Monday, March 14, 2005

Sam Cooke: "Touch the Hem of His Garment"

by Robert Cording

As if he cannot help himself
from adding up what's lost to the good times
so difficult to have in this world,

Cooke's throaty voice warbles
up out of his reed-thin, man-child body,
half balm, half aching need,

his trademark whoa-oo-oh-oh-oh
lingered over, drawn out until it hangs in air,
honey-tongued, heavenly, fragile

as consolation. I'm listening
to a 1956 recording, and Cooke, twenty-five,
has already discovered his gift

for making women tremble
and shake with the spirit in church aisles.
He's retelling the Gospel story

of a woman who wants only
to touch the hem of Christ's robe, a song
that will sell twenty-five thousand copies,

propel Cooke into a gospel star,
and begin the long chain of small decisions
that ends with a bullet in his lungs.

Still eight years away--
the $3-and-up motel, the hooker charging
assault, Cooke's cherry red Ferrari

purring in the parking lot
as he slumps to the floor, naked save for
an overcoat and one expensive shoe--

but I can't keep from hearing
the urgency in his voice as the woman, pushed
by the terror of self-recognition,

her flesh dying from the inside
out, staggers through the crowd around Jesus,
and, with only the slightest brush

of her fingers, touches
his robe, believing it will make her whole.
"Who has touched me?" Jesus asks,

and Cooke sings, "It was I-I-I,"
extending the moment in his clear, sustained
yodel, pulling us into the miracle

of how, after night-long drifts
from bar to bar, the slur of zippers and
whiskeyed words dimming the nameless

landscapes of a hundred
identical blackened factories stuck between
billboards and railway bridges,

after a week of days piling
one on another like dirty laundry, Sunday arrives,
and everyone rises and testifies

and sways under the wings
of notes that swoop and glide and make us whole,
if only for the duration of the song.

Gorgeous. Would that I could pack so much story into so few words.

I encountered this poem and the work of Robert Cording by way of The Best Spiritual Writing of 1999, edited by Philip Zaleski. You can listen to a Cording lecture and reading here (let me know if this works; I couldn't get it to play on my humble system, but haven't given up yet). Here is one of Cording's essays, which first ran in Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion. Enjoy! I know I'm going to take my time with this piece.

More on Sam Cooke:

NPR has done quite a few stories which mention Cooke. Here's Sam Cooke, Portrait of a Legend, Part I and II. These stories draw from the work of Cooke's biographer, music historian Peter Guralnick.

From , this article has great photos, including one of the Hacienda Motel and Cooke's gravestone.

The Death of Sam Cooke: One writer's take on the official version and conspiracy theories about Cooke's death. touches on Cooke's life, gospel roots and, blending of the sacred and secular, and simply mentions that he "died on December 11, 1964." It also includes a discography, photos, press quotes and an article about a collection of remastered albums released in 2003.

Here is a roundup of reviews of You Send Me: The Life and Times of Sam Cooke by Daniel Wolff and Clifton White.

Check out some samples of Cooke's singing here. Some of his gospel albums are available here.