Friday Five: Dead Presidents
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!
- 4. “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.
- 3. “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.’”
- 2. “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.
- 1. “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.