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  • Writer's pictureEric Senich

What's Left To Say? Play These Songs For JFK...

It was sixty years ago this week - November 22nd, 1963 - that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The country and the world would never be the same. It marked the official end of the 50s, the end of innocence. It wasn't long before musicians would record songs dedicated to JFK and that fateful day in Dallas. These are my personal ten favorites...

10. The Byrds - "He Was A Friend of Mine" (1965)

“He Was a Friend of Mine” is the last song on side one of The Byrds’ 1965 album Turn! Turn! Turn!. “He Was a Friend of Mine” dates back to at least 1934 when John Lomax recorded James “Iron Head” Baker singing “Shorty George” at Central State Prison Farm in Sugar Land, Texas. Bob Dylan sang a version of the song from late 1961 until the middle of 1962 under the title “He Was a Friend of Mine”. As sung by Bob Dylan, “He Was a Friend of Mine” laments the death of a friend who died penniless on the road. Jim McGuinn had adapted “He Was a Friend of Mine” for The Byrds before the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but after that event McGuinn rewrote the lyrics of the song so that The Byrds’ version is a solemn elegy to the fallen President, lamenting the passing of a “leader of a nation for such a precious time”. He claims to have written the revised lyrics the day of the assassination.

9. Phil Ochs - "That Was The President" (1965)

Like many people of his generation, Ochs deeply admired President John F. Kennedy, even though he disagreed with the president on issues such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the growing involvement of the United States in the Vietnamese civil war. When Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Ochs wept. He told his wife that he thought he was going to die that night. It was the only time she ever saw Ochs cry.

8. The Police - "Born In The 50's" (1978)

"Born in the ’50s" by The Police reflects on the experiences and attitudes of a generation born in the 1950s. Sting had just turned 12 when JFK was killed. The song captures the cultural and societal changes that occurred during his upbringing and highlights the disillusionment felt by the generation about their parents' values and ideologies. It's been said that the 50s officially ended on 11/22/63 and it's hard to argue that knowing how much would change and change rapidly.

7. Pearl Jam - "Brain Of J" (1998)

“Brain of J” is the opening track on Pearl Jam‘s 1998 album Yield. Eddie Vedder wrote the lyrics. The first line of this song is “Who’s got the brain of JFK?”, indicating that the “J” in the title stands for John F. Kennedy. It would seem that Pearl Jam had the JFK assassination on their minds as the documentary about the making of this album was called Single Video Theory, a play on the “single bullet theory” in the JFK assassination.

6. Dream Academy - "Life In A Northern Town" (1985)

"Life in a Northern Town" was written as an elegy to British folk musician Nick Drake, who died in 1974 but it's the lyric in the fourth verse that always brings chills:

He said, "In winter 1963

It felt like the world would freeze

With John F. Kennedy

And The Beatles"

5. Lou Reed - "The Day John Kennedy Died" (1982)

“The Day John Kennedy Died” was written and recorded by Lou Reed and included on his 1982 album The Blue Mask. Released just before Lou Reed turned 40, this album was among the most acclaimed of his career. In his dream, Reed is the president and uses his power to create a just and fair society. As if awakening from the dream, Reed goes on to describe his memory of the JFK assassination. Dare to dream. The truth is always a harsh wake-up call.

4. Guns N' Roses - "Civil War" (1991)

This GN'R song deals with the Vietnam War and the battle for civil rights in the US and includes a verse about President Kennedy's assassination. How different would things be if JFK didn't die before his time? We'll never know.

3. Tori Amos - "Jackie's Strength" (1998)

Tori Amos deals with pre-wedding jitters by summoning the strength of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, President John F. Kennedy's widow. She recalled: "I knew I was getting married, and all those feelings were coming up, sort of flashbacks of your life. So when I saw this tiny book on Jackie's life at a book store in an airport I just picked it up, and when I saw the picture of her as a bride... and then turned the page and saw the picture of her when JFK got shot, it really spoke to me about how fast your life can change, at the turn of a page."

2. The Rolling Stones - "Sympathy For The Devil" (1968)

This is undeniably one of greatest from The Stones. Some of the historical events mentioned in this song are the crucifixion of Christ, the Russian Revolution, World War II, and the Kennedy assassinations. Robert Kennedy was killed on June 5, 1968, after Mick Jagger started writing the song. His original lyric was "who killed Kennedy?" referring to the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination, but he changed it to "who killed the Kennedys?" But what of the following line: "After all it was you and me"? Does humanity ultimately destroy itself? Is it the Devil's manipulation of humanity that led to the early demise of JFK and RFK?

1. Bob Dylan - "A Murder Most Foul" (2020)

This idea that Bob Dylan's best work is behind him has been mentioned for quite some time but this nearly 17-minute epic on the day JFK died is proof that Dylan can elicit the most powerful of emotions through words and music like no one else.

When I first heard this song I was too caught up in its length but this weekend I gave it a listen once more and found myself playing it over and over again. In a statement released with the single, Dylan indicated that "Murder Most Foul" was a gift to fans for their support and loyalty over the years. The song's title comes from a line in Hamlet. In addition to members of Dylan's touring band, the song also features Fiona Apple and Alan Pasqua on piano.

What else is there to say but play this one for JFK...


Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63

A day that will live on in infamy

President Kennedy was a-ridin' high

Good day to be livin' and a good day to die

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb

He said, "Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?"

