Part of an occasional series on a single song composed by a major American songwriter.
For those of us who lived through the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on Nov. 22, 1963, the shock will never go away. Songwriter Gretchen Peters had just turned 6, when Walter Cronkite announced on CBS News: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m., Central Standard Time."
Peters and her family lived in Westchester County, near New York City, where her father, William Peters, was a colleague of Cronkite's, a producer for CBS Reports and the protégé of broadcasting legend Edward R. Murrow.
Years later, his daughter would turn not to journalism but to music as her way of making sense of the world. Now 58, she has recorded 10 solo albums and in 2014 was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Her 2012 album, Hello Cruel World, contains a gem of a song in cut No. 10. "Idlewild" takes its name from the New York City airport that would come to be known as JFK soon after the president's death.
Peters had wanted for years, she says, to write a song that didn't rhyme, à la Paul Simon's "America." And then one night, she dreamed the opening lines of "Idlewild." When she awoke, she was surprised that the lyrics had not evaporated into the ether and, she says with a laugh, that they actually made sense. She wrote out the rest of the words and composed the melody on her guitar. What resulted is a song that covers the Kennedy assassination and the chaos of the years that followed, mixed with her family's drama, which included her parents' marriage breaking down and her beloved grandmother's advancing age.
"All of that, for me in my memory, was very telescoped," she says. "It was all part of the upheaval that was going on inside and outside my house. The '60s felt so much about upheaval and things falling apart and being blown apart. It was a fairly threatening kind of a time. Kids seek stability, and it didn't feel like there was a lot of stability for me. I think the song is what it is because I, through my child's memory, really had trouble differentiating between what was going on in the world at large and what was going on at home."
As shocking as Kennedy's death felt to a child, the tumult of the 1960s had descended on the Peters household months earlier, when civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson, Miss. His widow, Myrlie, and the couple's three children came to stay with the Peters family at their home in Pelham, N.Y.
"I was aware that the Evers family had been through this horrendous thing," Peters says. But kids, as she says, live in the moment, so hers are a child's memories. She remembers building a snowman in the front yard with the youngest of Evers' three children. A black kid from Mississippi, he had never seen snow before.
In addition to appearing on Hello Cruel World, "Idlewild" is on YouTube as a video, created by Peters, who dabbles in filmmaking as a hobby. It's full of black-and-white footage from the period. As she says, "I remember that time in black and white."
Peters' song resonates for those of us who, like her, were kids when Kennedy died. She wrote the lyrics from the viewpoint of "the omniscient child," to whom her grandmother offers a stirring emotional counterpoint.
"They both have a certain amount of remove from the situation," she says, "and from the emotional tinderbox." The child and the grandmother "didn't have much power over it but they were definitely witnesses to it."
The 1960s were a decade in which multiple assassinations occurred before the United States became the first country to send a man to the moon. Astronaut Neil Armstrong's "one small step" emerged as a seminal moment in American history, one spearheaded by John F. Kennedy. But it could never erase what happened in Dallas or the pain that would soon unfold inside the walls of a little girl's home.
"We think we're special. We think we're golden. We think we're walking on the moon," Peters writes in the newest addition to our One Song series. "But we are dancing in the dark."
Here is a YouTube video of "Idlewild" that Peters produced, and below that is a CBS Sunday Morning clip of Walter Cronkite announcing the breaking news of the president's death: