“Murder Most Foul”
SONG CORNER BY Anne Margaret Daniel, New School
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
— Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Free,” 1962
In November 1863, as the Civil War blazed on, an eighteen-year-old Baltimorean named David Bachrach traveled in a buggy to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to photograph President Abraham Lincoln as he delivered what would be known as the Gettysburg Address. The young man quickly made a name for himself as a prominent portraitist in the relatively new medium. Almost a century later, in 1959, David’s grandson Fabian Bachrach was hired to photograph his Harvard contemporary, Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Fabian’s portrait of Jack would become President Kennedy’s official White House photograph.
Bob Dylan released his first original song in eight years on March 27, 2020, just after midnight. “Murder Most Foul,” which centers on and circles around Kennedy’s November 1963 assassination, uses the Bachrach Studios portrait as its associated image. It’s a crop of the portrait, sepia-toned, what one would normally but cannot in this case call a headshot without cringing. The song’s title appears in Gothic sans, in gold, right under Kennedy’s chin. The song is one second short of being seventeen minutes long. Staring into the young president’s clear eyes, with the care lines to come not yet present, looking at his perfectly combed thick hair and smooth half-Windsor knot to his tie and what you know to be a Brooks Brothers two-button pinstripe suit, becomes overwhelming quickly if you know the history of which Dylan sings. If you’re just learning it, you’ll be overwhelmed by the end, too.
Once upon a time, a very young, nervous, and intoxicated Bob Dylan was roundly booed at the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Bill of Rights dinner. The committee was giving him the Tom Paine Award at the Americana Hotel in New York, with a writer he much admired, James Baldwin, in attendance. The night was December 13, 1963, and in closing his short speech Dylan babbled out, “I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where—what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too—I saw some of myself in him.” This Everyman attempt utterly failed, particularly before a liberal audience deep in mourning for JFK, not yet a month dead.
Dylan tried to explain himself to Nat Hentoff in June 1964 by pleading that both he and Oswald were “up tight” and that was what he’d meant. In 1977, he hypothesized to Jonathan Cott about things forever-mysterious: “It’s something you can only feel but never really know. . . . Any more than you can know who killed Kennedy for sure.” In his autobiography, Chronicles, Volume 1 (2004), Dylan speaks of Kennedy with praising grace.
From that first seventeen minutes to subsequent quarter-hours-plus, one does not so much listen to “Murder Most Foul” as be washed over by it. The song ebbs and flows. It comes at you not in lines or verses, but in ripples and waves. “Tempest” may be his song about the Titanic, but “Murder Most Foul” is titanic, oceanic. You stand not on a smooth beach but a rocky shore, nowhere to sit or to safely set your feet, and the song comes at you like the sea. The litany of the long ending—all the lines beginning with the word “play”—comes at you with a beating rhythm, incessant, insistent, really more a catechism than a litany, for what you’re being told is didactic and instructive, and meant to be repeated: the last line of the song is the directive to replay it.
The instrumental opening is quiet, baritone, and very like the instrumentals backing Dylan’s Nobel Lecture in Literature, recorded in Los Angeles on June 4, 2017. Tony Garnier’s big bass bow (or is it Donnie Herron playing a low cello?) resounds. And then come delicate keyboards, multiple keyboards, in a manner not unlike Dylan’s, but with a far lighter, brighter touch. His flat-fingered jazzy, sometimes boogie-woogie style is different. Fiona Apple and Alan Pasqua play piano on “Murder Most Foul,” while Benmont Tench mans the Hammond organ. Dylan’s statement, coincident with its release, that the song was recorded “a while back” could have meant anything, but evidently “a while back” meant early 2020.
The tune, a stately grazioso suited to the gravity of the matter, is pleasing but unremarkable, neither memorable nor danceable. The import, and importance, of “Murder Most Foul” is in the lyrics. Its words are short, easy to understand, and land with great force, particularly when describing Kennedy’s murder. Ann Wilson of Heart recently termed them “Hemingwayesque.” In the past, Dylan’s official website has not released the official words of new songs for months or even years. The lyrics to “Murder Most Foul” were posted there within days. This swiftness emphasizes the importance of knowing what he’s saying, of reading the lines and rhymes, and remembering them.