"Of course we do, we know who you are"

Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car

Shot down like a dog in broad daylight

Was a matter of timing and the timing was right

You got unpaid debts, we've come to collect

We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect

We'll mock you and shock you and we'll put it in your face

We've already got someone here to take your place

The day they blew out the brains of the king

Thousands were watchin', no one saw a thing

It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise

Right there in front of everyone's eyes

Greatest magic trick ever under the sun

Perfectly executed, skillfully done

Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman, howl

Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul

Hush, little children, you'll understand

The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand

Slide down the banister, go get your coat

Ferry 'cross the Mersey and go for the throat

There's three bums comin' all dressed in rags

Pick up the pieces and lower the flags

I'm goin' to Woodstock, it's the Aquarian Age

Then I'll go to Altamont and sit near the stage

Put your head out the window, let the good times roll

There's a party goin' on behind the Grassy Knoll

Stack up the bricks, pour the cement

Don't say Dallas don't love you, Mr. President

Put your foot in the tank and step on the gas

Try to make it to the triple underpass

Blackface singer, whiteface clown

Better not show your faces after the sun goes down

I'm in the red-light district, like a cop on the beat

Livin' in a nightmare on Elm Street

When you're down in Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe

Don't ask what your country can do for you

Cash on the barrelhead, money to burn

Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn

I'm goin' down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride

The place where faith, hope, and charity died

Shoot him while he runs, boy, shoot him while you can

See if you can shoot the invisible man

Goodbye, Charlie, goodbye, Uncle Sam

Frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don't give a damn

What is the truth, and where did it go?

Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know

"Shut your mouth, " said the wise old owl

Business is business, and it's a murder most foul

Tommy, can you hear me? I'm the Acid Queen

I'm riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine

Riding in the backseat next to my wife

Heading straight on in to the afterlife

I'm leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap

Hold on, I've been led into some kind of a trap

Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give

We're right down the street from the street where you live

They mutilated his body and they took out his brain

What more could they do? They piled on the pain

But his soul's not there where it was supposed to be at

For the last fifty years they've been searchin' for that

Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me

I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free

Send me some lovin', tell me no lies

Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by

Wake up, little Suzie, let's go for a drive

Cross the Trinity River, let's keep hope alive

Turn the radio on, don't touch the dials

Parkland hospital, only six more miles

You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead

That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head

I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline

Never shot anyone from in front or behind

Got blood in my eye, got blood in my ear

I'm never gonna make it to the new frontier

Zapruder's film, I've seen that before

Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more

It's vile and deceitful, it's cruel and it's mean

Ugliest thing that you ever have seen

They killed him once and they killed him twice

Killed him like a human sacrifice

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, "Son

The age of the Antichrist has just only begun"

Air Force One comin' in through the gate

Johnson sworn in at 2:38

Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel

It is what it is, and it's murder most foul

What's new, pussycat? What'd I say?

I said the soul of a nation been torn away

And it's beginning to go into a slow decay

And that it's thirty-six hours past Judgment Day

Wolfman Jack, he's speaking in tongues

He's going on and on at the top of his lungs

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack

Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Play me that, "Only The Good Die Young"

Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung

Play, "St. James Infirmary" and, "The Port of King James"

If you want to remember, you better write down the names

Play Etta James, too, play "I'd Rather Go Blind"

Play it for the man with the telepathic mind

Play John Lee Hooker, play "Scratch My Back"

Play it for that strip club owner named Jack

Guitar Slim going down slow

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe

Play, "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"

Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling any good

Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey

Take it to the limit and let it go by

Play it for Carl Wilson, too

Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue

Play, "Tragedy" play, "Twilight Time"

Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime

Play another one and, "Another One Bites the Dust"

Play, "The Old Rugged Cross" and, "In God We Trust"

Ride the pink horse down that long, lonesome road

Stand there and wait for his head to explode

Play, "Mystery Train" for Mr. Mystery

The man who fell down dead like a rootless tree

Play it for the Reverend, play it for the Pastor

Play it for the dog that got no master

Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz

Play, "Blue Sky", play Dickey Betts

Play Hot Pepper, Thelonious Monk

Charlie Parker and all that junk

All that junk and, "All That Jazz"

Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz

Play Buster Keaton, play Harold Lloyd

Play Bugsy Siegel, play Pretty Boy Floyd

Play the numbers , play the odds

Play, "Cry Me A River" for the Lord of the gods

Play Number Nine, play Number Six

Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks

Play Nat King Cole, play, "Nature Boy"

Play, "Down In The Boondocks" for Terry Malloy

Play, "It Happened One Night" and, "One Night of Sin"

There's twelve million souls that are listening in

Play, "Merchant to Venice" play, "Merchants of Death"

Play, "Stella by Starlight" for Lady Macbeth

Don't worry, Mr. President, help's on the way

Your brothers are coming, there'll be hell to pay

Brothers? What brothers? What's this about hell?

Tell them, "We're waiting, keep coming"

We'll get them as well

Love Field is where his plane touched down

But it never did get back up off the ground

Was a hard act to follow, second to none

They killed him on the altar of the rising sun

Play, "Misty" for me and, "That Old Devil Moon"

Play, "Anything Goes" and, "Memphis in June"

Play, "Lonely At the Top" and, "Lonely Are the Brave"

Play it for Houdini spinning around his grave

Play Jelly Roll Morton, play, "Lucille"

Play, "Deep In a Dream" and play "Driving Wheel"

Play, "Moonlight Sonata" in F-sharp

And, "A Key To The Highway" for the king of the harp

Play, "Marching Through Georgia" and, "Dumbaroton's Drums"

Play, "Darkness" and death will come when it comes

Play, "Love Me Or Leave Me" by the great Bud Powell

Play, "The Blood-stained Banner" play, "Murder Most Foul"


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