Friday Five: Dead Presidents

Juli Thanki | August 14th, 2009

To date, only four presidents have been assassinated, which is why today’s list only contains four songs. Also, you’ve probably been put on some sort of government watch list just for reading this. Enjoy!

  • lee-harvey-was-a-friend-of-mine4. “Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine” – Laura Cantrell
    Cantrell covered this tale of conspiracy on her EP The Hello Recordings. The basic premise of the song is that Lee Harvey Oswald was a nice guy who would throw a ball around with some kids…why, he wouldn’t shoot President Kennedy! Those photos with the rifle? Faked. Of course, the song doesn’t mention Oswald’s time in the Soviet Union or his attempts to travel to Cuba. Interestingly enough, Colin Escott’s biography of Hank Williams links ol’ Hank with Oswald’s murderer Jack Ruby. Allegedly, Williams spent a few days hiding out from the mobbed-up concert booker because he didn’t show up for a gig.
  • booth-shot-lincoln3. “Booth Shot Lincoln” – Uncle Earl
    The ladies of Uncle Earl offer up a nice instrumental version of this traditional song (Tony Trischka does as well), but the song’s lyrics, which have been sung by folkie Cisco Houston among others, deserve special attention, especially the chilling final stanza: “Poor Lincoln was then heard to say/And all has gone to rest/’Out of all the actors in this town/I loved Wilkes Booth the best.’”
  • mr-garfield2. “Mr. Garfield” – Johnny Cash
    James Garfield’s time in office was the second shortest in presidential history (the non-coveted Number One spot goes, of course, to William Henry “I Died In 30 Days” Harrison). It’s generally thought that he would have survived the shooting if a bunch of doctors hadn’t stuck their dirty 19th century fingers into his open wound and given the poor guy a nasty case of sepsis. While Cash’s take on this event is a damn good song, it’s also historically inaccurate: Cash mentions going to the White House to where Garfield’s “laid up hurt.” However, the president actually died at his Jersey Shore home. If you’re interested in a song told from Guiteau’s point of view, give a listen to the aptly named “Charles Guiteau,” recorded by Kelly Harrell, Norman Blake, and a handful of others.
  • white-house-blues1. “White House Blues” – Charlie Poole
    Charlie Poole and his string band The North Carolina Ramblers recorded this one in 1926, 25 years after the actual assassination. William McKinley was another president done in by the double whammy of a gun-wielding nutcase and primitive medical care. Also, the doctor in this song has the worst bedside manner ever: “Mr. McKinley, better cash in your checks/You’re bound to die, you’re bound to die.” Now, I’m not saying that assassinating heads of state is a good thing, but in this case, it led to an excellent song covered by numerous country and bluegrass artists and the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, badass extraordinaire. So clearly there’s an occasional bright side.
  1. Truersound
    August 14, 2009 at 3:52 pm

    White House Blues is one of my favorite songs of all time. Cool list, thanks

  2. Rick
    August 14, 2009 at 6:43 pm

    Wow Juli, this is by far the most gruesome song topic yet! What’s next, songs about redneck zombies maybe? (lol) Can’t say I’ve heard or heard of any of these songs before and I can’t say I’d make any effort to check them out either. Just not the kind of subject matter I’d find relevant…

  3. Truersound
    August 14, 2009 at 9:21 pm

    ^Rick, White House Blues is a bona fide bluegrass classic, and I wouldn’t miss Cash’s Mr. Garfield either. Both great and classic songs worth checking out.

  4. Nicolas
    August 14, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    #5 should be “Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks =)

    We can just pretend he died… most of us wouldn’t miss him anyway

  5. Leeann Ward
    August 14, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Hey now, I’m not a Bush fan, but that doesn’t even get a cheap laugh from me.

    Juli,
    Creative theme this week. How do you come up with them?

  6. Nicolas
    August 14, 2009 at 10:23 pm

    @LeeAnn Ward: I am truly hurt by that =_(

  7. Razor X
    August 14, 2009 at 11:12 pm

    Stay classy, Nicolas.

  8. Juli
    August 14, 2009 at 11:47 pm

    Leeann, most of the time my strangely sentient iPod kicks up a handful of related songs that I can slap into a list, but for this one, I’ve got to give credit to my summer reading: the John Wilkes Booth biography American Brutus, and Assassination Vacation, which is a hilarious book about a not so funny subject.

    Rick, if you know of any redneck zombie songs, send them my way ASAP. Also acceptable: redneck werewolves.

  9. Jon
    August 15, 2009 at 4:06 am

    Redneck zombie songs: “Keep Them Cold Icy Fingers Off Me.”

    Poole’s “White House Blues” may have been the original, but Bill Monroe’s recording was the template followed by just about everyone else.

  10. numberonecountryfan
    August 15, 2009 at 9:46 am

    What about Buddy Starcher’s History Repeats Itself? According to my Billboard Book Of Top 40 Hits, the notes for that song reads like this: An accounting of ‘coincidental’ parallels between the careers and deaths of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. It becomes Starcher’s biggest hit, peaking at #2 in 1966!

  11. Ricki T.
    August 15, 2009 at 9:59 am

    “To date, only four presidents have been assassinated”

    Gee, sorry to disappoint, Julie.

    Good gawd.

  12. Rick
    August 15, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Juli, if you’re into redneck rockabilly vampires, then a feature article on Unknown Hinson would be greatly appreciated! (lol)

  13. Stormy
    August 15, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    Many people
    are confused about Hillbilly vampires
    They think:
    a hillbilly vampire should look like
    George Jones in a cape
    or Ricky Skaggs with fangs
    or Lyle Lovett, period.

    They think
    the hillbilly part comes first–
    the feeder not the fed upon.

    They do not understand
    that this
    is another outside industry
    come down to the hills in the dark
    for raw material.

    Amy Tipton Grey

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