John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

Remembering “Abraham, Martin and John”

50 years after the assassination of MLK and RFK, the song still resonates.

By - Jun 15th, 2018 03:43 pm
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Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, John Kennedy.

Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, John Kennedy.

It’s a year of mind-blowing anniversaries, and fifty years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. It seems impossible, but the calendar doesn’t lie. Two of the cruelest acts in this country’s history and they occurred virtually back to back. Altamont didn’t really end the 60’s, we were already singing a dirge for Peace and Love before the Hell’s Angels added their little grace note. MLK and RFK were, somewhat reluctantly, on the same team, fighting for racial equality and an end to the war in Vietnam. This uncomfortable alliance was brought about by Dr. King’s refusal to celebrate the end of inequality the Kennedys wanted to believe had been achieved. After meeting with Dr. King and finding out they were not at all on the same page, the Kennedy’s “Mission Accomplished” moment had to be postponed. After a painful reassessment Bobby embraced a much tougher stance on civil rights.

All that is now a distant memory, but it comes rushing back in all its sadness whenever I hear Dion Dimucci’s singing “Abraham, Martin and John.” I always assumed he wrote it, but I was wrong. In what has to be one of the most bizarre bits of trivia I’ve stumbled on in the course of this blog, it turns out the writer of this ballad was the same man who gave us that deathless classic, “Snoopy and The Red Baron.” Go figure. His name was Dick Holler. He was working on a Snoopy follow up when history threw the monkey wrench, putting an end to that session. Everybody left to deal with the grief and shock, Holler got busy. “Abraham, Martin and John” was written in the wee hours as Bobby Kennedy lay dying from an assassin’s bullet. (I learned about this song’s conception in an great op-ed piece in the New York Times. Please wait till we’re done and read it here.)

As it says in that piece, Dion had just cleaned up, having been addicted to heroin. His career was in disrepair, He had no hits and would have had to take a serious look at grinding out one-nighters on the oldies circuit if fate hadn’t intervened. Holler got the lead singer of The Royal Gaurdsmen to sing the demo. (I’d like to hear that one.) As it happens, Dion was playing a coffee house 25 miles down the road and Holler and his producer pitched it to him there. Dion still had his voice and that voice was spectacular. Pliant and soulful, everything that came out of his mouth sounded real. There was always an easy swing to his phrases and he sang with the confidence of an operatic tenor. All he needed to climb out of the depths was the right song.

At first he didn’t get it and was worried about exploiting tragedy. His wife heard something different — she said it reminded her of the gospels, and talked him into recording it. There are no obvious religious references, the lyrics are plain spoken and conversational:

Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.

Has anybody here seen my old friend John,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Martin,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lotta people, but it seems the good die young
But I just looked around and he’s gone.

Didn’t you love the things they stood for?
Didn’t they try to find some good for you and me?
And we’ll be free,
Someday soon it’s gonna be one day.

Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby,
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John

© Richard Holler

This is an unusual structure. You get very far into the song without hearing anything new, aside from the three names in the title. It may seem lazy, but it isn’t at all — repetition builds tension, the main ingredient in any good song and this one gets wound up pretty tight before springing into one of the better bridges in pop music. Bridges almost always come earlier, usually after two verses. The Beatles often did them twice. But this song is different; it follows a conscious path to its denouement. After that very fine moment in the bridge featuring some of Dion’s most inspired singing, the big release happens as it glides into the final verse. Adding Bobby, the latest fallen hero, it ends with an indelible, almost comic book image, of the four men heading for the horizon.

I usually listen to the songs I write about before I start. I did that with this one too, but it was all in my head. I will treat myself to a listen when I go back to grab the URL for the video. I’m pretty sure this song still plays in a lot of heads, even 50 years after the deaths of MLK and RFK, and that’s one definition of a great song. Other songs, equally great, often feel like they fell from the stars on some lucky writer with instructions on how to complete them. These kinds of songs have stardust and good fortune sprinkled all over them. But few such songs relate the way this one does to something so fresh and painful. Yet it isn’t just its timeliness that amazes me. Unlike other songs inspired by current events (like “Ohio,” certainly a fine song), “Dion: Abraham, Martin and John” doesn’t lash out in anger, or try to match the explosiveness of events. It’s an elegy. It quietly announces not only the death of these men, but the end of a dream, the end of an era. It does so gently and timelessly, leaving you to ponder the ineffable beauty of sad songs.

3 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: Remembering “Abraham, Martin and John””

  1. For what it’s worth, my group “Dangerous Folk” will be playing this song at the 50th year of Summerfest Sunday July 1st at 2-3:30pm on the Klements Stage. We will also be at the Concordia House Tour today (6/16 from 12:30-2pm) and at the Make Music Milwaukee concert at the Beulah Brinton House this Thursday June 21st at 7-8:30pm. I’m old enough to vividly remember 1968 (I was 21 at the time and actually was a performer for the first Summerfest) and we’ve been doing this song in our sets all this year and probably will for some time to come.

  2. Christina Zawadiwsky says:

    Yes, it’s a very subtle, sad, and peaceful song. Didn’t know it was written by Dick Holler (what a name), and it’s true to the fact that people do just “diappear.”

  3. Bob Blondis says:

    What a gentle song about three giants of US history, sung by Dion DiMucci, a pioneer of rock, soul, and doo wop (when he was with the Belmonts.) Dion is still making very good records, but my guess is that only his hard core fans, like me, are buying them. His latest album is one of his best and includes a duet with Paul Simon, an ode to NYC, their hometown. There is a video on YouTube in which he discusses at length the bus tour that he was on with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and other famous rock and rollers that ended with the fatal plane crash Don McLean sings about in “The Day the Music Died.”

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