TIME Music

This Music Was Inspired by John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address

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CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images President John F. Kennedy delivering his inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 1961.

A new album sets history—famous speeches read by famous people—to music

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, delivered on a cold January day in 1961, was “destined to be famed within minutes of its delivery,” TIME noted the following week.

“At last came the event that Jack Kennedy had awaited so long and worked so tirelessly to bring into reality,” the magazine reported. “To the ring of fanfares he arose, removed his black topcoat, stepped forward with Chief Justice Earl Warren and, over a closed, family Douay Bible, repeated his oath in a clear, crisp voice. Whatever lay ahead of him, this would always remain the high moment of John Kennedy‘s life.”

The speech would, in fact, become as well-known as was predicted, thanks largely to one of the most famous lines in Presidential history: “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

One sign of that fame: the speech (along with others by leaders like Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Aung San Suu Kyi) is one of the inspirations for the new album from Ted Nash Big Band. The music, Presidential Suite: Eight Variations on Freedom, was originally commissioned for Jazz at Lincoln Center in 2014. The spoken rhythms of each speech directly influenced the rhythms of the music. That meant each speech would need a speaker—in this case, celebrities and modern politicians.

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To hear an example of how the project turned out, listen to former Senator Joe Lieberman read a portion of that Kennedy speech—and then hear the music it inspired.


Read TIME’s full coverage of Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, here in the TIME Vault: The 35th

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