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The Musical Legacy of John F. Kennedy’s Assassination

Thursday, November 21, 2013 at 6:05 AM

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Bill Spivery (courtesy of Fred Burton)

The assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this week, prompted countless memorial tributes. Around the world, streets, airports, and high schools were named in honor of the fallen president. A noted Northeast Ohio gospel performer made his contribution with a hit song that raced up the pop charts. ideastream’s David C. Barnett reports that it was part of a long tradition.

Thanks to Fred Burton, Jr. for helping in the production of this story.

Clevelander Fred Burton says President Kennedy’s death left him lost.

FRED BURTON: Oh man, that was some pretty tough times. 

As a gospel singer, he was accustomed to providing spiritual sustenance in a time of despair, but in those dark days fifty years ago, it was hard to see any path back to the light. 

FRED BURTON:  You thought the world was coming to an end.  You thought, “What’s going on?  Why would they kill the man that everybody has hope in?”

But, Burton recalls that his friend and fellow performer Bill Spivery saw the president’s death as a call to action.

FRED BURTON: And Bill said, “I feel that, in my heart, that I must do something else. I’m not going to let it go.  I’m going to put it in words and I’m going to put it in music.  And that’s what he done.

Bill Spivery had already made a name for himself in Cleveland’s gospel music scene, with his 1959 song, “Operator…” which would later be famously covered by Manhattan Transfer. Spivery spent weeks shopping his new song, “Mr. John”, to local radio stations and recording companies, He eventually found some sympathetic ears in producer Carl Maduri and arranger Jimmy Testa, who helped craft the tune in the studio.  The production included Spivery’s children singing in a back-up chorus.

MUSIC: Bill Spivery Mr. John

The song crested at number three on the local pop music charts in early 1964.  As a specialist in American popular music at Case Western Reserve University, Daniel Goldmark says musical tributes to fallen presidents date all the way back to our first assassinated leader, Abraham Lincoln.

DANIEL GOLDMARK: An example of one of these songs ---the main title is “Rest Martyr, Rest”, and the chorus is:

Rest martyr, rest,
From the scenes of death and pain. 
Though murderous hands have stole thy heart,
Thy noble deeds remain.

The song was published shortly after Lincoln’s death in 1865 and was sold as sheet music to be sung at memorial services, or for individuals to buy and play at home on a piano.  By the time of William McKinley’s assassination, in 1901, there was a new way to hear popular music --- phonograph records.

The funeral for the Ohio-born president was accompanied by a song said to be his favorite hymn.

DANIEL GOLDMARK: In the case of McKinley, we have a song that already exists, that ends up being tied to his memorial, and that’s “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”.  And turns into a huge hit.  And it’s right at the time where recording technology is really becoming big.

MUSIC: Cylinder recording of “Beautiful Isle of Somewhere”

The death of John F. Kennedy has been the subject of numerous recordings over the years, and Washington DC-based researcher Todd Gardner is trying to catalog each one.

TODD GARDNER: My current count is 285 --- 1963 to the present.

Gardner says a doctorate in History helped prepare him for the task of hunting down every song about, or that references, the Kennedy assassination.

TODD GARDNER: The earlier songs tend to be tributes and laments for JFK --- “Abraham, Martin and John” being the best example of that.

DCB: After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968, singer Dion DiMucci, recorded a tribute to the fallen leaders.

MUSIC:
Has anybody here, seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good, they die young
I just turned around
And he was gone.

Todd Gardner says music about the JFK assassination is still being recorded, and the newer songs have moved from heartfelt ballads to darker themes.

TODD GARDNER: In recent years, the focus has been much more on the general sense that institutions can’t be trusted.  The actual event isn’t as important as what it stands for, now --- the sense of conspiracy.

MUSIC:  Buckwheat Catapillar “Kennedy’s Head”

Over the course of nearly 150 years, musicians have found numerous ways to memorialize --- and at times question --- the deaths of assassinated presidents.  But sometimes, the musical associations aren’t so direct.  For instance, the announcement of President Kennedy’s death in 1963 was made on television to the strains of music written nearly 30 years earlier. 

DANIEL GOLDMARK: Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”.

Music scholar Daniel Goldmark says the familiar Barber piece was originally written in 1936.  Those somber strings were also heard at the death announcement of Franklin Roosevelt, that same year, and at the funerals of dignitaries and celebrities ever since.

DANIEL GOLDMARK: So now, the meaning of the piece is profoundly associated more with death or with memory of the past, as opposed to whatever Barber might have intended for it to mean.

Fred Burton thinks that the various kinds of music that were played after President Kennedy died helped a nation grieve and recover from some very dark times.

FRED BURTON: We all went through a lot of pain, at that time.  And music… can lift that burden. 

MUSIC: Barber’s Adagio for Strings

Additional Information

CLICK HERE to see sheet music related to Lincoln’s assassination
CLICK HERE to hear an archival musical tribute to William McKinley
CLICK HERE for more on Bill Spivery and Cleveland’s Gospel Music history
CLICK HERE to see Todd Gardner’s compilation of JFK assassination songs
CLICK HERE for free digital downloads of new JFK assassination songs

Tags

Arts and Culture, History, Music, Community/Human Interest, Courts/Crime - Fire/Law Enforcement, Ethics/Religion

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