Grief expressed in corridos and calypso
On the day that President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Alan Govenar was 11, working as a patrol boy near his school in Boston, where Kennedy was revered. He heard the news from a nearby scanner as it blared from a police patrol car.
He remembers the sudden “heightened sense of alert” and the grief that flooded throughout the world. Years later, doing graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, Govenar learned about a project a fellow classmate was
“He was writing about these Kennedy corridos,” Govenar says. “There were many of them. He did a kind of analysis of them, and that struck a real chord for me. As time went on, I started collecting these songs.”
They are songs about Kennedy, written in the aftermath of the assassination. Govenar has put together a dozen and added a recorded eyewitness account from Dealey Plaza and made it an exhibition commissioned by the International Center of Photography in New York. It is now on view in the C3 Theater at the Dallas Museum of Art.
Govenar’s lineup includes Mexican corridos, which stand as heartfelt tributes to the fallen president sung in the native style, along with country-Western ballads, one crooned by Tommy Cash, the brother of Johnny Cash. The Byrds also sing one, a staple of Turn! Turn! Turn!, their classic rock album from 1965.
The sound-video installation begins with an iconic portrait of Kennedy and a song building in the back- ground. The picture dissolves into a record label, then back to the image of Kennedy and on to the next song. The presentation plays in a mesmerizing loop for 37 minutes. Most of the songs Govenar picked were singles, on 45 rpm vinyl discs. A few were LPs, played at 331⁄ revolu
3 tions per minute.
“Listening to these songs evokes a range of emotions,” Govenar says, sitting in the DMA auditorium. “Each new recording builds a sense of anticipation that is at once haunting and startling.”
A common thread throughout the 12 he picked “is that Kennedy was a friend, even a savior.” He was beloved in Latin America, Govenar says, for being one of the few U.S. presidents to go to Mexico and for being the nation’s first Roman Catholic leader.
Govenar built his collection over the decades “through a network of people and through the Internet.” He found out about a Kennedy recording by The Mighty Sparrow, a giant in the world of calypso, through a federal judge who lives in Alaska.
Govenar first came to Dallas in 1975, arriving by bus “at the Greyhound station downtown.” He made his way to Dealey Plaza, where, at the time, “everything was boarded up. It was eerie, it was desolate, and then to walk over to that Philip Johnson memorial, everything just felt cold and stark.”
He never imagined living here, but by 1980, he was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas. He has remained ever since.
Here, he has built a reputation as a filmmaker, photographer and scholar, writing about music, blues and folk in particular. So he can say with some authority that what these songs reflect is the feeling, as expressed by The Mighty Sparrow, “that this was the most mourned person since the death of Christ.”
Kennedy, Govenar says, “symbolized a paradigm shift in American politics, and if you were swept into that, you had great hope for the future. And so, when this happened, I think it just crushed a lot of people.”
As for the music he has put together, what it reveals, he says, is that “people were giving voice to the voiceless through these songs.”
“Lamento a Kennedy,” 45 rpm record, is superimposed over a portrait of John F. Kennedy.