Track This: Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" Live at the Harlem Square Club

Spring and summer always puts me in the mood for Sam Cooke. I wake up most mornings humming a Cooke tune, hoping that my day will be sunny and bright or at least incessantly hummable.  I have still only worked my way through part of Peter Guralnick's well-researched Dream Boogie, which will unfortunately have to wait until after my exams in August but listening to these singles makes me want to jump back in.

"Chain Gang" was a successful single for Cooke when he released it on on July 26, 1960, and it has become one of his most ubiquitous and well-known songs, as well as his first for RCA Victor after a stellar run on Keen records. The song's call and response chants are instantly recognizable, and, despite its theme, the song is typically upbeat; Cooke narrates the story of the prisoner's daily work lives, but allows them to hope as they slave away under the burning sun. Perhaps the song plays as a bit naive for modern audiences, but it still remains part of the national mythology and oldies station play lists, and has been covered by many artists.

The version on Live at the Harlem Square Club is not as smooth as the single. The song has a different live presence; no bass vocal asks, "Well, don't you know?" Cooke's smooth vocals are rougher and more energetic. The drums fill in for the clinking of pickaxes and Cooke's oohs and ahs are forceful and not overdubbed. The immediacy of the recording is miles removed from the single and Cooke's raspy vocals feel lived in and well-rehearsed. His live audience responds in kind and the energy is palpable. He ad libs and the crowd joins in: "C'mon, everybody do it." While the single version is singular, the live version becomes transcendent. Cooke sings, "we better quit," but the listener just wants to start the song over.

Single version with American Chain Gang pictures:

Live at the Harlem Square Club

Track This is a recurring feature of Snobbin' that turns the music appreciation dial up and rips it off of your stereo. It attempts to introduce a new track, allow readers to rediscover an underappreciated track, or just serve as a forum to flat out discuss a track that falls into the ear candy category and should be listened to unabashedly for years to come.


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