That's the sound of the men
working on the chain gang
A chain gang c 1903 (Library of Congress)
Inspiration comes in all forms. Sometimes an artist experiences something amazing which leads to a very positive and uplifting song. However, inspiration may also appear out of a negative experience, and equally as often. This is the case with Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang."
Sam Cooke is considered by many to be one of the greatest singers of all time, in spite of his very short career. He is referred to as the king of soul and his influence in popular music can still be heard in today's hits. With 30 Top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, he was a pioneer whose contributions directly led to the popularity of many of the artists who followed in his footsteps, including Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin. However, his life can be considered tragic in many ways.
In 1963, Cooke's 18-month-old son drowned in their pool, having wandered away from adult supervision which led to Cooke's depression, an estranged marriage (with affairs by both he and his wife, Barbara), and extra touring away from his home. And on December 11th, 1964, he was fatally shot at the motel in Los Angeles where he was staying by the night manager, Bertha Franklin, after an altercation. He died at the young age of 33.
Originally, the courts declared that Cooke had been "drunk and disorderly" and Franklin got off with a justifiable homicide, a.k.a. self defense. But over the past 50 years many circumstances surrounding the death of this great artist have been called into question.
Recognizing tragedy became commonplace for Cooke and those themes found their way into his many compositions. "Another Saturday Night" chronicles the lonely night of a man who's new in town and has nobody to spend time with. "Bring it on Home to Me" is about infidelity and "Cupid" is about unrequited love. Perhaps the saddest of his tragic tunes is "Chain Gang," which includes the sound effects of sledgehammers clanging into railroad ties.
Sam Cooke in a publicity photo
In 1959, while on tour through the South, Cooke's tour bus happened upon a chain gang of prisoners in Georgia. There is no definitive way to know which prison, so for the purposes of this article, the Georgia State Prison - just outside Reidsville on Highway 147 - will stand in. At any rate, Cooke and his brother felt sorry for the prisoners, so they ordered the driver to pull over and, after shaking a few hands, passed out cartons of cigarettes before re-boarding to continue their trip. This chance meeting was the catalyst for Cooke's second most popular hit on the US charts.
Chain gangs, groups of prisoners linked together while performing physical labor, existed mostly in the South until 1955, when the practice was phased out, except in Georgia where chain gangs continued through the 1960s. They were first used during the reconstruction of the south after the Civil War as a way to utilize prisoners as free labor in rebuilding Southern states' infrastructure. In the '90s, Alabama reintroduced them again. However, that brief experiment ended almost as quickly as it began with the media awarding it the moniker of "commercialized slavery."
In addition to using chain gangs, the Georgia State Prison had a death row as the state doled out capital punishment for many years. Now, its upper floor has been renovated into a museum that houses, among other things, the original electric chair used in thousands of executions between 1924 and 1964, when the U.S. Supreme Court suspended all death sentences.
Following the reinstatement of the penalty in 1976, the site of executions moved off the premises. In the '40s and '50s, people were offered $25 to flip the lever allowing the voltage to flow into the victim. Inmates were doused with salt water to speed up the process, although it sometimes took as long as 10 minutes for the prisoner to die. Oh, don't you know if Sam Cooke had witnessed an electrocution instead of a chain gang, the song would've been even more depressing. "That's the sound of the volts, murdering the in-mate."
~ Justin Novelli
March 23, 2018