JFK Assassination Song: “President Kennedy” by Sleepy John Estes

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.

Ry Cooder’s 1972 album Boomer’s Story contains a track called “President Kennedy,” sung by Sleepy John Estes. Estes had already recorded two earlier versions of this song at key points in his long career before recording with Ry Cooder. Sleepy John Estes was one of many blues artists from the Mississippi Delta who had recorded before World War II but had drifted away from music until the blues and folk music boom of the 1960s led to their “rediscovery.” Sleepy John Estes resumed recording in 1962, having been located by musician/music historian Samuel Charters. He appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in July, 1964, and was then asked to join the American Folk-Blues Festival tour of Europe in the fall of that year. By this time Estes was 65 years old and had seldom traveled outside his hometown of Brownsville in Lauderdale County, Tennessee. He had lost his sight entirely and had been living in poverty only a couple of years earlier. Clearly the events of this period were a drastic change from the life he had known up to that point, and he would continue to reference events of this period in his various versions of “President Kennedy”.

While in London in October, 1964, Estes recorded an early version of “President Kennedy” under the title “I’m Going Home,” in which he reflects on events that had made a strong impression on him in the previous year: the death of John F. Kennedy and his newfound fame. He considers JFK “the best president we ever had” who had worked for the cause of civil rights. Reportedly homesick, Estes sang the refrain “I’m going home/Going back home/I stayed away too long,” and then transforms this sentiment into a lament for JFK, “I’m going home/He started home/He stayed away too long.” He expresses concern for Mrs. Kennedy and asserts that “Mr. Kennedy have a right to his long white robe”, but he also recalls his nervousness when he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival, according to Kennedy’s Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on JFK by Guido Van Rijn. He mentions his elevated blood pressure—it was a chronic blood pressure disorder that caused him to fall asleep at odd times giving rise to his nickname.

A few years later Sleepy John Estes recorded a revised version of the song during the Memphis Blues Festival. The Memphis Blues Festival took place in June, 1969, when interest in the blues was still high among rock fans and articles about the blues regularly appeared in the nascent rock press. Chris Strachwitz, who had founded the Arhoolie record label in 1960, took several of the major performers from the festival into Ardent and Royal recording studios in Memphis to record a double-LP set to highlight the festival. Sleepy John Estes contributed two songs, including “President Kennedy Stayed Away Too Long.” This version of the song has some differences from the 1964 version but Estes is still focused on the events of that year. He again mentions his nervousness when he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival but he expresses it differently (“When I went on the stage/I was shaking like a leaf/About 80,000 people/Had their eyes on me”). He also adds a verse about the 1964 presidential election that had not been in the 1964 version of the song, expressing his fear that Barry Goldwater would lead the United States into a nuclear war if elected (“Everybody votes/They don’t know what’s goin’ on/If Goldwater get it/We gonna have no home). Lyndon Johnson’s “Daisy ad” had only aired once during the 1964 presidential campaign but its effects were lasting.

Sleepy John Estes recorded another version of the song as a guest artist on Ry Cooder’s album Boomer’s Story, the title now shortened to “President Kennedy.” Ry Cooder’s self-titled debut album, released in 1970, had included a cover version of a Sleepy John Estes song (“Goin’ to Brownsville”), so he was no doubt happy to have Estes in the studio for Boomer’s Story, which was Cooder’s third album. Sleepy John Estes played on two tracks, and Cooder let Estes have the spotlight in his performance of “President Kennedy.” This version is concise and well recorded without losing the spontaneity of Estes’s earlier versions. Estes leaves out any references to his own experiences and puts the focus entirely on President Kennedy and the consequences of his loss. His voice still strong at age 73, Estes uses his “crying” style to great effect as he sings the refrain “But he’s gone home/Gone back home/He stayed away too long” after each verse.

President Kennedy
by Sleepy John Estes
on the Ry Cooder LP Boomer’s Story (Reprise Records, 1972)

Late one Friday evening
Everybody was sad
We lost the best president
We ever had
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

Rode from town to town
Holdin’ up for our rights
Some low down
Took the President’s life
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

Mrs. Kennedy got a mansion on an Island
Stayed 9 months, all she’d be
She have another mansion
Soon as she reach Washington, D.C.
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

Everybody votes
They don’t know what’s goin’ on
If Goldwater get it
We won’t have no home
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

White horses and cars
All in a row
I think Mr. Kennedy have a right
To his long white robe
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

President Kennedy Stayed Away Too Long
by Sleepy John Estes
originally on Memphis Swamp Jam (Blue Thumb, 1969)
recorded at Ardent Studio, Memphis, Tennessee, June, 1969

Late on [Friday]
Everybody was sad
We lost the best president
We ever had
But he gone
Gone back home
He stayed away too long

Rode from town to town
Holdin’ up for rights
Some low down
Took the President’s life
But he gone home
Gone back
He stayed away too long

Everybody votes
They don’t know what’s goin’ on
If Goldwater get it
We gonna have no home
But I’m going home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

Mrs. Kennedy got a mansion on an island
Nine months, all she’d be
She had another mansion
Since she reached Washington, D.C.
I’m going home
Going back
He stayed away too long

When I went on the stage
Shaking like a leaf
About 80,000 people
Had their eyes on me
I’m going home
Going back
I stayed away too long

White horses and cars
All in a row
I think Mr. Kennedy have a right
To his long white robe
But he’s gone home
Gone back home
He’s staying away too long

I’m Going Home (also credited as Blues for JFK)
by Sleepy John Estes
Sleepy John Estes in Europe (Delmark, 1966)
recorded at Olympic Studios in London, 1964

spoken: That’s Hammie Nixon playing

Late one Friday evening
Everything was sad
We lost the best president
We ever had
I’m going home
Going back home
I stayed away too long

I heard the news in the air
I wondered what could it be?
Nothing but the seabird
Singing a song to me
I’m going home
He started home
He stayed away too long

He rode from town to town
Holdin’ up for rights
Some old low down rascal
Took the President’s life
I’m going home
I’m going back home
I stayed away too long

spoken: I hear you, I hear you, I hear you, man, I hear you!

Mrs. Kennedy got a home, mansion
Nine months, all she’d be
And then she fly
Back to Washington, D.C.
I’m going home
Going back home
I stayed away too long

He rode from town to town
Holdin’ up for light
Some old low down rascal
Took Mr. Kennedy’s life
I’m going home
I’m going back home
I stayed away too long

Every night
‘fore I lay down
I pray to the Lord for six little children
To lead poor Sleepy John around
I’m going home
I’m going back home
I stayed away too long

I heard the news in the air
I wondered what could it be?
Nothing but the seabird
Singing a song to me
I’m going home
I got to go home
I stayed away too long

spoke: Only but two more verses. Hold it for me, Hammie, too.

White horses and cars
All in a row
I think Mr. Kennedy have a right
To his long white robe
I’m going home
He’s gone home
I stayed away too long

spoken: One more time I got to go here.

They checked my blood pressure (I was worried that day)
A hundred and three
Nothing but salty water
I had drank right out the sea
I’m going home
Going back home
I stayed away too long

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