Home Music Music Lists

16 Inspiring Songs That Honor JFK

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

JFK

AFP/AFP/Getty Images

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

Play video

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.

Play video

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.

Play video

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. 

Play video

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.

Play video

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?"

Play video

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.

Play video

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.

Play video

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.

Play video

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.'" 

Play video

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.

Show Comments