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by Jason Gubbels

November 22, 2013

Songs About JFK

by Jason Gubbels  |  November 22, 2013

As the nation marks 50 years since President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, we've assembled our own memorial in the form of a playlist tracking the ways in which musicians and songwriters have dealt with, alluded to, wondered over, or railed against the events of November 22, 1963. And as befits an incident that has been credited with setting the stage for a decade of discord, the material under consideration runs the gamut from tearful elegies to black humor.

Some tributes didn't take long to appear -- Leonard Bernstein dedicated his Symphony No. 3 (Kaddish) to the memory of President Kennedy when it premiered mere weeks after the assassination, while Connie Francis recorded the Kennedy encomium "In the Summer of His Years" in early December 1963 (Herb Kretzmer and David Lee wrote the song within hours of the event). Bob Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom" (summer '64) grew out of a series of poems Dylan scribbled in the aftermath of the assassination. And a whole host of weepy country tributes trickled out of small labels from mostly forgotten honky-tonk peddlers, many of them recently assembled on a bizarre compilation titled Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll, which includes Lowell Yoder's timeless lament "Don't Blame the State of Texas."

Texan troubadour Jimmie Dale Gilmore didn't heed Yoder's advice, opining on his classic Dealey Plaza-haunted "Dallas" that the city was "a rich man with a death wish in his eye." And while plenty of artists continued to mine familiar areas of mourning (Tori Amos singing of "Jackie's Strength" or New Order bidding farewell to the 1950s), others began chewing over conspiracy theories (counterculture hero David Peel wondering "Who Killed JFK") or putting in a good word for Lee Harvey Oswald the patsy (Asylum Street Spankers). Even funky types Was (Not Was) and Steinski got into the JFK memorial game; the latter's 1987 "The Motorcade Sped On" was a startling mixture of hip-hop beats and news reports. And while most people will be familiar with the perennial lament "Abraham, Martin and John" (here heard courtesy of Smokey Robinson's upbeat rendition), fewer are aware of The Mekons' bittersweet "Insignificance (Conversation with Roche)," a 1994 track that touches upon nearly all the conflicting emotions at play: "A word slips out in Dallas in 1963/ Spawns an industry/ Conspiracy/ If they can kill, what would they do to me?"

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