Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’: the JFK Assassination Like It’s Never Been Covered Before
A couple of theories always surface when my musical friends speculate on how much of “our” music will outlive us.
Will our grandchildren, and beyond, still listen to the likes of the Beatles, the Supremes, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, the Platters, Madonna, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Simon & Garfunkel?
The most hopeful answer, though one by no means assured, holds that the best stuff will always have an audience. A smaller audience, but one that will include both hard-core devotees and casual music fans who just like a good song, the way younger folks today still listen to Irving Berlin, Gershwin or My Fair Lady.
The discussion gets more complicated when we get to Bob Dylan, the best songwriter of our age.
In theory he should be heard forever, because so many of his songs transcend time. Thousands of images, many casually tucked in the middle of a fourth verse, nail truths about the largest and smallest elements of life. “The answer is blowin’ in the wind.” “How does it feel to be on your own, with no direction home?” “Strange how people who have suffered together have stronger connections than people who are most content.”
I could go on. Ask my wife. What brings this to mind today is “Murder Most Foul,” a 17-minute song that starts with the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy and blossoms into the musical and cinematic garden of the 20th century.
Dylan released this song on a Thursday night in the middle of our current coronavirus pandemic. He provided no details except that he wrote and recorded it a while ago. Maybe around the 50th anniversary of the assassination, in 2013? Or maybe not. It’s Dylan’s 21st century voice, with the deliberate enunciation we’ve been hearing from Love & Theft up to his recent standards albums.
Musically, “Murder Most Foul” has been called a narration as much as a song. Doesn’t matter. More important, his voice does the job, accompanied by a rolling piano, violin and a little light percussion.
The song itself makes its way through musicians and songs from Guitar Slim to Queen, Nat King Cole and “One Night of Sin,” the original R&B version of a song cleaned up into a pop hit for Elvis.
Dylanologists can doubtless find a connection for every reference, back to Buster Keaton and Patsy Cline. I’m not sure it’s necessary, and I wouldn’t bet against Stan Getz and Dickey Betts having made the cut partly because their names rhyme.
As for exactly what “Murder Most Foul” is “all about,” or “is saying,” that question has been the Dylan fool’s errand for six decades. His songs offer all sorts of thoughts and ideas, often as cryptic as they are wonderful. But where “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” is pretty direct, “Visions of Johanna” or “Mississippi” bobs and weaves.
It’s a buffet. You find fresh and satisfying dishes everywhere. Trying to define it in one phrase would be madness.
“Murder Most Foul” slides from dark ruminations like “It’s 36 hours past judgment day” to a request that DJ Wolfman Jack play Jelly Roll Morton and Little Richard, music that makes you want to toss off your jacket and dance.
This tour through popular music history gives “Murder Most Foul” a superficial resemblance to Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” except there’s a whole more going on. The better reference might be Dylan’s own masterpiece “Chimes of Freedom,” in which he asks that the bells chime for the likes of “the refugees on the unarmed road of flight.”
The topic itself gives the song breadth. The Kennedy assassination shaped the country ever since.
By tying the assassination to a world where popular music serves as both a choir and an escape, “Murder Most Foul” gives it a backdrop.
At the same time, it feels like a song that was just plain fun to write. How often can the same lyrics include both the old blues tune “Going Down Slow” and Lady MacBeth? Here’s guessing Dylan got started, kept going, and in the end, because he’s Dylan, emerged with a coherent ballad that has multiple meanings. Just the way he likes it.
A song for our times? Sure, you can hear it that way. A story exploring mortality and morality? Hardly Dylan’s first run through that turf.
What it might not be, getting back to that original question, is a song for the ages. It would be a challenge even to get today’s teenage music fans to sit down for a 17-minute song built on references with which they would only have the vaguest familiarity.
The more you remember of the music and artists to which Dylan refers, the more “Murder Most Foul” engages you.
Just knowing there was a presidential assassination and a famous actress named Marilyn Monroe — with whom Kennedy likely had an affair — isn’t a ticket into the whole song.
For that reason, it might be reasonable to speculate that listeners in 2050 may be more drawn to “Chimes of Freedom” or “Don’t Think Twice” or “Every Grain of Sand.”
But whether or not “Murder Most Foul” enters the Dylan pantheon, this much remains true: Nobody else could have written the songs that Bob Dylan writes.