Originally posted November 21, 2007
(When I wrote earlier this month about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and then about the fortunes this season of my favorite football teams, I inadvertently triggered a series of other posts on November in the Northland. Readers got autumnal takes from Jeff at AM, Then FM, from JB the DJ at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ and then from Perplexio at Pieces of Perplexio π. And now it’s my turn again to write about this chill month, but this time, I’m writing about a November day that, come tomorrow, will be forty-four years gone.)
Blank stares. That’s the thing I remember most about November 22, 1963, the day President John Kennedy was killed.
I was ten and in fifth grade that November, and for some reason, I’d had lunch at school that Friday. I usually walked the five blocks home for lunch, but Mom must have been away from home that day for some reason, a church women’s event or something like that. So I was in the classroom as lunchtime was ending and Mr. Lydeen came into the room with an odd look on his face.
He told us the news from Dallas, and we stared at him. I think some of the girls cried. And we spent the rest of the day milling around the room, gathering in small groups, the ten or so fifth-graders and ten or so sixth-graders of our combination classroom. We boys talked darkly of what should be done to the culprit, were he found. We were angry. And sad. And confused.
At recess, we bundled up and went out onto the asphalt and concrete playground, but all we did was huddle around Mr. Lydeen, our backs to the northwest wind. I don’t recall what we said, but I think we were all looking for reassurance, for explanation. Mr. Lydeen had neither for us; I remember seeing him stare across the playground and past the railroad tracks, looking at something beyond the reach of his gaze. The blank look on his face made me – and the other kids, too, I think – uneasy.
Mom was listening to the old brown radio on the kitchen counter when I got home from school that day – a rarity, as the radio was generally on only in the morning as we prepared for the day. And it stayed on through dinnertime, bringing us news bulletins from Dallas and Washington and long lists of weekend events cancelled or postponed. Not much was said at the table, as I recall, and I saw that same blank look on my parents’ faces that I had seen on Mr. Lydeen’s face that afternoon.
That evening, I sought solace in my box of comic books and MAD magazines. By chance, the first magazine I pulled out of the box had a parody of a musical film, one of MAD’s specialties. But the parody poked gentle fun at the president and his cabinet, and if it seemed wrong to laugh that evening – as it did – it seemed especially wrong to laugh at that. I threw the magazine back into the box and went in search of my dad, who was doing something at his workbench in the basement.
I watched him for a few minutes as he worked on something he had clamped in the vise, and then I just asked, “Why?”
He turned to me and shook his head and said he didn’t know. And I realized for the first time that the people I looked to for explanations – my parents and my teacher – were unable to understand and explain everything. That was a scary thought, and – being slightly precocious – I pondered its implications for a few days as we watched the unfolding events on television with the rest of the nation.
Sometime in the late 1990s, about five years before Dad died, I was up in St. Cloud for a weekend, and he and I were drinking beers on the back porch. For some reason, I asked him what he remembered of that day. He’d been at work at the college (not yet a university), and he remembered young women crying and young men talking intensely in small groups. And, he said, he remembered not being able to give them any answers at a time when they so needed them.
I nodded and sipped my beer. I thought of the cascade of events that followed John Kennedy’s death, the twelve or so years that we now call the Sixties: The civil rights movement and the concurrent violence, the long anguish in Vietnam, the deaths of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, race riots and police riots, the National Guard and the police opening fire and killing students at Kent State and Jackson State. I thought about draft cards, protest marches and paranoia and about the distrust and anger between black and white, between young and old, between government and governed.
And I looked at my dad and said, “Yeah, John Kennedy’s death is when it all started.”
Dad was a veteran of World War II, part of the generation that came to adulthood during the Great Depression. His generation, after it won its war, came home and lived through a hard-earned era of prosperity that will likely never be matched anywhere in the world ever again, a time of Father Knows Best and the New York Yankees. From that perspective, my father looked back at November of 1963 and then he looked at me.
“No,” he said, “that’s when it all ended.”
