Bob Dylan Releases a Cryptic 17-Minute Song about the JFK Assassination: Hear a “Murder Most Foul”

Like an Old Tes­ta­ment prophet with smart­phone, Bob Dylan has appeared the midst of cat­a­stro­phe to drop a new pre­vi­ous­ly unre­leased track, “Mur­der Most Foul,” on Twit­ter. Osten­si­bly a 17-minute song about JFK’s assas­si­na­tion, it’s “the first evi­dence of orig­i­nal song­writ­ing that we’ve had in eight years from one of the most orig­i­nal song­writ­ers of our era,” writes Kevin Dettmar, Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Pomona Col­lege, for The New York­er.

The move seems like a weird one—“’weird’ with its full Shake­speare­an force, as in the ‘weird sis­ters’ of ‘Mac­beth.’” Its title, how­ev­er, comes from Ham­let. Uttered by the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the phrase shows us the mur­dered king pro­nounc­ing judg­ment on his own death. It is also the title of the third Miss Marple film, released in the U.S. in 1964, the same year (to the month) that the War­ren com­mis­sion sub­mit­ted its report to Lyn­don John­son.

Is Dylan pulling us into what may be the most bot­tom­less of mod­ern con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, with a Shake­speare­an allu­sion sug­gest­ing we might hear the song as ema­nat­ing from Kennedy him­self? He’s more than aware of what he’s doing with the many spe­cif­ic ref­er­ences to the mur­der, draw­ing out the most com­mit­ted of con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists in YouTube com­ments. As Andy Greene writes at Rolling Stone, “Mur­der Most Foul” is:

Packed with ref­er­ences only JFK buffs will like­ly rec­og­nize, like the ‘triple under­pass’ near Dealey Plaza, the removal of his brain dur­ing the autop­sy, and the ‘three bums comin’ all dressed in rags’ cap­tured on the Zaprud­er film that con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists have been obsess­ing over for decades. Clear­ly, Dylan has spent a lot of time read­ing books and watch­ing doc­u­men­taries about this.

There is so much more besides. Dylan weaves dense­ly allu­sive texts, just as anoth­er poet to whom he bears some com­par­i­son, John Mil­ton, whose work has been back­ground for Dylan’s song­writ­ing for decades, includ­ing a sly allu­sion to Par­adise Lost in 1965’s “Des­o­la­tion Row,” anoth­er prophet­ic work that stretch­es over the ten-minute mark (and ends with pas­sen­gers on the Titan­ic shout­ing “Which side are you on?”)

In 2006, Dylan opened an episode of his Theme Time Radio Hour broad­cast with lines from the first book of Par­adise Lost: describ­ing Satan “hurled head­long flam­ing from the ethe­re­al sky.” Dylan has long been obsessed with the Dev­il, as lit­er­ary schol­ar Aidan Day argues in a com­par­i­son of Dylan and Mil­ton. Like­wise, he is obsessed with apoc­a­lyp­tic falls from grace. Songs abound with images of the pow­er­ful brought low, the low­ly brought low­er, and the whole world sink­ing like an ocean lin­er. He returned to the theme in 2012’s “The Tem­pest,” a 14-minute epic about the Titan­ic.

Why JFK, and why now? As he vague­ly notes, the song was “record­ed a while back.” Dettmar esti­mates some­time in the last decade. Does it live up to Dylan’s ear­li­er epics? Hear it above and judge for your­self. (And see many of its lyri­cal ref­er­ences at its Genius page.) Dettmar calls its first half “dog­ger­el” and the open­ing lines do sound like a fifth-grade his­to­ry pre­sen­ta­tion: “’Twas a dark day in Dal­las, Novem­ber, ‘63/The day that would live on in infamy.”

Is this cliché or a satire of cliché? (Dylan was fond of “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christ­mas.”) Things soon take a dark­er turn, with lines full of Mil­ton­ian por­tent: assas­si­na­tion becomes regi­cide: The day they blew out the brains of the king/Thousands were watch­ing, no one saw a thing.

Allu­sions tum­ble out, line after line. Once Dylan gets to Wolf­man Jack, verse two begins, and “some­thing amaz­ing hap­pens,” writes Dettmar. “We’re pre­sent­ed with anoth­er ver­sion of the Great Amer­i­can Songbook.”—JFK’s death now pre­lude for all the cul­tur­al shifts to come. “Wolf­man, oh Wolf­man, oh Wolf­man, howl/Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a mur­der most foul.” NPR’s Bob Boilen and Ann Pow­ers have com­piled a playlist of the dozens of songs ref­er­enced in the sec­ond half of “Mur­der Most Foul,” a com­pi­la­tion of the music Dylan admires most.

What is he up to in this track? Is “Mur­der Most Foul” a sum­ma­tion of Dylan’s career? Dyla­nol­o­gists will be puz­zling it out for years. But the last line of his Twit­ter announce­ment sure sounds like a cryp­tic farewell wrapped in a warn­ing: “Stay safe,” Dylan writes, “stay obser­vant, and may God be with you.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mas­sive 55-Hour Chrono­log­i­cal Playlist of Bob Dylan Songs: Stream 763 Tracks

Hear Bob Dylan’s New­ly-Released Nobel Lec­ture: A Med­i­ta­tion on Music, Lit­er­a­ture & Lyrics

Bob Dylan’s Thanks­giv­ing Radio Show: A Playlist of 18 Delec­table Songs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Laurence Goldman says:

    Wow. This is not the first time Dylan has ven­tured into epic oral poet­ry. The hymn to the Titan­ic on Tem­pest being first to come to mind. This one’s got it all-the rhymes, the hip phras­ing, the, well, every­thing Dylan does. After Bush II bombed Iraq, Alan Gins­burg pub­lished a long sing-songy poem of sim­ple rhymed cou­plets in the New York­er. With Blake sim­plic­i­ty he stood up and blast­ed the Admin­is­tra­tion for this out­rage.

    I believe Dylan is being a bard here at this moment when our heroes, loved ones are being tak­en from us regard­less of sta­tion. I hope the con­spir­a­cy ref­er­ences to COVID-19 will not prove to be true with this trag­ic dis­as­ter as well.

    Wear your masks. Wash your hands.

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