Wednesday, November 13, 2013 , Updated 7:00 a.m., November 23, 2013
NYC record label releases album of tributes to Kennedy assassination
Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll is available now.
If ever you’re going to release an album titled Tragic Songs from the Grassy Knoll: John F. Kennedy 50th Anniversary Collection, this is the month during which to do it. But Norton Records co-founder Miriam Linna insists this is no hastily compiled novelty record cashing in on a grim anniversary. Rather, says the former Cramps drummer, it’s a lovingly assembled compilation that’s taken three years to piece together. And it began with a New Yorker’s trip through Oak Cliff — or, more specifically, Top Ten Records on Jefferson Boulevard, where Stevie Ray Vaughan used to buy his blues records when he was just a kid.
Of course that’s not what it’s known for: The storefront one block from the Texas Theatre is best remembered, if at all, as the place where Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit ran in to use the phone on November 22, 1963, moments before he was gunned down by Lee Harvey Oswald. The so-called Tippit Phone remains between the counters. Matter of fact, save for the Tejano CDs and the KNON wall, the Top Ten looks just about as it did 50 years ago.
“It looks like a spot in time,” says Linna, who, three years ago, was passing through Dallas on her way to El Paso to work on what eventually became her Bobby Fuller biography I Fought the Law. “The assortment has changed a bit, but from the shelves to the Tippit telephone it looked like nothing had happened since gosh knows when. I stopped in Dallas because my brother lives there, and when I got back to New York I talked to Billy [Miller, the label's co-founder] and said, ‘There’s this wonderful record store and here’s the story,’ and we thought maybe this is really the time to get this album out.”
The 16-song disc is available today, but its official record release party won’t be till November 23 — at the Top Ten, natch, featuring former Dallasite Homer Henderson. He’s the perfect fit: The one-time one-man house band at the late, great Naomi’s in Deep Ellum is the author of the immortal “Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine,” which has been covered by Laura Cantrell and the Asylum Street Spankers, among others.
Henderson’s offering, which dates to 1985 as the A-side to the 45 that also features “Hawaiian Ungawa,” is the most recent on the record … and the most charming, the story of a boy who grew up on Beckley Avenue next door to a guy who liked to throw the ball and go fishing and who could have never ever shot the president. The other obscurities, among them James Dotson’s 1964 “A Tragedy in Dallas” and The Justice Brothers’ “Tragedy of John F. Kennedy” and Bill Kushner’s “J.F.K. & That Terrible Day” and Hayden Privett’s “The Death of John F. Kennedy,” are a bit more dour.
“The stuff is so poignant and full of feeling,” says Linna. “It’s not fabricated emotionally, and we thought it was beautiful.”
There are hundreds of songs that deal in some way with the assassination — everything from Adam and the Ants’ “Catholic Day” (“Kennedy’s wife/With his brain on her knee”) to Ozzie’s “The Ballad of Jack Ruby” to Lou Reed’s “The Day John Kennedy Died.” There are reggae instrumentals titled “Lee Harvey Oswald” and metal anthems about the moment of the assassination and everything in between.
But the songs on Tragic Songs are, for the most part, old-timey country and rockabilly offerings, which is in keeping with Norton’s “primitive” throwback ethos. Linna says it was more or less built around two offerings from the late Hasil Adkins, both titled “Memories of Kennedy,” one of which went undiscovered until recently.
“We had those songs, and we had over the years found several great songs that were recorded — plaintive hillbilly, country songs recorded about the assassination,” Linna says. “But to get an album together, we went to record-collecting friends and were able to assemble this really poignant and serious collection of artists who are probably unknown to most people. And these are topical tunes issued very quickly on very small labels. In some of them, some of the facts are wrong. One of the tunes refers to the bubble-top car. But it’s a spot in time, not just for what occurred but for how the news spread.”
And in case you were wondering why the record’s not having its record-release on November 22, there’s a very good reason: “It’s Dallas on the days between the deaths of JFK and Oswald,” Linna says. “An unhappy medium.”