16 Inspiring Songs That Honor JFK - Rolling Stone
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16 Inspiring Songs That Honor JFK

From the Police to Tori Amos, check out these unique ways musicians paid tribute to the President


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On Nov. 22, 1963, the Beatles released their second album, the Beach Boys played to a record-breaking crowd in Marysville, CA, and Elvis Presley wept with gal pal Ann-Marget as they watched the shocking news on television about President John F. Kennedy's assassination.

Before that day, rock and roll was still in its happy-go-lucky infancy. After that fateful convertible ride through Dallas, the '60s became The Sixties, and a fast-maturing rock and roll would help guide the cultural and political shift waged by a generation that began to question the ways of the world. As we recognize the 50th anniversary of the day JFK was shot this week, here are some of our favorite musical nods to Kennedy and the tragedy that shattered Camelot. – PAT PEMBERTON

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The Police, ‘Born in the ’50s’

Front man Sting, who had picked up his first guitar two years before the Kennedy assassination, worshipped his mother, Audrey Sumner. His earliest memories included her playing piano at their home in England and at the beginning of this nostalgic tune, he describes how his mother, a hairdresser, reacted to the sad news from another continent. "My mother cried when president Kennedy died," he sang in this song from the band's debut album in 1978. "She said it was the Communists but I knew better."

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Pearl Jam, ‘Brain of J’

After JFK's autopsy, his brain was placed in a container and secured in a locker at the National Archives. But three years later, his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, discovered that the brain and other autopsy materials were missing, giving conspiracy theorists affirmation that a cover-up was at work and giving Pearl Jam's Mike McCready a memorable first line: "Who's got the brain of JFK?"

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Otis Spann, ‘Sad Day in Texas’

Kennedy, whose Civil Rights Act was passed after his death, was viewed favorably by the African-American community despite his privileged white background. As a result, numerous blues and gospel songs were written in tribute after his death, including "A Man Amongst Men" by Big Joe Williams, "President Kennedy Gave His Life" by Mary Ross and "He Was Loved by All the People" by Jimmy Brown. 

When Kennedy was assassinated, Spann was working as a session pianist for blues label Chess Records and performing full-time with Muddy Waters. In his memorial, he laments, "Only man I ever loved in my life was my President Kennedy."

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The Byrds, ‘He Was a Friend of Mine’

In late 1963, the Byrds' lead guitarist Roger McGuinn rewrote this traditional folk song as a eulogy to the fallen leader. While the line "from a sixth floor window, a gunner shot him down" suggested that Lee Harvey Oswald was a lone assassin, band mate David Crosby had another opinion. 

Just before the band performed this at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, Crosby told the audience, "He was not killed by one man. He was shot from a number of different directions — by different guns. The story has been suppressed, witnesses have been killed, and this is your country."

It was later rumored that the rant prompted the other band members to give Crosby the boot, though he said years later the band had simply drifted apart. Still, McGuinn admitted in one broadcast interview that the statements peeved him.  "Come on, give me a break," he said. "He didn't know anything more than anybody else. He was just trying to be Mr. Cool up there. I resented it, frankly."

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The Beach Boys, ‘Warmth of the Sun’

After learning of Kennedy's death earlier that day, the Beach Boys debated whether to cancel their planned show in Marysville, CA. Ultimately, they decided to perform and to a record-breaking crowd at the Marysville Civic Auditorium. Sometime around that show, this calming song was written – though the precise timing is unclear. 

In the 1995 documentary "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," Brian Wilson recalled bandmate Mike Love asking him after the show, "Do you want to write a song in tribute to JFK tonight?" 

"It was a spiritual night," Wilson said in the film. "We got going and a mood took over us."

However, Love told the Miami Herald they had written the song the day before the assassination. Meanwhile, in "The Beach Boys: The Definitive Diary of America's Greatest Band on Stage and in the Studio," concert promoter Fred Vail was quoted saying they started it hours before the assassination and finished it just after.

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The Dream Academy, ‘Life in a Northern Town’

A tribute to songwriter Nick Drake, this song looks back warmly on the winter of 1963, when it "felt like the world would freeze with John F. Kennedy and the Beatles." In making the video, producers Leslie Libman and Larry Williams shot footage with Super-8 film through car windows as they drove through industrial towns in Wales and England and steel towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Williams also used footage he shot as a 10-year-old of Kennedy when he was campaigning in York, Pa.

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Bob Dylan, ‘Chimes of Freedom’

Three months after the assassination, Dylan suggested the band take a detour on their touring route from Jackson, Mississippi, to Denver, so they could visit Dallas, according to Robert Shelton's definitive biography, No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan. Once there, they drove their station wagon along the president's fateful route, trying to surmise how it could have gone down.

