“Murder Most Foul” by Bob Dylan is lyrically a dustbowl style murder ballad about thugs and a politician whom the thugs can’t corrupt. There’s a Greek chorus of sorts. Or perhaps its a Hall of Fame or a Rogue’s Gallery in which Dylan alludes to several dozen popular musicians and singers of the last century. Dylan pressgangs the notable songs of each chorus member into service of the One Subject, the subject of his and Our Time. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd, 1963.
Everything leads to and from that event. Is that how it is for us? Maybe so.
Return to the Scene of the Crime
“Murder Most Foul” is how the ghost of Hamlet’s father, in Hamlet, tells Hamlet he became ghost.
The song “Murder Most Foul” starts with an allusion to President Franklin Roosevelt’s radio speech about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941, “a day which will live in infamy.” Bob Dylan neé Zimmerman was six months old at the time.
Within a hair’s breadth of conspiracy theory [to one side or the other] the song goes on for seventeen oddly gripping minutes in which Dylan is accompanied by piano, drums, violin, cello or viola, and double bass. [It even seems that Dylan from 5:11 to 5:24 picks up a fiddle and saws away for a measure or two.] The only semblance of consistent melody and steady pulse is in Dylan’s singing.
After about ten minutes, Dylan gets Wolfman Jack to help. Seemingly, Bob calls the station request-line and asks the Wolfman to play a lot of songs that are probably not in the station’s library.
Shortly, we hear Bob Dylan sing: “I’m a patsy like Patsy Cline.”
[My friend Bill Ohanesian raised this objection when the song was released on March 27th. I can only now start to articulate a response. “Er… um… I think…”]
All Roads Lead to Dallas
At the slightest slip of association, however, this stretch limousine of a song skids and screeches back to Dealey Plaza, the Triple Underpass, the Grassy Knoll, the Texas School Book Depository. “Murder Most Foul” is nightmarish in its sudden and sometimes brutal scene changes.
For all its oddities and quirkiness, the song does not wobble. Why would it? It’s not for naught Bob Dylan received the Nobel Prize in Literature a few years ago. As an extended rambling piece of thought-jazz, it’s unrecognizable as anything but a Dylan song. Yet it is different. Not so much in its guitar-lessness and harmonica-lessness, or even in it’s long long lengthiness.
Though Bob “It Ain’t Me, Babe” Dylan has vehemently denied being the Voice of a Generation, “Murder Most Foul” is different because it is directly addressed to his and neighboring generations finally confronting that landscape “where we ask no quarter and no quarter do we give.”
Where is this place? “It’s right down the street from the street where you live.”
I am still stunned by its effect; relying only on the human brain’s insistence on forming patterns, the song makes everything seem so simple … to my pattern-making brain, at least. Also, it makes me feel so very sad. Maybe, I was feeling sad before I heard it.
Here’s What the Song Means to Me:
Nations all have their sins. Ours has two great sins; one of them is slavery. [And oh, how we white people hate to be called racists!] America then is beset by many comfy self-deceptions. Comfiness becomes drowsiness which begets sleep and sleep, no matter how deep, has only two outcomes. One is death. The other is awakening.
“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” Did JFK wake us up? Or did we wake JFK up? Our marvelous music, so often commandeered for lullaby duty, suddenly bid us arise…
“In the jingle jangle morning…
And go to work. — Thank you, singing cowboys for ennobling our past. Thank you, whalers for those shanties that lit our homes at night. Thank you, Black Folk, for your music.
Sorry we ripped you off. Thank you for believing in the American experiment when we did not. We’ll try to make it up to you. We’ll try to…
Just then, the three shots heard round the world ring out.
…I’ll come following you.”
In the ensuing melee, we are told: Nothing to see here, folks. Go back to bed everyone.
But we didn’t. Instead we said, “Hell no, we won’t go [to kill or be killed in the lie of liberty that was our war in Vietnam.].” All in all, some fifty four thousand Americans died in Vietnam and for what? So much for LBJ’s Great Society. Don Q’s impossible dream?
Like Robert Graves before us, we said “No, to all that.” Timothy Leary, a Harvard professor who had come over to our side, unintentionally gave us the best reductio ad absurdim of the 20th century: “Turn on, tune in, drop out.”
[You had to be there. And truth to tell, I wasn’t.]
“The Answer My Friend is…
Music changed. And we knew we could never un-know what we then knew. And that, of course, is where we made a big mistake. I realized this in 2000 while watching candidate George W. Bush on Meet the Press.
Tim Russert asked what was the main plank of his platform. Speaking with unusual clarity, Bush said: “To repair the damage done to the country by the ‘60s.”
I re-woke up then! Damage done by the 60s? What damage done by the ‘60s?
We had sung our songs of revolution. We had sung our songs of victory. We had sung our songs of peace. We had begun to give the black arts of music their long overdue due. And, President George W. Bush was elected to do what, now? Un-sing it all?
…Blowing in the Wind”
And now, the nation is in a deeper and more troubled sleep than ever. In his speech, “Of Poetry and Power” Kennedy predicted this. But even he could not envision the grotesque nightmare of stupidity and cupidity that now occupies the White House. Nor could he see how this nightmare could manifest itself in a pandemic which in four months would take more American lives than did the Vietnam War in all its 20 years.
And for all Dylan’s anti-wartime commendations for bravery under fire, even he admits he was no more than a patsy. That’s different for him. Especially, if he means it.
“Murder Most Foul,” wrote Bob Dylan on his YouTube site, “is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.
“Stay safe,” he added, “stay observant and may God be with you.”
And with you also, Bob.
So, where do we go from here? That’s not in the song. That’s up to us. Now. Those of us who make it.
Read ’em and Weep
Here is a lyric version of Bob Dylan’s song for you.
I can spot only two textual errors.
Cash on the ballot, money to burn.
[Bob actually sings: “Cash on the barrel head, money to burn.”]
I’m goin’ down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
The place where faith hope and charity lie.
[Bob sings either: lied or died. It sounds like the former. I suspect it’s the latter.]
“Murder Most Foul!” 60 years later?
OF POETRY AND POWER - Part 2