LET THEM EAT CAKE:
Why the Grammys no longer matter
Four years after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, and the year he released his very first No. 1 Hit Song, the chart-topping, heart-stopping 17-minute epic, Murder Most Foul—the title’s from Hamlet—about the assassination of another king—President John F. Kennedy—in the year of the pandemic no less—Bob Dylan was passed over by the Grammy’s National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for a nomination in any category for the upcoming awards next January 31st, 2021—not Record of the Year, not Album of the Year, not Song of the Year, not Best Folk Song, not Best Roots Americana Song; in effect NARAS told the public—quoting Queen Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution—“Let them eat cake.”
What do you make of it? Some would make of it—in Carl Oglesby’s words—that I overdraw the matter. But I say this: If America’s greatest songwriter—bar none—is no longer eligible to even be considered for a Grammy Nomination, let alone an award, what is this country coming to?
Let the chips fall where they may—it’s time to raise my poor voice and ask, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man?” I wish I knew. “How many years can a mountain exist, before it is washed to the sea?” Again, I wish I knew. “How many ears must one man have, before he can hear people cry?” Once again, I wish I knew. “And how many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died?”
And for the last time, I wish I knew. How many songs must one man write before he wins a Grammy for Songwriting? According to the newspapers Dylan just sold his entire catalogue of over 600 songs to Universal Music for roughly $300,000,000. But not a one of them won a Grammy for songwriting. Thank God for the Oscars—which Bob won in 2000 for Things Have Changed. And thank God for the Nobel Prize in Literature—which Bob won in 2016. But until he wins a Grammy for Songwriting I say the Grammys no longer matter. How could they? If you don’t win for The Times, They Are a-Changing, or Mr. Tambourine Man, or Like a Rolling Stone, or Tangled Up in Blue, or the aforementioned Blowing in the Wind, then what good are they? Clearly, not much.
So here is the best song of the year—a song Bob Dylan waited nearly sixty years to write. It was the first song he released from the album that became Rough and Rowdy Ways back on March 27. He added this brief introduction to his fans:
“Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” Dylan said in a brief statement when revealing the song. “This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”
Bob Dylan – Murder Most Foul lyrics:
Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63 A day that will live on in infamy President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” “Of course we do. We know who you are.” Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car Shot down like a dog in broad daylight Was a matter of timing and the timing was right You got unpaid debts; we’ve come to collect We’re gonna kill you with hatred; without any respect We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face We’ve already got someone here to take your place
The day they blew out the brains of the king Thousands were watching; no one saw a thing…
Including the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) the Grammys—who weren’t paying attention when they came up with this feeble and irrelevant list of Nominees for 2020.
But Dylan saw something; as the song continues:
It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise Right there in front of everyone’s eyes Greatest magic trick ever under the sun Perfectly executed, skillfully done Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul
Hush, little children. You’ll understand The Beatles are comin’; they’re gonna hold your hand Slide down the banister, go get your coat Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat There’s three bums comin’ all dressed in rags Pick up the pieces and lower the flags I’m going to Woodstock; it’s the Aquarian Age Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage Put your head out the window; let the good times roll There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
Stack up the bricks, pour the cement Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President Put your foot in the tank and step on the gas Try to make it to the triple underpass Blackface singer, whiteface clown Better not show your faces after the sun goes down Up in the red light district, they’ve got cop on the beat Living in a nightmare on Elm Street
When you’re down in Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe Don’t ask what your country can do for you…
And it all began with Kennedy speechwriter Ted Sorensen’s 17 words, next to FDR’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” the most eloquent line from any Inaugural address in the 20th Century: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” It prompted me to join SDS and CORE in the civil rights movement—like author Linda Huf, PhD who became her high school CORE leader–and thousands upon thousands of young Americans to join the Peace Corps and Vista. It may have been the first and last time in my generation that a US President inspired civic engagement of the highest order.
