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Once a while in time.png

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Tenor, Piano

7 min.



Once a while in time is a set of three songs drawn from letters by the American public to Jackeline Onassis Kennedy in response to the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in November 1963.

The text is drawn from various mentions of time throughout the collection of letters held by the Kennedy Presidential Library – some literal (“on a Saturday”), some circumstantial (“as he sat thinking”), some affective (“when those parts of us were changed”) – from people like 10 year-old Susan Elizabeth Lane who wrote a poem for her English class about Jackeline’s daughter Caroline’s horse, Private Robert W. Zemecki of the US Army who had previously been spiteful of President Kennedy for delaying military action in Cuba, or Arlene Simrin who had waited in the cold of Pennsylvania with her daughter for three hours so they could shake the President’s hand. The compilation of these references to time give rise to a story that floats somewhere between the particular thoughts of a single person and the collective utterings of a grieving nation.

Music for the song set is collaged from tiny bits of Willie Nelson’s “Ain’t it Funny How Time Slips Away” whose cover by 1960’s pop country singer Billy Joe Royal was on the Billboard Top 40’s chart the week of the assassination, and was recorded throughout the following decades by country artists Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, household sould music names like Al Green and Little Anthony, and eventually Nelson himself. The song is a slow ballad on how love and memory fade with time. The narrator chats with his old sweetheart, first with hollow small talk, then with a tongue-in-cheek comment about her new lover, and finally a bitter goodbye as he leaves town.

The music for Once a while in time piles transcribed fragments from these various recordings on top of one another to form a blurry patchwork of tenor and piano lines made from crooning vocals, lap steel harmonics, and off-the-cuff keyboard embelishments. Throughout the three song set the fragments become clearer and clearer, eventually reaching on extended quotation from the climax of Nelson’s tune...a plain- spoken, biting lyric that was eerily prescient the day Kennedy died:

“Do you remember what I told you, that in time you’re gonna pay? Ain’t it funny how time slips away.”

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