When I read this week’s prompt for Song Lyric Sunday, hosted by Jim Adams, this song came to mind. In recent week’s these great men, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, have been part of my conversations with family and friends. It is times such as these where we long for strong leadership to unite us, not divide us, and help with our pain, anger and frustration. I love this version of the song by Marvin Gate and hope you do too.
I found a wonderful article from the New York Times from 2018, titled “How Robert Kennedy inspired Abraham, Martin and John. By David Margolick. Mr. Margolick is the author of “The Promise and the Dream: The Untold Story of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.”
In the time-honored tradition of songwriters everywhere, Dick Holler was peddling his wares that day in September 1968, carrying a stack of 45’s of his latest composition, so new that he had only just listened to it himself, on WABB, the principal Top-40 station in Mobile, Ala.
The performer on the record was Dion, better known for pop standards like “The Wanderer” and ”Runaround Sue” than for anything political. The song was called “Abraham, Martin and John.” A grieving Mr. Holler had dashed it off three months earlier, in the hours between the time Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot early on the morning of June 5 and the time he died a day later.
But playing it for the station’s program director, he was horrified by what he heard. Influenced by Bob Dylan, he thought, Dion had mumbled the lyrics, unthinkable for a “message” song linking the murders of Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the two Kennedys. “This is a great track, man, but you can’t understand the lyrics!” he told Phil Gernhard, who had produced the record. Too late for a retake, Mr. Gernhard replied: The record was already being played and seemed poised to make the charts.
In fact, its lyrics were almost secondary. So deep was the pain from three devastating assassinations in five years that America craved some music to mourn by. “Abraham, Martin and John” was less song than balm. (Though Robert Kennedy isn’t mentioned in the title, he gets equal billing in the song: Mr. Holler devoted the final stanza to him, ending the song by describing him ‘walking over the hill’ with the other three men.)
Boosted by Dion’s appearance a month later on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,” sales of the record really took off. Sometimes there are “perfect records in this world,” Dion (full name: Dion DiMucci) told me, and this one was “miraculous,” propping him up and keeping him on his feet after a long bout with drug addiction as well as giving him another hit. “What a song — come out of heaven or something,” he said.
In the years since, an astonishing array of artists — including Ray Charles, Andy Williams, Marvin Gaye, Kenny Rogers, Whitney Houston, Eartha Kitt, Jerry Vale, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the Brothers Four, Mahalia Jackson and Moms Mabley — have either performed or recorded “Abraham, Martin and John.”
One was Bob Dylan. When in a duet with the gospel singer Clydie King he sang, “Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he’s gone?” during his “born again” phase of the late 1970s and early 1980s, critics groused that he could have been referring to himself. In London a month later, fans assumed the “old friend John” for whom he also looked wasn’t Kennedy but Lennon, gunned down only eight months earlier. For Harry Belafonte, who also performed the song on occasion, singing the song was unusually personal: He knew three of the four men. You can read the entire article here
Lyrics Has anyone here seen my old friend Abraham? Can you tell me where he's gone? Oh, he freed a lot of people But it seems the good die young, yeah I just looked around and he was gone Has anyone here seen my old friend John? Can you tell me where he's gone? You know, he freed a lot of people But it seems the good die young, yeah I just looked around and he was gone Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin? Can you tell me where he's gone? He freed a lot of people But it seems the good die young, yeah I just looked around and he was gone Has anybody here seen my friend Bobby? Can you tell me where he's gone? You know, he freed a lot of people But the good, they die young, yeah I just looked around and he was gone