Dion Week No 6: Song for Sam Cooke (Here In America)
Because he was sometimes on the same bill as Sam Cooke, Dion became good friends with the soul singer. A few years after Cooke was murdered in 1964, Dion wrote a song about their friendship which he kept under wraps for decades. Dion is, more than any other recording artist, a New Yorker, born and bred. In 2018 Dion saw "Green Book", a film detailing the process of enlightenment that took place in 1962 of Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga when he was the chauffeur and go-to man for multitalented classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley on a tour of the American Midwestern and Southern states. Like Dion, Vallelonga grew up in the Bronx, and when he escorted Shirley on his tour he was shocked the discriminatory treatment that Shirley was subjected to in the South. 1962 was the same year that Dion toured with Sam Cooke. The film seemed to Dion to be a rewriting of his song and so at last he decided to record it, releasing it in his 2020 album "Blues with Friends". So now we're bringing Dion right up to date, older, pensive, and finally recognised by his peers - fellow New Yorker Paul Simon accompanies him on the track. The song is all the more pertinent in these times of the long overdue Black Lives Matter movement.
Not only did Dion tour with Cooke, they socialised big time, and Sam took him to see James Brown "when nobody even knew him and we would travel in the South and it was kind of the opposite way round, he stood up for me in those situations where people had attitudes in a community that wasn't mine. He'd say "hey, the boy's with me"....." In the South in the early sixties, Dion was in trouble from white people for socialising with a black man, and in trouble from the black community when he presumed to mix with them. Either way, Sam Cooke gave him protection through his friendship. You can imagine the culture shock for a twenty year old New Yorker, used to mixing with black people in his home city, meeting the overt prejudice of the South first hand as Cooke's companion. This is Dion's musical diary of that time and a delicate, sincere reminiscence of their friendship, but his anger stills feels fresh. He references Cooke's "Chain Gang" with the backing grunts, quotes his anthemic "A Change is Gonna Come" and namechecks his breakthrough hit "You Send Me". Once again, as with so many of Dion's later lyrics, it pays to sing along. It gives you a flavour of what it was like to be there, a sniff of the day-to-day bitterness and pain. Coupled with the hope for the future that comes from the legacy of the likes of Sam Cooke.
"We travelled this land back in nineteen sixty-two, we played the places that were home to me and you, we drove to Memphis, we rocked a set, we walked the streets at night and smoked a cigarette, here in America, here in America, there was so much I didn't know about the way that life could go - here in America.
Down the block I saw the people stop and stare, you did your best to make a Yankee boy aware, I never thought about the colour of your skin - I never worried 'bout the hotel I was in, here in America , here in America; but the places I could stay - they all made you walk away here in America.
You were the man who earned the glory and the fame but cowards felt that they could call you any name. You were the star, standing in the light that won you nothing on a city street at night here in America, here in America, you were told that we were free: this land is made for you and me, here in America.
You stayed more steady than a backbeat on a drum, you told me you believed a change was gonna come, you sang for freedom, but lived life free, I saw it in your smile and in your dignity here in America, here in America - a preacher's kid you'd always be, singing the truth to set us free here in America, here in America.
You were a star when you were standing on a stage; I look back on it, I feel a burning rage - you sang "You Send Me, " I sang "I Wonder Why" I still wonder, you were way too young to die - here in America, here in America. Hey Sam, I wish that you were near, I wish that you were here, here in America, here in America, America, In America here in America."
And sing along again. And again. We need to sing it a lot. Music can make a difference. If not, what?