A Baker’s Dozen from 1963
“Do Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)” by the Crystals, Philles single 112
“Green, Green” by the New Christy Minstrels, Columbia single 42805
“Avalon Blues” by Mississippi John Hurt from Avalon Blues: The Library of Congress Recordings
“So Glad I’m Living” by Muddy Waters, Chess session, Chicago, June 6
“Corinna, Corrina” by Bob Dylan from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
“When You Walk In The Room” by Jackie DeShannon, Liberty single 55645
“Rocky Road” by Peter, Paul & Mary from In The Wind
“Time Is On My Side” by Kai Winding & the Enchanters, Verve single 10307
“Cry Baby” by Garnet Mimms & The Enchanters, United Artists single 629
“Night Theme” by Al Hirt from Honey In The Horn
“I Woke Up This Mornin’ With My Mind Set On Freedom” by the SNCC Freedom Singers from We Shall Overcome
“Magic Star” by Margie Singleton, Mercury single 72079
“Judy’s Turn To Cry” by Leslie Gore, Mercury single 72143
A few notes on some of the songs:
The Crystals, of course, were one of the girl groups produced by Phil Spector. While “Da Doo Ron Ron (When He Walked Me Home)” is not Spector’s masterpiece – I think that title goes to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” – it’s still a propulsive, fun and highly charged piece of music. And, as almost always with a Spector production, that’s Hal Blaine on the drums.
The original Christy Minstrels were a blackface group formed by Edwin Pearce Christy in Buffalo, New York, in 1843. The New Christy Minstrels, formed by Randy Sparks in 1961, was made up of generally clean-cut young people singing folk music – and new songs that sounded like folk – in a pleasant, slightly bland manner. They had three Top 40 hits in 1963 and 1964, with “Green, Green” being the most successful, reaching No. 14. Among the members of the group throughout the years have been Kim Carnes, Kenny Rogers and Barry McGuire of “Eve of Destruction” fame. (Wikipedia says the group was active as of March 2007, with Sparks and McGuire among those involved.)
Mississippi John Hurt was an anomaly during the blues revival of the early 1960s, when dozens of rural Southern performers who’d recorded tracks in the 1920s and 1930s were rediscovered and brought into studios and concert halls again. Hurt was not truly a blues artists; there are some elements of blues in his music, but he’d be better described as a folk artist – or songster, as the term was in the 1920s – with his gently syncopated songs drawn mostly from sources other than blues. Several of the tunes on Avalon Blues were songs that Hurt had recorded during his first recording sessions, for the Okeh label in 1928.
The Searchers had a mild hit with “When You Walk In The Room,” reaching No. 35 in 1964, but the song came from the pen of Jackie DeShannon, a composer and performer who hit the Top 40 herself with “What The World Needs Now Is Love” in 1965 (No. 7) and with “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” in 1969 (No. 4). Her 1968 album Laurel Canyon is a classic of L.A.-based pop rock (with one of its attractions for me being a killer version of “The Weight.”)
This recording of “Time Is On My Side” by Kai Winding, a Danish trombonist and composer, turns out to be the original recording of the song, which was written for Winding by famed song-writer Jerry Ragovoy (writing as Norman Meade). The background vocals are provided by the Enchanters, who only turned out to be Cissy Houston, Dionne Warwick and Dee Dee Warwick. The song was later covered, of course, by numerous artists including New Orleans’ Irma Thomas and the Rolling Stones. “Time Is On My Side” didn’t reach the Top 40, but Winding did have a hit in 1963: His version of “More,” otherwise known as the theme to the film Mondo Cane, reached No. 8 on the charts in the late summer of that year.
“Cry Baby” was another Jerry Ragovoy composition, this one written with Bert Berns. Most likely better known today as the second track on Janis Joplin’s final album, Pearl, the song has been recorded by numerous other artists, including P.J. Proby, Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings and Natalie Cole. The version here by Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters (again!) went to No. 4 in the autumn of 1963.
The SNCC Freedom Singers were part of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, one of the prime movers in the civil rights struggle in the American South during the 1960s. The founder of the Freedom Singers was Bernice Johnson, later Bernice Reagon, who went on to form the vocal group Sweet Honey In The Rock in the 1970s.. “I Woke Up This Mornin’ With My Mind Set On Freedom” comes from the group’s only album, released on the Mercury label in 1963.
Until I came across “Magic Star (Tel-Star)” by Margie Singleton in the last year or so, I never knew there were words to “Telstar,” the instrumental by the Tornadoes that went to No. 1 in 1962. Singleton’s record didn’t make the Billboard charts, but she hit the Top 56 at WQAM in Miami during the week of February 2, 1963, as this chart indicates. I’m assuming, without being sure, that this is the same Margie Singleton who recorded four country albums for four different labels, starting in 1965.
As always, bit rates will vary.
Those who downloaded Monday’s album know by now that the single version of “Midnight Wind” had several seconds cut off the end. I don’t know if I cut those seconds off myself while tinkering with the mp3 or whether I just didn’t pay enough attention after I found it. Either way, I apologize, and I’ll try to find a good version, although my source for the mp3 seems to have disappeared.
Edited slightly after archival posting.