11/24/2014 02:06 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

JFK: In the Summer of His Years

51 years ago, on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. When people think of that sad event this week, the music isn't the first thing they think of. In truth, the entire day of his burial was filled with extraordinary music by some of the nation's finest artists, classical artists and military bands, choirs and soloists, hymns and patriotic numbers.

Even now, some people vividly remember the music of the nine pipers of the Black Watch from the Royal Highlanders, who played from the White House to the National Cathedral. Like many, I remember the playing of "Taps" at Arlington National Cemetery. I also remember that the Navy hymn, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save," was performed. It makes me mist up whenever I hear that hymn, even now.

In the days that followed, a host of artists in the popular music world released tributes to the president. Most are long forgotten. The one that resonates most with me from that dark time was the Byrds' reworking of an old folk song, "He Was a Friend of Mine." Then about thirty years ago, a single line in the Dream Academy's beautifully melancholy "Life in a Northern Town" struck me like few others have before or since: "In the winter of 1963/It felt like the world would freeze/With John F. Kennedy and the Beatles." I don't know why that lyric always gets me, but it does.

What many people don't realize today is that the Kennedy assassination profoundly shocked the African American community. Kennedy was widely considered the first president to actively advocate for civil rights reform, though Franklin Delano Roosevelt had made strides for his time as well.

And like the mostly white popular music community, black artists composed and released many, many songs related to the event. Gospel artists were no exception. According to Guido Van Rijn's Kennedy's Blues: African-American Blues and Gospel Songs on JFK, so profound was the grief felt by African Americans following Kennedy's assassination that at least 47 songs about the president were released in the days that followed. Again, many were one-shot affairs, quickly recorded within days of November 23 and with limited distribution, heartfelt but forgettable. Those of include "My Friend Kennedy" by Brother Sidney Harris and his Sunset Jubilees; "Take Courage" by Rosie Wallace and the Choir of the First Church of Love, Faith and Deliverance; "The Day the World Stood Still" and "Let Freedom Ring" by the Sensational Six of Birmingham; "Assassination" by the Dixie Nightingales; "Tribute to a Great President" by the Birds of Harmony; "Story of President Kennedy" by Brother Will Hairston; "J.F. Kennedy's Reservation" by Ronda Mitchell and Mrs. Lovell; "A Light That Shines" by Rosie Wallace and "The Modern Joshua" by the Jewell Gospel Singers.

But of all the gospel songs written and released to commemorate the too-short life of John F. Kennedy, none have endured and been as celebrated as the Dixie Hummingbirds' 45 RPM "Our Prayer for Peace," backed with "Come Ye Disconsolate" (Peacock 3013), released in early 1964. The Birds' biographer, Dr. Jerry Zolten, notes that "Our Prayer for Peace" has remained a staple of the Hummingbirds' concerts, a dramatic, emotional gospel song with direct references to the assassination, a nation's grief, and a heartfelt call to repentance: "Let every man know, Father/Let them know that it is a sin/To hate his brother because/Of the color of his skin."
But few felt the loss as keenly as Mahalia Jackson, who had met, campaigned, and performed for the president on numerous occasions. In the midst of rehearsals for another appearance on the Danny Kaye television show in California, Jackson sobbed "inconsolably" at the news. According to her biographer, Laurraine Goreau, a host of radio and television stations across the country asked her go on the air and plead for calm. The following morning, she recorded "Deep River" with Kaye's orchestra and it would be "years before Halie could sing 'Deep River' again."

Within weeks of the assassination, at the request of Columbia Records, she recorded "In the Summer of His Years" as tribute to the fallen president. Much of the music Jackson recorded for Columbia lacked the power and inspiration of the glorious gospel music she had recorded for Apollo Records. These songs were inspirational, rather than emotional, designed to appeal to people of all denominations and faiths and offend no one. Jackson knew it, of course, and always fought hard to include at least one genuine gospel song on each album.

"In the Summer of His Years" was not a gospel song. It had been written by the pop duo of Herb Kretzmer and David Lee and was quickly recorded by Connie Francis, Kate Smith, Bobby Rydell and others. None of the versions sold particularly well.

But Mahalia's reading remains the definitive version, in part because she alone infuses the words with a quiet dignity and pain, conveying a loss that she felt and continued to feel for years.

For some of us, 51 years later, this song alone remains the soundtrack of those terrible, terrible days in November 1963:

Yes, the heart of the world weighed heavy, with the helplessness of tears,
For the man cut down in a Texas town, in the summer of his years.

Robert F. Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, Volume I (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)