“Murder Most Foul” is composed in rhyming couplets, which Dylan has reveled in for decades, and an intermittent anapestic tetrameter. Dylan has an ear for rhyme as keen as Lord Byron’s or Alexander Pope’s, and he knows well the rhythms of scansion and the power of prosody. The song starts with two quotations, altered and combined:
‘Twas a dark day in Dallas—November ‘63
The day that will live on in infamy
Tommy Durden’s 1967 song “Dark Day in Dallas” begins: “‘Twas a dark day in Dallas, a dark day indeed / When death walked the streets of big D and then reaped the fruit of the Devil’s seed.” Kennedy’s most popular Democratic predecessor of the 20th century was a president also known by his initials: FDR. Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy” in his Pearl Harbor declaration of war address. November 1963 brought America another infamous day, also inflicted on its own soil, and as catastrophic in its consequences as the attack that finally brought America into the second World War. Dylan has borrowed Durden’s start, with the archaic and therefore eternal-sounding “’Twas,” and made of Kennedy’s assassination day not “a date” but “the day” of infamy.
To treat the entire song as I’ve just done the first two lines not only would take many pages, but would also be a disservice to Dylan’s song. He is not composing a poem to be parsed, but a song to be listened to and taken in in its entirety. This essay will accordingly continue to be about “Murder Most Foul” and the connections that both compose it and hold it together, discussing it as a mosaic whole, instead of zooming in on the fragments of which the art is made. I do think of Dylan’s songs as mosaics, as collages, akin to those tactile arts but composed of words and music. “Murder Most Foul” is a mosaic like those made by Antoni Gaudí that now are synonymous with Barcelona, like those by Squire Vickers and Eric Fischl, Yoko Ono, and Willie Birch that greet New Yorkers in MTA stations. It is an American mosaic made of cultural, historical, and musical references. “Murder Most Foul” could be a quilt, in the windmill or double wedding ring patterns for the way it rolls in circles and returns to concepts as it unfolds, but a quilt is comforting and warm. The song is neither. Though it sometimes reassures with familiarity, it leaves you unsettled, sad, and thoughtful.
Pay very close attention to not just the words, but their linguistic forms, in “Murder Most Foul,” this song whose title leads off with a word that can be a noun or a verb. From its opening, the ongoing act on a “good day” of “to be living” ends hard, with the imperative stating that is ultimately a good day “to die.” Dylan’s pronouns, as ever, refuse to be nailed down. A line reads “Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?” and it’s shocking: Dylan is ventriloquizing a man about to be “shot down like a dog in broad daylight.” When the “I” returns, it slips and slides, from the singer / narrator (“I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age”) to the dying President (“Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear / I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier”). Who are the “we” and the “they,” styled as a collective of killers? Dylan deploys “they” to intense effect in his songs, and it generally stands for whoever the ominous opposition might be: “They’re selling postcards of the hanging / They’re painting the passports brown” or “They’ll hang you in the morning and sing ya a song” or “They’ll be drownded in the tide / And like Goliath, they’ll be conquered.” Is he saying, here in “Murder Most Foul,” that Lee Harvey Oswald did not act alone? Dylan always engenders more questions than he’ll ever answer. Even when answers come, if they come in this song it is usually from the “they.” Don’t trust them. Flee and condemn their actions and words.
Can a murder be a “perfectly executed” magic trick? The execution is in the phrase itself. The foul murder of old King Hamlet looks like a trick; someone pouring poison in the porches of the ears. Like killing words it enters, in a gross parody of one of the most common artistic constructions of the Virgin Mary receiving the Annunciation. Dylan takes the song’s title from Act I Scene 5 of Hamlet, in which the father’s ghost informs his horrorstruck son that his death was a murder “most foul, strange and unnatural,” a fratricide. His own brother Claudius, young Prince Hamlet’s uncle—and now married to his former sister-in-law, old Hamlet’s widow and young Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude—has killed the king. Dylan knows his Shakespeare as well as any leading actor; I’d have given a lot to see him enact the title role in Hamlet, when he was suited most to it, for my money, in his wild spring season of 1966. Now in the older years of a Lear or Prospero, Dylan continues to find in Shakespeare, as well as in classical and contemporary literature, ageless fire that he uses for his own purposes.
