“Abraham, Martin and John ( & Bobby)”

The memory of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, has taken many 2000-7388_Mphysical forms, which have reflected the ever-changing collective perspective of the public. His essence embodies various monuments, statues, and paintings that commemorate his legacy He is the ultimate muse and icon that has transcended history through memory. According to Schwartz, Abraham evokes “five primary images- Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator Man of the People, First (Frontier) American and Self-Made Man.” Over time, certain representations have gathered more recognition and significance than others. The revision of his legacy can be best perceived through the medium of music. The artistic flexibility that music provides broadens the range and the overall expression of the time period. Music is a snapshot that allows other generations a glimpse of what was considered important during a specific interval of time. The legacy of Abraham Lincoln has never been more omnipresent than during the Civil Right Movement of 1960. The African American experience transformed itself into a narrative, in which Lincoln was the forerunner, who began the fight for civil rights, which now fell on the hands of African Americans to finish. In this case, Lincoln embodies the “Great Emancipator.” (Schwartz) Through the image of Lincoln, the Civil Right movement unveils the invisible chains that still restrain African Americans from asserting their rights.

Lincoln has been mentioned in many songs elevating their significance. It is as if his name alone summons all the virtues and qualities of what it means to be a leader- a poor to riches story, a story of resilience and strength in which he manages to lead a fragmented nation etc. His name conjures up a grand span of images that help illustrate a greater concept of leadership, which others words fail to do. Lincoln’s name is included in the song “Abraham, Martin, and John (& Bobby)”. Written by Dick Holler in 1968, “Abraham, Martin and John (& Bobby)” made its splash debut in late 1968 with Dion DiMucci, a rock artist who was making his comeback to the music scene after rehabilitating from a heroin addiction. (Freeland) With this single, Dion placed in the No. 4 spot on the Billboard’s pop chart, reaffirming his career. After its release, the songs has been covered by many artists like Andy Williams (1969) Moms Mabley (1969), Brothers Four (1969), Smokey Robinson & The Miracles (1969), Marvin Gaye (1970) Mahalia Jackson (1970), Tom Clay (1971) Ray Charles (1972), Kenny Rodgers (1976), and Bob Dylan, who performed it during his tour in 1981. By the sheer number of covers, the message behind the lyrics resonates with various groups particularly with the African American community.

Narrowing the scope of the trajectory of the song to a specific artist, one can perceive the immense influence it had on the African American community. Marvin Gaye, a soul artist that covered the song, began his political mindset with “Abraham, Martin, and John (& Bobby).” Gaye reinvigorated his career in the late 1960’s. Like Dion, Gaye was going through a turbulent time in his life in which he was facing various personal demons such as drug addictions, depression, the death of a close friend etc. The song itself reflects not only his inner shift of mentality but also the social drift that was occurring internally and externally in the “black protest of African Americans and the resistance within the community.” (Neal) This song is Gaye’s first experiment with social messages in his work. “Gaye’s recording culminates an era of black protest activity as well as providing a synthesis of many narratives of protest within the African-American experience.” (Neal) In other words, Gaye’s soulful tunes act as a unifying factor in the African American community. The genre of Soul was the ideal avenue to express a communal sentiment since it is a hybrid between blues and gospel music. It is an assembly of a “hyper-community in which the church and the notions of space and community, including all the political and social meaning” (Neal) mix. Soul was the voice of African Americans. The prestige of soul granted any soul artist, like Gaye, a leadership role within the community since the represented “the dominant icon of freedom and liberation within mass culture.” (Neal) By covering this song, Gaye attempts to inculcate to the community King’s non-violence demands while participating in mass civil disobedience. Gaye became an avid interpreter of the Civil Right Movement, where, with his music he described the sentiment of the African American experience. Following this song, Gaye’s career becomes more politically and socially charged, mimicking the African American respond at the time.

