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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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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.

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