Like James Joyce, however, Dylan will never use a word or phrase that means one thing, when he can use a word or phrase that means two things, or more, or has a homonym meaning something completely different. Yes, “murder most foul” is a phrase from Hamlet. It is also the name of a wacky 1964 movie starring Margaret Rutherford as Agatha Christie’s detective Miss Marple. The (very loose) plot of Murder Most Foul concerns a repertory acting company putting on murder mysteries in which real murders occur. Shards of the unlikeliest literary works crop up in the film, including Robert Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” Were Service’s poem, in spectacular rhyming couplets, or his widely popular volume Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912), works Dylan has known well for a long time, ever on his mind as he wrote?
Section 2 of the song, as divided up in the official lyrics, sweeps through the rest of the 1960s from the “English Invasion” and arrival of The Beatles in February 1964, to Woodstock and Altamont. Echoes of lines from Warren Zevon, whom Dylan admired and celebrated by performing his songs live as Zevon was terminally ill in 2002, appear here, and later, in “Murder Most Foul.” The imaginative landscape of this section spreads wider, with quotations from Kennedy and Nellie Connally, the First Lady of Texas in 1963, mixed together with three bums in rags, shooters aiming for the Invisible Man, and Robert Johnson’s crossroads. The line “Black face singer—white face clown” is a reminder not only of minstrel shows and Al Jolson movies, but Dylan’s own Rolling Thunder Revue, and scenes in his 2003 movie Masked and Anonymous. Still, the setting, if that is the right word, of this section remains primarily Dallas: the triple underpass, grassy knoll, Dealey Plaza, Elm Street, Deep Ellum. A concluding mention of “Oswald and Ruby”—killer and killer—as sources for “the truth and where did it go” keep things tied firmly to Kennedy’s assassination.
Section 3 begins to fragment into the musical references, or playlist, that constitute most of the rest of the song. The framing text is still, chillingly, from Kennedy’s point of view. Lyrics from other songs clash against the frames of William Zapruder’s film: I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine; I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap. Why is the Zapruder film, if that is the “it” in question in the lyrics, “deceitful”? Because it does not show the truth of who shot Kennedy? Or does that truth not matter, and only the fact of the man’s death that begins the “age of the anti-Christ”? Lyndon Baines Johnson was sworn in on Air Force One, and a nation threw in the towel. Johnson did, too. A master of the Senate, Kennedy’s vice president was elected easily by the stunned nation he was leading in 1964, after getting the Civil Rights Act passed. However, Johnson hated being president and as the Vietnam War escalated and the Democratic party fragmented, with Robert F. Kennedy running against him, he announced in March 1968 that he would not seek the nomination. After Bobby was assassinated in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, just after midnight, Johnson refused to change his mind, and Richard M. Nixon was elected.
Robert Weston Smith of Brooklyn, New York, known from 1963—the year of Kennedy’s death, as if we needed reminding—as Wolfman Jack, one of America’s best known disc jockeys and radio personalities, is called upon to spin the long list of songs, sprinkled with movie, literary, and cultural mentions, that ends “Murder Most Foul.” Although What’s New Pussycat seems at first a throwback to the classic movies Dylan has referred to by mentioning characters without naming them, as in Gone With the Wind and On The Waterfront, to me it is more a recognition of the triviality of pop culture, post-November ’63, in the poppiest of ‘60s movies. What’s New Pussycat?(1965), with a screenplay by Woody Allen and the title track sung by Tom Jones, stars Allen, Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Romy Schneider, Capucine, Paula Prentiss, and a host of famous cameo faces from Ursula Andress to Richard Burton. It centers on psychotherapy and adultery, and it features the silliest of all the silly 60s-movie car chases (go-karts; a rural French village; women in leopardskin catsuits and Valkyrie costumes complete with spear). And Dylan goes and rhymes the mention of this farce with “I said the soul of a nation been torn away.” He’s a king of 18th-century twisted chiasmus, Dylan is, welding the sublime and the ridiculous together like Pope or Jonathan Swift, John Wilmot or John Gay. He has always been good at this in his lyrics, but “Murder Most Foul” astounds. Why is it specifically “thirty-six hours past judgment day”? Perhaps because of 36 Hours, another 1965 movie, starring James Garner and Eva Marie Saint. The film 36 Hours, though set during WWII, runs along the lines of its far more famous 1962 predecessor, The Manchurian Candidate. Its lobby poster tagline was “Give me any American for 36 hours and I’ll give you back a traitor.”
