You just looked around, and they were gone

This is the time of the year when we are most likely to hear “Abraham, Martin and John” on the radio. You know the song. It was a hit for Dion in 1968. It’s an homage to Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John and Robert Kennedy. It’s wistful, elegiac, and perhaps a little saccharine. It has a harp.

We all, if we are a certain age, can ad-lib the lyrics pretty well, because the verses are nearly identical except for the names:

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Abraham?

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good they die young.

You know, I just looked around and he’s gone.”

There are verses for each of the four assassinated men. Three white, one black. Two brothers. Two killed within a three-month span in the first half of 1968.

When I heard the song on Sirius radio the other day, the deejay shared two pieces of trivia about its history, one surprising and one tragic. The surprising? The song was written by Dick Holler, the same songwriter who gave us the novelty fluff classic, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.” The tragic? According to the deejay, the song was written after King was murdered in April, but before Bobby Kennedy would be murdered in June. The verse with Bobby was not part of the original composition (hence the title, “Abraham, Martin, and John”). It was, the deejay explained, added just before Dion went into the studio that summer. I have no idea if that’s true, but it’s a little wrenching to consider.

I am, of course, reminding you of the song because tomorrow is the day when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. The nation once more will pause to mourn, to remember, and to look back on the life and accomplishments of the clergyman and civil rights leader who quite literally helped change the face of America.

Whenever I am on a book tour in Memphis, I take time out to visit the National Civil Rights Museum. It’s built on the site of the Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, and visitors can see the balcony where he was standing when he was killed. We can see Room 306, where he was staying. There is, obviously, a lot more. The museum offers a powerful history of the civil rights struggle in the United States.

If I ever needed a history lesson of why we needed King – and why we need him still – I got that reminder the first time I went to the museum. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the sky cerulean, and I asked the concierge at the hotel where I was staying the best way to get to the museum. He put me in a cab and I was driven. . .less than a mile. Not kidding.

I walked back to the hotel after I toured the museum and asked the concierge, “Wow, do I look that old and infirm that you thought I needed a cab?”

He looked concerned. “Not at all,” he said. “But the neighborhood can be a little. . .sketchy.”

That’s when I got it. I understood the subtext. The concierge was white.

I told him I was appalled. He told me he had to look out for the safety of his guests.

When you hear Dion’s song today or tomorrow – and there really is a chance you will – try not to get lost in the repeated verses. Listen for what is, in my opinion, its best lyric, powerful because you only hear it once:

“Didn’t you love the things that they stood for?”

Indeed. That’s why we take a moment tomorrow to honor Dr. King: It’s not merely what he accomplished. It’s what, even decades after his death, he stands for.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on January 19, 2014. Chris’s new novel, “The Red Lotus” will be published in March. His first play, “Midwives,” opens this week at the George Street Playhouse)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.