JFK Assassination Song: “I Saw John Kennedy Today” by Luke Powers

November 22, 2013 will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. This post is part of a series that will run throughout this year focusing on songs that address the JFK assassination.

I Saw John Kennedy Today” was written and recorded by Luke Powers and released in 2006 as a track on his album Picture Book. In this bit of Americana, Luke Powers sings of having a brief encounter with John F. Kennedy many years after his assassination. In this parallel universe JFK had decided he’d had enough of being president and was looking for an escape. On November 22, 1963, JFK slipped away to buy a pickup truck and explains, “My double caught a bullet in the head/And I was free because I was dead”. After that he left behind all of the trappings of celebrity and responsibilities of high office to live a simple life on the road in his pickup truck. “All I needed to get by/Was a truck and a highway to ride.” In the song the narrator concludes, “and he sure looks happy enough”.

“I Saw John Kennedy Today” is unique among JFK assassination songs, not to mention one of the cleverest of songs referencing any historical figure. Most JFK songs are homages or articulate some sort of conspiracy theory, while others use the event as a historical marker, including “list” songs such as R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”. “I Saw John Kennedy Today” doesn’t fit any of these categories. Instead, the song is on its own imagining an alternative reality where JFK is still alive. In fact, half of the verses are in the voice of “John Kennedy.” The video Luke Powers made for this song consists of a series of still images that contrast the menacing forces opposed to JFK with the appeal of a simple life living on the open road. “Who would want such a job?” the song asks, which is all the more perplexing given that we know how it all turned out for JFK. Perhaps on some level we want to believe John F. Kennedy was somehow able to live out his days in peace. Of course, then there’s that poor double….

I spoke with Luke powers on the phone recently and he told me the story of how he came to write “I Saw John Kennedy Today”. He was driving in downtown Nashville and saw a man in a red pickup truck who looked very much like John F. Kennedy. I asked him if he looked like JFK looked in 1963 or if he was an older man. The man Luke saw was “vintage Kennedy” and had the look of someone out of time. Not only did he have a JFK-style haircut and Ray-Ban sunglasses on, but the pickup truck also looked like a well maintained truck with from a bygone era. Luke turned around to follow the guy but after two blocks he was just gone. A strange experience, to be sure, but he says he didn’t think much more about it after that. The encounter stuck in his mind, though, because that night he had a dream where the events of the day reemerged. In the dream Luke was in the Exit/In in Nashville and R.E.M. was on stage. In his dream R.E.M. performed a song called “I Saw John Kennedy Today”. According to Luke the song in his dream was completely realized and he got up the next day and wrote it down. He did point out, however, that R.E.M.’s version was more jangly and “R.E.M.-ish” than the more countrified version he recorded.

I saw John Kennedy today
by Luke Powers

I saw John Kennedy today
He ain’t dead like they say
He’s driving a pickup truck
And he sure looks happy enough

He was out on old Route 6
We were both stuck in traffic
He was wearing his vintage shades
But he sure didn’t look his age

I yelled, “Hey, is there an accident
And weren’t you the president?”
He just sat there for a while
And then he flashed his Kennedy smile.

He said, “Son, it occurred to me
Way back in ’63,
I no longer had to be
President Kennedy

And I didn’t need Jackie O
Didn’t need Marilyn Monroe
All I needed to get by
Was a truck and a highway to ride

Well in Dallas it was my luck
I snuck out to buy this old truck
My double caught a bullet in the head
And I was free because I was dead

I’ve been driving along ever since
Food and gas are my only expense
Wherever the road takes me
You know the girls are always friendly.”

I saw John Kennedy today,
He waved as he pulled away
He’s driving a pickup truck
And he sure looks happy enough

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