There’s a song in the new Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, “Please Mr. Kennedy.” that’s a neat parody of the humorous-topical folk songs by groups like The Chad Mitchell Trio, The Kingston Trio and The Limelighters (and The Folksmen). Actually, it’s also like a parody of a specific novelty record (the first line echoes the start of the Larry Verne hit “Please Mr. Custer”), and is thematically almost identical to another “Please Mr. Kennedy” song co-written by Berry Gordy and released as a Tamla single by a singer named Mickey Woods. (There’s another ‘60s anti-draft song, “Please Mr. President” by The Boss Five, but by that time L.B.J. occupied the Oval Office.)
So untangle all of those cultural wires, and while you’re at it, as the 50th anniversary of J.F.K.’s assassination approaches, take note of all the ways in which Kennedy was the first genuine pop President. Even before his killing inspired a slew of memorial songs (“He Was A Friend of Mine,” “There Was A President,” “The Summer of His Years,” “Abraham, Martin and John”), Kennedy was at the point where entertainment and politics collided.
There was a number one comedy album poking mild fun (The First Family, starring Vaughan Meader), and a top 10 single celebrating his heroic exploits as a Naval Officer in WWII (Jimmy Dean’s “P.T. 109,” and there was also a P.T. 109 movie). On a duet single, “Me and My Shadow,” Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. claimed that they were “closer than Bobby is to J.F.K.” Check out the All Twistin’ Edition of the Land of A Thousand Dances CD series, and you’ll find a track, “Do The President Twist,” that suggests that John and Jackie and little John-John are all twistin’ in the White House. For equal dance time, there’s the “President Kennedy Cha Cha Cha” by Linda Lanzetti, with a flip side called “Jacqueline Waltz.” The Kennedy side, at least, is an instrumental, so what Ms. Lanzetta’s role is, I couldn’t tell you.
If Nixon had won the ’60 election, it’s pretty safe to assume that the only people writing and singing about him would have been the folkies, and most likely they wouldn’t have cut him any slack, not a Red-baiting, Checkers-pandering Republican. Could there have been songs about Dick and his daughters doing the twist? Would there have been anything like Russell Faith’s “Theme For Jacqueline” (1961, Chancellor Records) for First Lady Pat? Would Marilyn Monroe have pillow-talk-sung “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” to Nixon at Madison Square Garden?
When the Kennedys were in the White House, even the protest singers, whatever their social beefs, didn’t usually call out J.F.K. personally. Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was a general prophesy, not an attack on the man with his finger on the button, and the whole “Come Senators, Congressmen please heed the call” alarm in “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” didn’t include “Come President Kennedy,” which would’ve scanned perfectly. Dylan’s “Cuban Missile Crisis” goes on about Russian ships and World War Three, and doesn’t mention Kennedy at all. The Kingston Trio recorded an album called New Frontier — the “brand” of the J.F.K. administration — with a title song by John Stewart (he later wrote “Daydream Believer”). The gloves came off during the L.B.J. (“Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation,” “Superbird”) administration, after the rollout of J.F.K. tributes that came post-11/22/63 (even Joe Meek chimed in with “The Kennedy March”).
The J.F.K./Pop connection started during the ‘60s campaign, when Peter Lawford, the Senator’s brother-in-law, was still in Sinatra’s Rat Pack, and Frank threw his muscle behind the Democratic candidate. The Sinatra clout really meant something in those days, so when Kennedy needed a rallying song, what better place to turn? Sinatra’s “High Hopes” (from the movie A Hole In The Head) was given a new set of lyrics (by Sammy Cahn): “Everyone wants to back Jack/Jack is on the right track.” It may be the only political song that includes the word “kerplop.”
There’s a book, Kennedy’s Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on JFK by Guido van Rijn, that goes deep into the musical reverberations the Kennedy assassination had in those genres. And the pop ripples continued through the decades (The Buckinghams’ “Foreign Policy,” Oliver Nelson’s The Kennedy Dream album, Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier,” Lou Reed’s “The Day John Kennedy Died,” Sondheim’s “November 22, 1963” and “Something Just Broke”…). Fifty years later, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” performed by the folk trio of Justin Timberlake, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, evokes not only one element of the early ‘60s “folk scare,” but a short time a long time ago when the Presidency and pop culture felt welded together.