Remembering JFK: Phil Ochs, “That Was The President” and “Crucifixion” (1965, ’67)

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It was the first time his wife saw him cry. When Phil Ochs heard the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he was inconsolable: “I think I’m going to die tonight, Alice,” he told his wife. “I’m going to die.”

That night, he wrote a eulogy for the man who’d fathered his dream of America: “That Was the President” is a moving mix of great sadness and abiding admiration:

Oh, I still can see him smiling there and waving at the crowd,
As he drove through the music of the band.
And never even knowing no more time would be allowed,
Not for the President and not for the man.

Fast forward to 1967, and Ochs is an accomplished singer-songwriter now. He meets Robert F. Kennedy in his Washington office. Spurred on by Jack Newfield (later present at the senator’s assassination), he improvises an a cappella performance of a song he’s written: “Crucifixion.” As the endless verses about American hero-worship and murder wash over Robert Kennedy, he begins to shake and tears come to his eyes; he realizes Ochs is singing about his dead brother.

It was a historic moment, not least because of Robert Kennedy’s tragic death a year later, which was a second major blow (perhaps the death blow) to Ochs’s vision of America. As his biographer Marc Eliot wrote: “Phil wept like a baby after Kennedy’s brains were spilled on the industrial kitchen floor of the Ambassador hotel. He cried through the night, without commercial interruption.”

“Crucifixion” is a song that could only be written in the heyday of the first folk singer-songwriter wave. Wildly ambitious, strongly literary in its use of alliteration and compelling imagery, its verses tell of the birth, rise to fame, and murder of a mythical figure compounded in equal parts of Jesus Christ and Robert Kennedy.

The choruses echo the public’s disturbing injunction to their hero: “Dance, dance, dance, teach us to be true. Dance, dance, dance — because we love you.” The word “love” is tortuously drawn out, and all the more unsettling when Ochs tells us that “beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate.” Meanwhile, “the hands that are applauding are slippery with sweat, and saliva is falling from their smiles.”

As the story progresses, we recognize this is the tale not only of John F. Kennedy, but of all American heroes that were raised to a godlike status and then cruelly punished, from JFK to Phil Ochs to Michael Jackson and beyond.

“Crucifixion” is a mythic novel in song form, in which the narrator Phil Ochs shines a piercing light on the darker side of America’s relation to its “heroes.” Yet, it’s also his second eulogy for John Kennedy, all the more poignant because Ochs later sang it for Robert Kennedy. Together with “That Was the President,” it’s one man’s heroic attempt to come to terms with the devastating grief — both for himself and for his country — that overcame him on that tragic day fifty years ago on this very day:

Here’s a memory to share, here’s a memory to save
Of the sudden early ending of command
Yet a part of you and a part of me is buried in his grave:
That was the President and that was the man.

Kasper Nijsen

Kasper Nijsen

When not submerged in translator's duties both tedious and necessary, Kasper Nijsen enjoys exploring the less-visited shores of popular music and writing about his exploits for various online magazines. Though born at the tail-end of the 1980s, his musical interests are often found to have strong links with '60s and '70s rock and pop music. Contact Something Else! at
Kasper Nijsen
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