During the late 60’s, the Civil Rights movement screeched to a halt due to the assassination of civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In the same year, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, President John F. Kennedy’s brother and a fervent supporter of the Civil Rights Movement was also killed. The song was written as a way to commemorate the fallen leaders, who died fighting for African American liberties. The songs significance revolves around the first man that is mentioned, Abraham Lincoln. By naming him first not only in the song, but in the song title, Lincoln’s legacy is awakened from the past, and is brought to the present where he serves as the first trailblazer in the fight for African American civil justice. In a way, he becomes the father of the rest of the men within the song. By being the first, he establishes the precedent of leading in adverse conditions and being able to make the tough decisions. He was the pioneer that demonstrated the will to do anything in order to unite the nation once again. His actions transcended beyond the representation of “Savior of the Union” and made him the “Great Emancipator” (Schwartz) From here roots the African American experience, a narrative where “[textbooks post 1965] name slavery an evil, define its psychological effects, displays pictures of human neck yokes, slaves being auctioned and laboring in the field, runaways being captured, [and] black citizens being brutalized.” (Schwartz) The African American experience becomes a more open discussion and the emancipationist change of Lincoln is reflected within textbooks that were printed during the years of the Civil Right Movement. The importance of “Lincoln’s racial attitudes, his concerns for the well being of emancipated slaves, and the accomplishments of African American leaders,” (Schwartz) are embedded within the lyrics of the song.

The memory site of “ Abraham, Martin and John (& Bobby)” provides an appropriate example of how Lincoln not only becomes the first leader that took active action on behalf of African Americans; he is the first important public figure to be assassinated. In this case, Lincoln becomes the father of the assassinated. Being the first assassinated American president, it was difficult to figure out how Lincoln was going to be commemorated since “commemorating Lincoln, America also had to face the Civil War.” (Foote 49) It is not until the mid 20th century when a collective consensus of how Lincoln was going to be remembered was agreed upon. Through retrospective nominalization, Lincoln’s vilified reputation was replaced with being the defender of the union; he is now considered one of the greatest presidents of all time. (Foote) The song mentions Bobby Kennedy “walkin’ up over the hill/With Abraham, Martin and John” (Holler), extending the illusion that in the afterlife, Lincoln was the only one present to receive John, and together they received Martin. By using Lincoln’s name, the grandeur of the former president is unleashed. His sanctification raises the status of the other three leaders in the song, unifying their beliefs. King, and both Kennedys are regarded to the point of apotheosis. However, just as they are placed on pedestals, there is also an equating factor that only death can accomplish. Even with the fame that surrounds them, there is an ease in which the community relates to them. Death humanizes these prominent figures. Their dedication to bring civil justice and their approachability drives them to be recognizable martyrs. The fascination of their assassination

The song still continues to be covered by various artists in different genres of music. However, it is hard to track down how many times the song has been covered. For many, the song has become a template to memorialize other prominent figures who died early in life. The song was once again introduced to a mainstream audience in 1997, when Whitney Houston sang a rendition of the song in concert in Washington D.C. The concert, Whitney Houston: Live Washington D.C. was aired on VH1 and HBO, extending the performance to TV viewers. Bedsides small renditions of the song through out the following years, the song resurfaced again at the White House. Smokey Robinson performed it in 2010 at the White House Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement. Robinson claims the song “reminds him of a time of great sadness, and each time [he] sings [the song], it brings back the memory of men who [the nation] has lost.” “Abraham, Martin, John (& Bobby)” gets acknowledged as a significant site of memory, where sentiments of the Civil Rights Movement are harbored within the lyrics. It is the ultimate remembrance of all the men that passed away so that somebody of color has the opportunity to be president of the United States. It marks that change indeed was possible. The martyrs are an avenue for reflection of what has been overcome as a country and what is still left undone. It is a reminder that, even though change occurred, more changes can happen.

Lincoln’s presence will continue permeate American society. His legacy will remain a constant factor, due to his status as a “Great Emancipator” (Schwartz) His change in remembrance broadens his commemoration, expanding the range in which individuals and communities relate to his memory. In the song “Abraham, Martin and John (&Bobby), Lincoln morphs into the main pioneer of the fallen, as he leads the procession of martyrs through the era of the Civil Right Movement; an era of great lost and tragedy, in which the African American experience rings out through the music and lyrics of various artists of the time. The dark theme of assassination becomes a uniting bond, which connects a previous event in history, to contemporary time, increasing the significance of the movement. By anchoring itself to Lincoln’s memory, the martyrs of the 60’s become immortalize. Placed on pedestals, they stand; over looking the on going fight against discrimination and prejudice. The song’s relevance resurfaces solemnly during the term of President Barack Obama as a response to the progress being made. The memory of Lincoln will constantly change, and those changes will dictate how his legacy will be perceived as it transcends through history.


Work Cited:

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