Down in Dallas Town: From JFK to K2 (dir. Alan Govenar) Documentary Arts. 73 minutes, 2023

By Robert M. Marovich

Perhaps no other person outside of Jesus, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, and Casey Jones has received as many tributes in song as President John F. Kennedy. Among the flood of responses to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, Texas, in November 1963, was an abundance of recordings by independent artists and established stars alike, including in the gospel field.

Snippets of some of these musical tributes serve as the soundtrack for Alan Govenar’s documentary Down in Dallas Town, which streams on Amazon starting Presidents Day, Monday, February 19, 2024. Those familiar with Guido van Rijn’s book and companion CD Kennedy Blues will recognize the recordings, which run from blues and folk-rock to gospel, country, calypso, R&B, and norteño (van Rijn, an international expert in topical popular song, is interviewed for the film).

But viewers expecting yet another examination of an already well-examined tragedy will be in for a surprise. Govenar’s film takes the long view. While he reckons with the assassination, he also aims his lens at the social fallout of Kennedy’s as-yet-unrealized pledge to eradicate poverty—right in the city where the president was killed. Govenar also uses the assassination as a springboard to look at America’s continued fascination, more than sixty years after the shots rang out in Dallas, with guns and with the epidemic of gun violence.

Hence, the title Down in Dallas Town has a double meaning: it’s a reflection of the tragic day in November 1963 and the reactions of regular people, principally through their photography and music; and a consideration of the poverty, homelessness, substance use, and crime that persist in Dallas into the 21st century. In other words, viewers who come for the history and the music will leave with a tragic sense of the social cost of Kennedy’s assassination.

The Stewpot, a Dallas-based nonprofit that helps homeless and at-risk persons, plays a major role in the film. Those who enter its doors are trying to find a way out of no way. In a particularly affecting scene that underscores the maxim that no good deed goes unpunished, The Stewpot’s annual gun buyback program is countered by a another gun buyback across the street promising to pay higher prices. The latest scourge on the street, as the documentary points out at the end, is the synthetic cannabinoid K2. The unpredictability of this potentially fatal drug has not slowed its use. The more progress we make, the further we have to go.

The JFK tributes by gospel artists that made the soundtrack include those by the Jewel Gospel Singers, the Sensational Six, Ollie Hoskins and the Dixie Nightingales, and the Southern Bell Singers. Most, if not all, were recorded in the aftermath of the assassination as a way to memorialize the fallen leader and tap into the potential financial bonanza of topical songs (spoiler alert: the gospel artists didn’t benefit).

Although the mood of the documentary is like a requiem, there are moments of optimism, such as when a talented guitarist named Gerald Williams, down on his luck, escapes homelessness through music and religion.

In the end, Down in Dallas Town mingles heartbreak with hope. If Kennedy’s commitment to end poverty, as he articulated in his 1961 inaugural address, has yet to happen, his request to “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” is evident in the work of agencies like The Stewpot and those whose music and photography contributed to a public healing.

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Written by : Bob Marovich

Bob Marovich is a gospel music historian, author, and radio host. Founder of Journal of Gospel Music blog (formally The Black Gospel Blog) and producer of the Gospel Memories Radio Show.