Various Artists

Can't Keep From Crying: Topical Blues on the Death of President Kennedy

(Testament Records)

Copyright © 2000 by David Reitzes

On November 22, 1963, the world came to a stop as the news spread that President John F. Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, Texas. Nowhere was this news greeted with a greater outpouring of grief than in the rural and urban black communities across the country, for whom John F. Kennedy had been a beacon of hope in the wilderness of American racism. William Manchester's The Death of a President chronicles the reaction of Kennedy's peers to his murder, but documents of the sorrow and loss felt by the black community are few and far between. This makes Can't Keep From Crying: Topical Blues on the Death of President Kennedy all the more valuable.

Before JFK, US presidents had inspired their share of topical blues and folk songs, but most were in the spirit of J. B. Lenoir's "Eisenhower Blues," lamenting a President's policies, not his loss. (Lenoir would coincidentally pen several blues songs about the Vietnam war, one of which blasted Lyndon B. Johnson for preaching about peace while waging war.) On November 22, 1963, however, numerous blues musicians eulogized the President they had just lost, and the result is a heartfelt testament to JFK's impact upon the poor and disenfranchised.

"I tried not to cry, but the tears keep flowing on down," sings Vicksburg, Mississippi native Johnny Young, in a candid and moving expression of grief about the President's death that, by today's standards, seems almost impossible to comprehend. Even more astonishing is piano blues legends Otis Spann's declaration that JFK was "the only man I ever loved in my life." ("And I also loved his wife," Spann adds without a trace of irony.) "We'll never have another President," he laments, "and I don't want nobody else."

Aside from expressions of loss, the sentiment most often expressed on this collection is aptly summed up by husband-and-wife duo James and Fannie Brewer, who ask the same question that continues to plague so many of us today: "I Want to Know Why."

Sporting thirteen tracks in all, this CD is a unique document of precisely what John F. Kennedy meant to so many, and why he continues to inspire admiration. Other highlights include singer-guitarist John Lee Granderson's "A Man for the Nation" amd "A Man Amongst Men" by the great Big Joe Williams.


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