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It Seems the Good, They Die Young: The Story of “Abraham, Martin and John”

Music | October 30, 2018

1968: Senator Robert Kennedy speaking at an election rally. (Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images)

The sixties were stained with a series of tragic, high-profile political assassinations which, naturally, had the nation on edge. One song, however, that was released in 1968, just three months after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, seemed to collectively speak of the profound sadness over the loss of life and the feeling of hopelessness that hung in the air. That song was “Abraham, Martin and John”. Written by Dick Holler and performed by Dion, the tune shows both melancholy and resilience in the face of tragedy. Here is the story behind “Abraham, Martin and John”.

Robert Kennedy just moments before his assassination.

Robert Kennedy’s Assassination Led Holler to Write the Song

Dick Holler was greatly impacted by the assassinations of both President John F. Kennedy and Civil Rights Leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. Although the Kennedy assassination and the King assassination were five years apart, the country was still in mourning and still reeling from both killings. When Robert Kennedy was shot and killed just one month after King, it was the tipping point for Holler. He believed that the country needed a song they could mourn by. He wrote, “Abraham, Martin and John” in about ten minutes. Although Robert Kennedy is not named in the song’s title, Holler often stated that his death was the impetus of the song.

1866 illustration of Lincoln's assassination in Ford's Theatre.

The Songwriter Connected Four Prominent Assassinations

The lyrics of “Abraham, Martin and John” are rather repetitive. In the first stanza, the song’s narrator asks if anyone has seen his friend, Abraham…a clear reference to Abraham Lincoln, the country’s 16th president who was shot and killed by an assassin, John Wilkes Booth, on April 14, 1865. The second stanza asks the same question, but this time, the narrator is looking for his friend, John. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. Again, the song’s narrator asks if anyone has seen his friend, Martin. Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot on April 4, 1968, by James Earl Ray. The final stanza is different. The narrator no longer asks where his friend is…he notes that he sees his old friend, Bobby, walking over a hill with Abraham, Martin, and John. The 'Bobby' he mentions is Robert Kennedy, who was killed by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5, 1968. 

Dick Holler

Was Dion The Right Singer for the Song?

After the song was penned, the next step was to find the right singer to record it. Gene and Robert Schwartz of Laurie Records, the record label Holler worked for, suggested Dion, the stage name of Dion DiMucci. The only hiccup was that Dion had a reputation for being a raging junkie, but he was rumored to have gotten clean. Holler and the Schwartz brothers went to a coffee house where Dion was performing to see for themselves if he was still addicted to drugs. Dion was free of the grips of drug addiction and his voice was as strong as ever. 

But Dion Wasn’t Sure he was Right for the Song

When Holler and the Schwartz brothers approached Dion about singing “Abraham, Martin and John,” the singer hesitated. First, he felt as though the song was capitalizing on the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. Second, it wasn’t the type of pop tune that he was used to recording. His other hits included “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. Holler played a demo recording of the song to Dion, his wife and her mother and it was Dion’s mother-in-law that changed his mind when she said, “It sounds like the gospel.”

The Smothers Brothers

The Song was Promoted on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”

A few weeks after Dion recorded “Abraham, Martin and John”, the singer appeared on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”. The popular variety show was known for showcasing many of the top musical acts of the time, but also for mixing in political satire. After Dion performed “Abraham, Martin and John” on the show, sales of the record skyrocketed. The song peaked at the number four spot on the pop single charts and sold more than a million copies. In neighboring Canada, “Abraham, Martin, and John” hit the top of the charts. 

“Abraham, Martin and John” Has Been Covered Many Times

A song with a message as powerful as the one in “Abraham, Martin and John” often enjoys many renditions and recordings and that is what happened with this song. Over the years, it has been covered by many artists in a variety of genre, including Andy Williams, Eartha Kitt, Whitney Houston, Mahalia Jackson, Kenny Rogers and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, to name a few.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.