That same year, he released "Chimes of Freedom." While Dylan insisted it wasn't about Kennedy, the song closely follows the lines of poems he wrote in the aftermath of the assassination that clearly were about JFK.

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Lou Reed, ‘The Day John Kennedy Died’

In life, Lou Reed was known to have an obsession with death, a topic that came up frequently in his work. In this deep cut from 1982, he recalls his memory of the day Kennedy died. A student at Syracuse University at the time, the song describes being in an upstate bar watching football on television when an announcer broke in and announced the tragedy. Afterward, Reed continues, a stunned crowd gathered in the street outside the bar.

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John Lennon, ‘God’

During the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, a feature by Mike Wallace became the first piece about the Beatles to air in America. Two hours later, Kennedy was assassinated, thwarting the planned second airing later that night. When the Beatles arrived in America the following February — landing at the newly named John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York — Americans had something to bring them out of their depression.

While the Beatles strayed from writing about the tragic event that preceded their arrival, years later Lennon, exploring his own personal painful experiences, would break down several perceived idols and myths in this solo song that declared, "The dream is over." The moving-on lyrics list a bevy of his own idols, including Dylan, the Beatles and Kennedy. 

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The Rolling Stones, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’

The Stones learned of Kennedy's death backstage at the British TV show Ready, Steady Go! which featured the band for the second time on Nov. 22, 1963. (That same day, the Beatles performed two shows at a theatre called The Globe in England.) Five years later, Mick Jagger, partly inspired by French poet Charles Baudelaire, began writing a song in which the devil brags about the nasty deeds he'd committed. The line "I shouted out, 'Who killed Kennedy?' was changed to "who killed the Kennedys" because JFK's brother, Robert, was assassinated during the song's recording.

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Billy Joel, ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’

When he first heard of Kennedy's death, Billy Joel once told the Associated Press, he first tried to console a fellow eighth grade classmate who was crying. Then he took a long walk, feeling "a deep bitterness and a despair I had never before experienced in my life." Years later, after hearing too many stories about the good old days, Joel wrote this song to prove the good old days weren't always good, pairing the good and bad events that shaped his youth, including, as he angrily put it: "JFK blown away, what else do I have to say?"

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The Human League, ‘Seconds’

The song "Don't You Want Me," from the band's 1981 album Dare, was an international hit inspired by a teen magazine. But while that poppy song remains a staple of Eighties compilations, a lesser known song from that album took a more somber approach. In "Seconds," the narrator berates JFK's killer, singing, "It took seconds of your time to take his life."

In live performances, the British New Wave band, which opened with this song at the V Festival in 2012, would often project slides onto the background of the stage, depicting images of Kennedy and the assassination.

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Tori Amos, ‘Jackie’s Strength’

While at an airport, Tori Amos picked up a paperback about Jacqueline Kennedy. "It had pictures of her on her wedding day and the next page that famous shot," Amos told the Toronto Star, speaking of the photo of Kennedy sitting in a motorcade with her just-murdered husband. "Within just a turn of a page it was like the beginning of a dream of a life with your love and then the next page it was all over." She wrote this song — connecting to her own losses — on the plane home to England.

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The Postal Service, ‘Sleeping In’

In the song's first verses, the electronic duo seem to adopt the Warren Commission's conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing the president. "There was never any mystery of who shot John F. Kennedy," the song declares. "It was just a man with something to prove, slightly bored and severely confused." But later the song suggests it's merely a dream that things are exactly as they seem, shooting down our initial impression of the song.

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Simon & Garfunkel, ‘The Sound of Silence’

Feeling alienated after the assassination, Paul Simon briefly moved to Europe before writing this folk classic.

The song's mournful feel captured the mood of the nation, its somber opening reflecting dark times. "I wrote it when I was 20 or 21," Paul Simon told the Los Angeles Times, "around the time of the Kennedy assassination. I was still living in Queens and I used to sit in the bathroom with the running water in the sink and write because the echo against the tile was nice. I'd also turn off the lights, which is probably what led to the opening line, 'Hello darkness, my old friend.'" 

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Phil Ochs, “Crucifixication’

On a shuttle from Washington, D.C., to New York, Ochs began singing this folk song with lyrics about JFK's fall. As he did, Robert F. Kennedy — who was sitting near the back of the two-thirds empty plane — began to cry, suddenly realizing the song was about is brother, according to the documentary Robert F. Kennedy: A Memoir.

In This Article: JFK

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