The Turbulent Times Behind the Song “Abraham, Martin and John” by Dion

The songs that resonate with us the longest are those that tend to combine passion, poignancy, and personal reflection. All three of those elements are well represented in the song “Abraham, Martin and John.” Written by Dick Holler in the aftermath of the successive assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, the song was first recorded by Dion and released on Laurie Records in August 1968. Cover versions by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Moms Mabley, and Marvin Gaye followed a year later. 

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Nevertheless, it was Dion’s version that had the most immediate impact, and that helped Dion make the transition from a doo-wop star of the late ’50s and early ’60s—who, with his vocal group The Belmonts, hit the pop charts with such songs as “Runaround Sue,” “Ruby Baby,” and “The Wanderer”—to a bona fide folk singer. His troubles with heroin addiction had waylaid his career, but when he signed with Laurie Records, he was given a chance to reboot on the condition that “Abraham, Martin and John” become his first release for the label.

The record would go on to become a Top 5 hit and the vehicle for a comeback that eventually led to a brief reunion with The Belmonts, a career in Christian music, and continuing credibility as a blues singer. He is still much admired by notables such as Pete Townshend, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed, the latter of whom was given the honor of inducting Dion into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Dion (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images)

“Abraham, Martin and John” was written and recorded at a turbulent time in American history, when the country was rocked by the division caused by the Vietnam War and profoundly shaken by the murders of three men who had risen to the ranks of American icons. Yet the song begins by drawing a parallel to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln just over a century before. Consequently, each verse reflects on one of the men name-checked in the song’s title. It sets the tone by remembering Lincoln.

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

The final verse ties the song together by bringing Robert F. Kennedy into the narrative, name-checking him in a last lingering verse: I saw him walking over the hill, with Abraham, Martin, and John. Even now, a listen can bring a lump to the throat along with sheer dismay that these great men were taken so long before their time. 

While the song marked a turning point in Dion’s career, it was also a decided change of pace for Holler, whose earlier claim to fame had been the 1966 bubblegum hit “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” for the band The Royal Guardsman. Holler happened to be in New York City on June 5, 1968, working on a new album with that particular band when word came that Bobby Kennedy had been gunned down following his victory in California’s Democratic presidential primary. He was awakened in the middle of the night and given the news by his partner and producer Phil Gernhard. After watching the news unfold on television all night, they mutually agreed to cancel the session scheduled for that day, prompting Holler to return home to Florida. He later recalled that the song came quickly, in a matter of only 10 minutes. He then turned on a tape recorder and made a simple demo. 

In an interview with The Tennessean newspaper in 2020, Holler told writer Dave Paulson that he originally envisioned The Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary cutting the song, and in the process of finding the right singer, a number of artists were auditioned. “I’m not a great singer. I’m average,” he recalled. “We tried a lot of singers and it wasn’t working out, so we went to Hialeah, Florida, where I met Dion for the first time. He was just coming off of his drug problems. Actually, we were looking at him to see if he would be suitable. You never know.”

Now, looking back over the expanse of some 55 years since the song was originally released, it’s clear they made the right choice. The song still resonates with the same sadness and sobriety now as it did then. 

Given the pall of turmoil and tragedy that hangs over the world these days, it seems nothing has changed. A bittersweet elegy, “Abraham, Martin and John,” reminds its listeners of what might have been had such tragedy not befallen the country.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives_Getty Images

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