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.