Litanies are part of religious responses, and of children’s rhymes. The rhythm and rhyme and repetition make us remember them. “Murder Most Foul” ends with a litany that, as I’ve said, is more a catechism. It’s didactic and instructive, directing Wolfman Jack and you on what to listen to. It also puts you into a trance. You don’t want to dance. Sit still and listen. You’re not given any other choice.
Dylan eschews the potential triple rhyme of Jack—black—Cadillac for a simple “long Cadillac,” which is, possibly, a line from the dirtiest car song ever recorded, “Mr. Thrill” (1954). Dylan, assuming Wolfman Jack’s seat as dj, played Mildred Jones’s classic version on the “Cadillac” episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour in 2007, and then cracked, “A song that’s kinda like a single entendre.” Every single song mentioned in “Murder Most Foul” will carry with it different connections, different meanings and memories, to every listener. If you’re familiar with the music he’s speaking of—and he wants you to be, saying “write down the names”—it’s a week of music shoehorned into fifteen minutes, filling your head with everything. It’s personal for every listener. For example, “Tom Dooley,” in the Kingston Trio’s 1958 version, was the second ballad I ever learned to sing, after “Barbara Allen,” from my North Carolina mountain grandmother. Dylan has personal connections, too, to the songs he chooses. “St. James Infirmary” has been sung thousands of times by Dave Van Ronk, and, after him, by Rambling Jack Elliott. It’s a cornerstone in Dylan’s own musical history that involves both men.
Actual people always occupy space with Dylan’s lyrical phantasmagorias: think of Einstein and T.S. Eliot sharing the song with Dr. Filth, the superhuman crew, and lovely mermaids in “Desolation Row.” “The Man with the Telepathic Mind” was William McCaffrey, a card magician extraordinaire. McCaffrey, of Cratfon, Pennsylvania, dazzled America in the 1930s and 1940s with his magic tricks. While blindfolded, he could tell mystified people at parties the serial numbers on dollar bills they held. The musicians Dylan names here are real—Carl Wilson, Etta James, Stan Getz, Beethoven, and so many more—but then there are “Mr. Mystery,” “the Lord of the Gods,” a dog with no master, and merchants of death. These names break the flow of the song titles and the playlist, keeping you jumpy, on edge, waiting for the unfamiliar or weird to drop. And Dylan keeps on with his use of portmanteau phrases that contain multitudes. John Lee Hooker’s “Scratch My Back” is actually Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” Guitar Slim (New Orleans bluesman Eddie Jones) was dead in New York City when he was just 32. Dylan chooses Slim’s dismal song “Goin’ Down Slow” to be played for “me and for Marilyn Monroe.” It’s suited to a woman some believe to have been destroyed by her association with the Kennedy family. Who, though, is the “me”—the singer of the song? JFK? The listener? Monroe predeceased Kennedy; she died in her Los Angeles home on August 4, 1962. How can she be listening? History is become topsy-turvy in the wake of JFK’s assassination. Nothing is linear anymore. Remember that Dylan once sang “I have no sense of time,” something he shares as an artist with Hamlet (“Nay, ‘tis twice two months, my lord”). Time is confining. Be not for an age, but for all time.
In two 1965 interviews, Dylan praised Eric Burdon and The Animals and their recording of “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” which is a song written for Nina Simone. Which version does he want played for the First Lady, who in massive understatement “ain’t feeling that good”? Either? Both? Does it matter? Eric Burdon tells a great story about the song. “Paul McCartney’s wife at the time [Linda Eastman], dragged me to Hunter College” in April 1969 to hear Simone perform. After the show, they waited backstage to meet Simone and her husband, Burdon recalled: “She said, ‘So, you’re the little white motherfucker who took my song and ruined it.’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am, I knew I shouldn’t have come here.’” Both performers had a hit with the song; both made it part of music history in the years after Kennedy’s death.
Don Henley and Glenn Frey are here. Randy Meisner, however, who sang lead on “Take It to the Limit” and wrote most of the song, doesn’t make it into “Murder Most Foul” along with his Eagles bandmates. The Eagles make a subtextual connection to the next couple of musicians, Carl Wilson and the unnamed Warren Zevon. “Desperado” is one of the Eagles’ best-known songs. Dylan’s lyric bridges into Carl Wilson’s fade-out on his collaboration with Zevon, “Desperados Under the Eaves”: “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away.”
