Monday, January 17, 2011

Abraham, Martin and John

Victor Hugo wrote that "music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent." Maya Angelou said "Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness." Sometimes, all of us need to crawl into that same space.

In 1968, following the murder of Robert Kennedy, Dick Holler wrote the second of the songs for which he is best known. The first was written two years earlier and recorded by the Florida rock band, the Royal Guardsmen. Based on a recurring theme from cartoonist Charles Schultz's Peanuts comic strip, it is called Snoopy Versus the Red Baron.

Holler's 1968 composition is Abraham, Martin and John.

Dion DiMucci was a writer and singer of songs about teenage angst and apprehensions, most of which were far, far better than I've just made them sound. Dion had already enjoyed great success with his group the Belmonts, and in his solo career as well.

If Holler never wrote this particular song, and if Dion had not recorded it, both of them would still be remembered for the other things that they did with their time and their talents. I don't believe that either man needed to worry about how good this would look on his resume.

Dick Holler created a simple, sad tune, and he fused it to a set of unpretentious lyrics. The first three verses are identical, save for the names of the three men that they honour - Abraham (Lincoln), John (F. Kennedy) and Martin (Luther King Jr.). There is no mention of their deeds, their accomplishments or their titles - Holler has taken it for granted that we're aware of those. Neither does he mention why they were gone, because we know that too.

The fourth verse begins as the others did, and concludes with the powerful, iconic image of the last character, Robert Kennedy, walking over the hill with his older brother and those other two good men.

Dion had matured and changed in 1968, and it's apparent in his performance. His clear, quiet, honest voice perfectly expressed the shock and sorrow that many of us were feeling. It didn't hurt that John Abbott's arrangement and Phil Gernhard's production of the record were seamless and flawless.

"Country music," says Harlan Howard, "is three chords and the truth." I suppose that might make this a country song. By any definition, it's a wonderful piece of work.

Martin Luther King Jr. was born on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, and he should have been eighty-two years old last Saturday. In 1983, Ronald Regan signed a bill creating a US federal holiday in Dr. King's honour. The holiday falls on the third Monday in January. In 2011, that Monday is today.

Be well, friends - Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day, neighbours.


  1. Lee, may I add a comment about Martin King's father. I think he was called Papa King senior. Both were Baptist ministers. Both had advanced University degrees, I believe PhD's. I read a biography about Papa King once. He was an amazing man, determined to get an education when it was difficult, and Negro men were not expected, in fact, when many thought they were not intelligent enough to handle University. But old Papa King perservered. He was determined to make a better life for himself, as well as for his people. Also, there was a tragic shooting. A crazy man (black), went into Papa King's Church, and shot persons, killing Papa King's wife, who was playing the organ. I am going on memory here. but Papa King gathered his family, a day after this tradegy. He kept saying..."No hatred....No hatred....." warning his family members not to succumb to revenge. Papa King was a genuine, deeply Christian man, a hero in his own life, and living in a time of pretty tough, descrimination. His son Martin, then, had a good model in his Father, for living with moral courage.

  2. I struggle to find a better description of the writing of Abraham, Martin and John.
    Well done.

    David Holler
    Zurich, Switzerland

  3. I have no idea how to respond to your comment, David, other than to thank you very much. Your dad wrote a really wonderful song that moves me as much each time that I hear it as it did the first time.