a school, albeit one which only white children were allowed to attend, some four blocks away from her home. The case of Linda Brown became famous as one of a whole series of major legal actions which, together with a mass movement of civil disobedience, would end segregation in every aspect and institution of public life in America.

Segregation, a hysterical business, even at its most reserved, was at its most tumid around matters of race and sex, and while Sam Cooke is as famed for his advances in the business end of the music business for a voice whose grip on the notion of grain and jouissance would have (should have) made Roland Barthes blush – we think Sam burned brightest as a sexual icon.

Just think, before Mr. Cooke came along, the black body in American popular music was the subject a slicing and dicing, from both sides of the racial divide, which served to segregate sexuality from spirituality.

Gospel music advanced a strict division between the body as the site of God’s grace, and the body as the site of damnable sexual inclinations; rhythm and blues registered sexual pleasure as a zone of loss and abandonment from which shame – shamefulness or shamelessness – was never too far removed: one was either satisfied and hell-bound, or deprived and redeemed. Some choice. In white pop, in the packaging of albums and singles, the trick of photography made it possible for a black voice to exist without a body, for the dissolution of the offending evidence of racial difference via a simple fading of colour; in the arena of live performance, where Cooke excelled, black and white audiences were kept separate and crowd responses were racially proscribed: using interviews with Cooke’s band mates and fellow performers Bobby Womack, Johnny Thunder, and June Gardner, Peter Guralnick pieced together an account of one of Cooke’s tours of the South in the early sixties for a piece published in Rolling Stone magazine in 2005:

‘Sam, who showed none of his anger to his fellow performers, always displaying that cheerfully cool facade by which he was determined to be known, recalled only the police dogs roaming the aisles on the black side of the auditorium, a clear signal on the part of the authorities that they were not going to let their ‘nigras’ get out of hand. ‘Our people are not allowed to do nothing but applaud’, he told Bobby when they were alone in the car afterward. ‘If they stand up and scream, the dogs are gonna get ‘em. People don’t know how to react, and then they can’t even leave until all the white people are gone.’’

It was what Guralnick called a ‘new note of sexual excitement’ which provided the thread between Cooke’s moves from the church to the black and white pop worlds, which we guess would have provided the catalyst for the black audiences’ ‘getting out of hand’ – a liquid note of sexual excitement, which cohered and conferred completion and new value on the formerly fragmented black body, the body of the audience, in the image of one gorgeous, irresistible, sexually bodied voice.

A note of danger, just about containable in sanctified space but liable to get you killed in segregated space, especially if the object of the note, its sexual premise – the promise of illicit, glamorous sex – was conjugated across the colour line. Here’s an account, from Guralnick, again, of Cooke’s priapism which kind of gives us the impression that in the racially segregated world sex was as much a weapon of revenge (with maybe a shadow of revenge’s not too distant cousin, resentment) – as it was redemption:

‘Bobby saw Sam with white chicks, with black chicks, with two beautiful blond twins, but the assignation that registered most strongly in his memory was one fuelled by rage, not desire. Somewhere down in Texas, the programme director for a local white station came by the motel with his wife. It was hot, and the men were drinking, and the programme director started feeling woozy, so Sam suggested he lay down on the bed for a little while. Then Sam took his wife in the bathroom and turned on the shower, and they fucked without even taking off all their clothes. And when the man woke up, said Bobby, ‘that woman was fully dressed, like nothing had ever happened. She said, ‘Come on, baby, we got to go.’ I said, ‘Damn, that’s crazy.’ But Sam resented the fact that ‘these motherfuckers come down with their women and shit, and their women looking at me — yet I can’t stay [on their side of town], I gotta stay in this [segregated] motel.’’


In the end it was Cooke’s libidinal excesses that proved his undoing. Guralnick even has a word for it: whorehopping – except Cooke managed in a funny, one song, single word sort of way, to cheat the memory of the circumstances of his death, to make it not worth remembering, and make a purchase on a future which, in his life time, would have seemed as likely as an alligator falling from the sky.

You can find the story of the end of Sam Cooke on the Wiki biography of the man. It has him stumbling drunkenly and dressed only in one shoe and an overcoat (with nothing underneath) into the office of Bertha Franklin, manager of the Hacienda Motel at 9137 South Figueroa in Los Angeles, California, in December 1964, twelve years and a life-time of sorts since he recorded Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land. He was a young man then and we imagine that maybe in winter 1964 at thirty three years old, things were starting to slip a bit. A half naked angry drunk, attacking women, consorting with prostitutes. No one who knew him could believe, wanted to believe, that this was Sam Cooke. Not Etta James, not Solomon Burke…

Cooke demanded to know the whereabouts of a woman who had accompanied him to the hotel. Franklin told Cooke that the woman was not in the office. Cooke grabbed Franklin, and demanded to know the woman’s whereabouts. Franklin grappled with Cooke and they fell to the floor. Franklin managed to get up and ran to retrieve her gun. She told the police that she then fired at Cooke in self-defense, because she feared for her life. Cooke was struck once in the torso, and according to Franklin, he exclaimed, ‘Lady, you shot me,’ before mounting a last charge at her. She said that she beat him over his head with a broomstick before he finally fell, mortally wounded by the gunshot.