“Take Me Back to Tulsa” should be its rollicking, jolly self thanks to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. They held court at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa for decades, and still smile down from the walls—along with Dylan, who has also played there. Yet Cain’s is situated on dark and bloody ground. The strip of downtown Tulsa called the Greenwood District was once also called the “Black Wall Street” of America: it was the wealthiest African American community in the country. But over Memorial Day weekend, 1921, nearly 40 blocks of downtown Tulsa were sacked and burned. Hundreds were killed and thousands injured in what Greil Marcus, speaking at the first World of Bob Dylan symposium in Tulsa in 2019, rightly called not the Tulsa race riots but “the Tulsa pogrom.” Scene of the crime, indeed. The new Bob Dylan Center, housing Dylan’s own archives, will be situated in the Greenwood, fronting on what is today called Reconciliation Way.
The succeeding hymn can’t quell the pain, though it’s a good golden standard. “The Old Rugged Cross” is surely something to cling to. But the line ends with “In God We Trust,” the official motto since 1776 of “America,” and what’s been written on our American money since 1864—money, which is the secondary cause, after racism, of the Tulsa pogrom in the first place. Everything circles back in “Murder Most Foul,” lyrics spinning out in what looks like a widening gyre, and then collapsing back into a flashpoint focus on a connected detail. The next spin begins with Ride The Pink Horse, which is a 1946 novel and 1947 film noir with Robert Montgomery, a merry-go-round, and a lot of shady doings down in Mexico. “Long, Lonesome Road” is an unrelated song, but the concept of the lonesome road can’t be confined to just one song. Doc Watson and Frank Sinatra both looked down it, and Paul Robeson sang it best in “Show Boat.” Then, suddenly, when you have no idea at all what will come next, “wait for his head to explode” is a horrific reminder of the Zapruder film. Dylan’s not going to let us forget for one moment the man who is staring at us as we listen to the official video and try to understand why these songs, and why in this order.
“The man who fell down dead, like a rootless tree” ends in an arresting phrase, with its powerful natural image of fallen greatness. It turns out to be a line from the Finnish poet Arvid Genetz, which Alan Lomax learned in Minnesota, translated in full as “When anyone scorns the people / he topples like a rootless tree.” The motley crew of the Reverend, the Pastor, and the dog that’s got no master give way to jazz musicians and the Allman Brothers. Movies and movie stars, Shakespeare and Fleetwood Mac, Nat King Cole are all washing against each other, cultural flotsam and jetsam. Thelonious Monk is here; his name rhymes with junk, the heroin that destroyed the great Charlie Parker, the next musician namechecked by Dylan. The connection of “all that junk” leads to “All That Jazz,” and a swing away from music back to movies, and the Birdman of Alcatraz. Yes, it was an Oscar-nominated movie in 1962, but Robert Stroud, “the Birdman,” was a real person who stayed in prison most of his life for murders—and who died on November 21, 1963. It all comes back to that dark day in Dallas. Bringing it all back home.
The internal circles of the song continue, accumulating, building, layering, pressing you down with the weight. Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd should make a moviegoer laugh, but are as apt to make you cry. Gambler Bugsy Siegel and bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, adopted as a Robin-Hood hero in Oklahoma and celebrated by Woody Guthrie in a song Dylan has performed and recorded. The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth appear for a moment, but vanish in the threat from a spooky dialogue about brothers: “Tell ‘em we’re waiting—keep coming—we’ll get ‘em as well[.]” JFK’s death heralds RFK’s, and everyone listening to this song should know it. “Murder Most Foul” shaves off, or spins back into itself, with a final scattershot recitativo of songs and compositions in genres from croon to classical, military marches and love songs, and, in the end, “Murder Most Foul” itself: “Play the Blood Stained Banner—play Murder Most Foul[.]” Sharing space with either an American Civil War flag of the Confederacy, or “l’entard sanglant” of “La Marseillaise”—or both—“Murder Most Foul” wraps in on itself, starting all over again, taking it from the top, da capo al fine. In my end is my beginning.