Dan Jewell’s stark, acoustic-guitar-accompanied dream — born in a time of national trauma and personal confusion and loss — percolated 50 years, unfinished but never forgotten.
Perhaps his own advancing years – he’s 73 now – convinced him it was time to finish the task sparked when bullets rang out in Dealey Plaza, from the Book Depository, the Grassy Knoll … or both.
“It’s a lifetime goal,” says Jewell, a retired college educator, mystery novel writer and obvious JFK enthusiast if not outright worshiper.
“I remember the weekend that Kennedy was assassinated. We lived in a trailer, a 50-by-10, while I was teaching at Eastern Kentucky. The president had been killed on Friday,” he recalls.
“I sat out on the little steps on the Sunday night after Oswald (assassin Lee Harvey Oswald) was shot, after all the things that happened that weekend and I thought ‘I’m going to write something about this.’”
“I tried my hand at it back then, but I didn’t have what it took. It was overwhelming.”
Of course the task of detailing the history and despair of darkest Dallas on that day has been carried out by historians, popular authors and half-baked movie-making conspiracy theorists.
The young professor put his own thoughts, scribblings and desire to tell this story — in reality his story as he dealt personally with innocence and hope lost — aside while he continued his job of teaching English and staging college plays.
Thirty years ago, he decided finally to tackle that task by writing a stripped-down version of the one he has completed now, in time for the 20th anniversary of Kennedy’s death. Unhappy and dissatisfied with it, he let it be, just so many pages of personal clutter as well as a reminder of a task unaccomplished … until this year and the realization that the 50th anniversary of the Nov. 22, 1963, killing of the prince of Camelot was upon him.
Dreams die hard, and his was resurrected with a sense of urgency. “I wasn’t satisfied with what I had 30 years ago, but it had two or three songs that were interesting.
“As the 50th came up, I got that play out again and got to thinking about it. I thought ‘If I’m going to do it, I’d better do it now.’”
He went about reworking the idea for the play as well as writing more songs. He completed the play, even publishing it on Kindle for $1.99 for those who are interested in a dramatic version of what happened in the young professor’s heart and soul 50 years ago.
And he followed his dream of making it into a musical, a heartfelt and searing slice of what is now called Americana music, that details in simplest words, and simpler-still instrumentation, his mood a half-century ago. The acoustic album’s words and simple melodies travel from celebration to dirge and back. The CD is available at $7.99 from CD Baby, iTunes and Amazon.com.
For a moment in the conversation, this likable English prof and mystery writer – the Goodlettsville resident specializes in gumshoe yarns that occur in Music City – mentally returns to the fateful Friday whose constant reminder is the eternal flame at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I was 23, in my first year of teaching at Eastern Kentucky State College, which was what Eastern Kentucky State University was back then.
“I was in a class. And as the door was opened at the end of class, there was all this noise in the hallway. The crowd was there with transistor radios. They were telling us that Kennedy was shot. At that point we didn’t know if he was alive or not. Everybody was clinging to the hope that he was still living.
“I was teaching a world-lit class. There’s a character in the play that recounts a similar experience,” he says, admitting without any need, that the play is “roughly based on what I experienced.”
When the president’s head exploded in downtown Dallas, the young teacher was involved in some of his favorite curriculum. “Probably, I’m guessing, I was teaching one of the Greek plays or some Greek philosopher. Possibly Plato. Possibly Sophocles.”
It is not insignificant, as he admits that the structure of his play is pretty much like a Greek tragedy…. in which the hero dies. Perhaps he flew too close to the sun.
And then there is the music itself, old-fashioned folk music, a mix of country and blues, mostly performed by Charlie Barnes, a 76-year-old country artist who Jewell and his wife, Joyce (also 73), bumped into when the older man was taking classes at Volunteer State, where they both worked.
“He had been in the music business for awhile. He continues to sing on weekends.”
When Jewell rebooted his old play for the 50th anniversary, he wrote the lyrics to seven songs chronicling the life, dreams and death of JFK as well as composed the music.
“I’ve got an old Silvertone guitar my wife gave me in 1968 for my birthday. I’ve always written stuff on it over the years.”
Some of the lyrics were written to traditional American tunes, with perhaps the most stirring being “He Was Born to Live,” sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun,” the classic American lamentation of temptation best-known for the version sung by Eric Burdon and The Animals.
Barnes, long-time sideman for Opry star Jean Shepard, brought the songs to life with his soaring and mournful country drawl. Barnes enlisted the help of Joe Pointer, who used to play harmonica for the likes of Uncle Josh Graves, Wilma Lee Cooper and Benny Martin.
Producer Jerry Webb, who owns the Project Room studio in Hendersonville, where the album was recorded, plays stark acoustic guitar on the album … just as he’s played guitar for the likes of Moe Bandy, David Church and Helen Cornelius.
One of the songs – “The Golden Cup” – is used twice, once early on in the record, performed by Barnes, and reprised by Joyce Jewell as the final track.
The tunes are tied together by Jewell’s approximation of historical radio newscasts of that dark November. “I made them up. I didn’t want to go through the process of trying to get permissions. They are short, 30 seconds to a minute, and they provide the narrative line and try to echo the songs a little bit.”
For example, “The End of November … 1963,” sung by Barnes, is followed by a 50-second “newscast” that sniper fire had hit the motorcade and that and Kennedy and Texas Gov. John Connally had both been wounded.
The other “newscast” portions detail Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby, the reporter standing along the parade route as the caisson bearing the dead Kennedy passes by and the last bit is at graveside.
“I’ve always been an admirer of John Kennedy,” says Jewell, when asked why he kept this dream alive for a half-century.
“He was my political hero. I couldn’t vote in 1960, since I was only 20 (voting age was 21 then).
“I was in school at Middle Tennessee back then. I felt like he was a really great president. A lot of the things he believed in they still make a good lot of sense today.”
The author and composer does not ignore facts that have come out in the last 50 years that dim, somewhat, the light that was called Camelot.
But in the end, the fallen president is a tragic hero, just as are the characters in the Greek plays Jewell was teaching while the president was taking on gunfire … bullets to the neck and the brain.
Jewell was just a young man when he sat on those steps in the Richmond, Ky., trailer park and decided he needed to write something to help describe his feelings.
Probably didn’t realize it would take him a half-century. But for a sense of his own mortality — the same quality which sparks bucket lists, family reconciliations and deathbed salvations – he may never have finished it.
“Kennedy was like a breath of fresh air. He had a vision: the space stuff, the civil rights stuff. I wanted to honor and remember him in my own way.”
*Images including photo of (L to R) Joe Pointer, Charlie Barnes, Jerry Webb, Dan Jewell and Joyce Jewell courtesy Dan Jewell except for Dealey Plaza photo by Cecil Stoughton (White House Photographs) courtesy John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.