A younger Sam Cooke, without – from what we hear in his singing of Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land – a thought of the application of the song’s narrative to the impossible scenario of his own speaking from the dead, as the dead, and more with his usual detailed attention to the song’s architecture and its formal demands and possibilities, sang of his saviour some twelve years before this December night ‘He brought peace to my dying soul’: We can only hope that, as Sam Cooke sank into death, the presence of his saviour Jesus, evoked in the eternal present tense of the song (the eternal present tense of death itself), sung from the space of death, brought peace to Cooke’s dying soul as the song’s narrator proclaimed, through Cooke’s voice, it had done for him (or her - does anyone know who wrote the song?).

According to Franklin and to the motel’s owner, Evelyn Carr, they had been on the phone together at the time of the incident. Thus, Carr claimed to have overheard Cooke’s intrusion and the ensuing conflict and gunshots. Carr called the police to request that they go to the motel, informing them that she believed a shooting had occurred.


In the end, there was no end. Bob Dylan gave Cooke his first purchase on the future, the one which in Cooke’s lifetime was possible, but still not guaranteed: it was Dylan’s folk epic, Blowing In The Wind, that forced Cooke to raise his song-writing game: simply put, nothing Cooke had written before hearing that song was commensurate with his experience of the indignities and terrors of segregation. Nothing from the body of secular songs that had made him famous in the black and white world spoke to what was happening to the likes of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evars, or addressed what Cooke’s friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were attempting, by walking and talking: Twisting The Night Away and Cupid didn’t match their eloquent anger, their daringly humane non violence, What A Wonderful World didn’t reflect Cooke’s political intelligence. Nothing he’d sung as a gospel star, not Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land, not Touch The Hem of His Garment, not Pilgrim of Sorrow, matched the tenor and tone of the time: nothing he’d done as a songwriter made him sound as intelligent as he was, and the time needed intelligence above all else, but his mastery of gospel, rhythm and blues and pop made him ideally placed to write a song that would – oh you know the rest: Bobby Womack told Guralnick that when Sam Cooke played him A Change Is Gonna Come, he told Cooke it sounded like someone had died:

I was born by the river in a little town
Oh and just like the river I been a running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming but I know
A change gonna come oh yes it will
It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming but I know
A change gonna come oh yes it will

I go to the movie, and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me ‘don’t hang around’
It’s been a long, a long time coming, but I know
A change gonna come oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say ‘brother, help me please’
But he winds up knocking me
Back down on my knees
There been times that I thought I wouldn’t last for long
Now think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming but I know
A change gonna come, oh yes it will

A Change Is Gonna Come was released a few months after Cooke’s death. It became the first anthem of the Civil Rights movement, and R&B and pop music’s first great state of the nation address, stating as fact Cooke’s hope for the future and conferring on the possible success of the Civil Rights movement – which in 1963, the year Cooke wrote the song, was still very much in the balance – an historical inevitability borne of an ineradicable moral and ethical necessity, a truth as cosmic and as local as the law of gravity.

Cooke’s second posthumous purchase on the future, one beyond his view during his lifetime precisely because his idea of the future, his vision of the time in which change would come, was limited, or better yet, blocked, by the presence of segregation, was granted in Chicago, on November 4 2008 by Democratic Senator Barack Hussein Obama in his first speech as President-elect of the United States and America’s first black President. The name of the speech was Change Has Come. Here’s an excerpt:

‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

It’s the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference.

It’s the answer spoken by young and old, rich and poor, Democrat and Republican, black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, gay, straight, disabled and not disabled – Americans who sent a message to the world that we have never been a collection of Red States and Blue States: we are, and always will be, the United States of America.

It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day.

It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this day, in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America.’

And with that phrase, through that speech, through the voice of the first African (no need to hyphenate) American President in history, Sam Cooke joined a future which, of all the futures for African Americans that he might have thought possible in 1952, when he and the Soul Stirrers recorded Jesus Will Lead Me To That Promised Land, or in 1963 when he wrote A Change is Gonna Come, stood as much chance of taking place as an alligator falling from the sky. But there he was, his words, his voice, in a moment which drew a symbolic line between the then and now of race and desire in America, and for everyone else marked the beginning of the twenty-first century; a line whose strength has yet to be tested, but which the song nonetheless evoked, a line over which the singer, in the absence of his body, glided over as gracefully as he had crossed the line of segregation while he and his voice lived and breathed, if not more so, as floating, soundless notes and voiceless song, performed through the voice of the most powerful black man on the planet.



The Man Who Invented Soul – How Sam Cooke jump-started the civil rights movement with ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, by Peter Guralnick, Posted Sep 22, 2005. Rollingstone.com.

The next star over – Elvis biographer Peter Guralnick tackles another music legend: Sam Cooke, by Lee Hildebrand, San Francisco Bay Guardian online


Sam Cooke
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Cooke (– 95k)

Kuettner, Al. March to a Promised Land: The Civil Rights Files of a White Reporter, 1952–1968. Sterling: Capital Books, 2006.

Full text: Obama’s victory speech, from BBC NEWS: 2008/11/05



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