JFK Assassination Song: “Abraham, Martin and John”

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

“Abraham, Martin and John”, written in 1968 by Dick Holler, tries to make sense of the assassinations of progressive leaders throughout American history. Abraham is Abraham Lincoln, who was president during the Civil War and was assassinated on April 15, 1865. After the bloody Battle of Antietam in 1862, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Though this proclamation was limited (it only freed slaves in areas that would subsequently come under Union control) and slavery would not be ended in the United States until after Lincoln’s death with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln came to be known as the “Great Emancipator.” Martin refers to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who rose to national prominence during the year-long boycott of the bus system in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and 1956. His leadership of the grassroots civil rights movement undoubtedly helped to end institutionalized racism in the United States. John is, of course, President John F. Kennedy, assassinated on November 22, 1963. Though Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights is debatable, and the major civil rights legislation (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) was passed after his death, Kennedy had increasingly supported the civil rights movement during his administration and Lyndon Johnson capitalized on the sentiment created by Kennedy’s death to get this legislation passed through Congress. “Abraham, Martin and John” devotes a verse to each man, stating “He freed a lotta people but it seems the good they die young”.

A popular idea that emerged after the death of John F. Kennedy was the supposed list of coincidences between the assassinations of JFK and Abraham Lincoln. I remember my grandmother giving me a mimeographed list of these coincidences and it fascinated me. This list dates back to at least August, 1964, when it was published in Time and Newsweek magazines.

Lincoln was elected in 1860, Kennedy in 1960. Both were deeply involved in the civil rights struggle. The names of each contain seven letters. The wife of each president lost a son when she was First Lady. Both Presidents were shot on a Friday. Both were shot in the head, from behind, and in the presence of their wives. Both presidential assassins were shot to death before they could be brought to trial. The names John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald each contain 15 letters. Lincoln and Kennedy were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson. Tennessee’s Andrew Johnson, who followed Lincoln, was born in 1808; Texan Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.

A version of the list appeared in Martin Gardner’s column in Scientific American, attributed to Gardner’s fictional alter-ego Dr. Matrix. Like most of his writings about Dr. Matrix, Gardner made interesting observations about numbers and created clever puzzles for his readers to solve. Dr. Matrix claimed to have originated the list and then went on to claim that the JFK assassination had, in fact, been numerologically predicted:

Both the FBI and the Secret Service, had they been skilled in the prophetic aspects of numerology, would have been more alert on the fatal day. The digits of 11/22 (November 22) add to 6, and FRIDAY has six letters. Take the letters FBI, shift each forward six letter in the alphabet, and you get LHO, the initials of Lee Harvey Oswald. He was, of course, well known to the FBI. Moreover, OSWALD has six letters. Oswald shot from the sixth floor of the building where he worked. Note also that the triple shift of FBI to LHO is expressed by the number 666, the infamous number of the Beast.

Gardner wasn’t so much trying to debunk the Kennedy-Lincoln Coincidences list but rather to spoof it, as he often did with pseudoscientific thought. One of Gardner’s themes was that it was fairly easy to come up with lists of all sorts of numerological coincidences, but that these had very little meaning. Despite Gardner’s best efforts, the list has become an urban legend of sorts. The list has been expanded upon over the years, mocked and debunked, but the idea that the Lincoln and JFK assassination are linked remains in the popular consciousness. “Abraham, Martin and John” takes this idea and builds on it, particularly focusing on the notion that these figures “were deeply involved in the civil rights struggle”. The song serves as an elegy to those martyred in the cause of freedom, adding Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy to the list. “Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?/Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?” the song asks in the bridge, followed by “And we’ll be free some day soon/It’s gonna be one day”.

This song was a hit for Dion in 1968, released within months of the deaths of Martin Luther King, assassinated on April 4, 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy, assassinated on June 6, 1968. The country was trying to come to terms with these tragedies, which took place less than five years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Though Bobby Kennedy is not mentioned in the title, the final verse of the song is devoted to him, concluding with “I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill/With Abraham, Martin, and John.” The Smothers Brothers invited Dion to perform the song on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in November, 1968. The usually comic Tommy Smothers gave the song a straight introduction, “We first heard this next song on the radio and we thought so much of it and thought it was such a great song we thought we’d like to have it on the show so that more people could hear it and see it performed.”

Several artists recorded their own versions of this song, including Andy Williams (1969), The Miracles (1969), Moms Mabley (1969), Harry Belafonte (1969), Leonard Nimoy (1970), Marvin Gaye (1970), and Ray Charles (1972). One of the most notable versions of this song was an audio collage assembled by Tom Clay, combining “What the World Needs Now Is Love” with “Abraham, Martin and John” along with sound clips associated with the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Bookending this recording is an adult asking a small child the meaning of segregation, bigotry, hatred and prejudice. Tom Clay’s recording, released in 1971, broadened the theme of these songs to address the turmoil of the times, suggesting that the war in Vietnam, the urban rioting and the assassinations of the 1960s were fueled by hatred and bigotry.

Abraham, Martin and John
by Dick Holler

Anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people but it seems the good they die young
You know I just looked around and he’s gone

Anybody here seen my old friend John?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone

Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed lotta people but it seems the good they die young
I just looked around and he’s gone

Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free some day soon
It’s gonna be one day

Anybody here seen my old friend Bobby?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin, and John

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