And then, as I wrote in my song, That Dallas Morning, “in a flash it was over too soon.” Phil Ochs wrote the first elegy after the assassination on November 22, 1963, That Was the President. A couple years later he wrote The Crucifixion, an intense poetic meditation on the emotional impact of losing the youngest president ever sworn in: “So dance, dance, dance, teach us to be true / So dance, dance, dance, ‘cause we love you.”
What is the truth, and where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby; they oughta know “Shut your mouth,” said the wise old owl Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen I’m riding in a long, black limousine Riding in the backseat next to my wife Heading straight on in to the afterlife I’m leaning to the left; got my head in her lap Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give We’re right down the street from the street where you live They mutilated his body, and they took out his brain What more could they do? They piled on the pain But his soul’s not there where it was supposed to be at For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that…
You will notice that this song is written in a classic form—the 18th Century Alexander Pope’s rhymed Heroic Couplets—straight through to the end. For a great rhymester this must have seemed a hard choice—but he does it unflinchingly, without complaint—adding nothing to draw attention away from the cruelty unfolding before our eyes. No metaphor—no simile—no paradox—no poetic touches—nothing to soften the blow–for this poetic master it must have seemed unconscionable to be denied so many tools of his craft—all but one—to speak truth to power—and that he does—for an epic 242 lines.
This wasn’t the first reference to JFK in Dylan’s immense catalogue—for that you have to go way back to his second album—the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan—where in I Shall Be Free, he rolls out his early affection for the living president:
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 Anita Ekberg Sophia Loren” Country’ll grow
(Bridget Bardot was the subject of Dylan’s very first song—long before he started recording.) Freewheelin’ was released in 1963—heartbreakingly the same year as the assassination. It was the last song on the album. The song continues—with a reference to the civil rights movement classic song Oh Freedom:
Freedom, oh freedom, Freedom over me I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free Send me some lovin’; tell me no lies Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by Wake up, little Susie; let’s go for a drive Cross the Trinity River; let’s keep hope alive Turn the radio on; don’t touch the dials Parkland hospital, only six more miles
You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy. You filled me with lead That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline Never shot anyone from in front or behind I’ve blood in my eye, got blood in my ear I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier Zapruder’s film I seen night before Seen it 33 times, maybe more It’s vile and deceitful. It’s cruel and it’s mean Ugliest thing that you ever have seen They killed him once and they killed him twice Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son The age of the Antichrist has only begun.” Air Force One coming in through the gate Johnson sworn in at 2:38 Let me know when you decide to thrown in the towel It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul
Then Dylan has a passing ironic allusion to Barbra Streisand, who based on an old just-released interview with fellow Minnesota singer Tony Glover, was the acknowledged inspiration for Dylan’s 1969 Nashville Skyline hit, Lay Lady Lay:
What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say? I said the soul of a nation been torn away And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay And that it’s 36 hours past Judgment Day
Then the song suddenly shifts gears as Wolfman Jack reenters to become Dylan’s alter ego—the famed DJ who plays all the requests that Dylan has; Rolling Stone has counted more than 70; and what do you notice as the songs start to accumulate? They are mostly folk songs and old spirituals—blues and jazz standards—not a “Song of the Year” among them. These are songs for the ages. And of a sudden you realize: Dylan has turned his back on the recording academy—so it’s no wonder they have turned their backs on him.
This is the same Bob Dylan we came to love in the 1960s—the quintessential folk artist—“Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung/Play St. James Infirmary…Play John Lee Hooker…and Guitar Slim…Play That Old Rugged Cross…Play Key to the Highway (by Big Bill Broonzy) for “the king of the harp” (Sonny Terry, who accompanied him)…“Play Pretty Boy Floyd,” by his first hero, Woody Guthrie.
Dylan hasn’t changed—if anything we have. Roll on, Bob.
Ross Altman has a PhD in Modern Literature from SUNY-Binghamton (1973); belongs to Local 47 (AFM); heads the Santa Monica Traditional Folk Music Club (meeting now on Zoom); writes for FolkWorks; his email is firstname.lastname@example.org
LET THEM EAT CAKE:
Why the Grammys no longer matter