Bob Dylan’s recent release, ‘Murder Most Foul’ (March 2020), tells the story of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963 (a time when Dylan was just setting out on his own mercurial career). The song seems to echo his elegy for John Lennon, ‘Roll on John’ – the closing song on his most recent album of original music (Tempest, 2012). He describes how America went from the “Aquarian Age” to “the Age of the anti-Christ”, and cuts between flashes of the shooting itself, to a bewildering catalogue of Twentieth-Century Americana, likening the country to a dog with no master.
In his book, Why Dylan Matters, Richard F. Thomas argues that Bob Dylan continues the classical tradition – especially of the Roman writer, Ovid – in his late trilogy Time Out of Mind (1997), Love & Theft (2001), and Modern Times (2006). He points out that both Ovid and Dylan were forged in empires on the edge of decline. Ben Beaumont-Thomas in The Guardian describes ‘Murder Most Foul’ as “a ballad set to piano, strings and light drums.” The song is driven by Bob Dylan’s voice more obviously than the loose musical time-signature (“a recitation set to music” as Alexis Petridis has it). In fact, Dylan seems to favour something like the metre of the classical-epic poets Homer, Virgil and Ovid. To speak technically for a moment, he uses hexameter, a line of six main stresses that traditionally signals heroic or elegiac subject matter – reinforced here by the relentless rhyming couplets sustained for the whole 17-minute duration of the song. Consider these driving rhythms in lines from the song’s opening:
President Kennedy | was a-ridin’ high,
A good day to be living | and a good day to die
A line of such equivocal suggestiveness that it could easily have come straight out of the mouths of the witches in Macbeth. The song title itself asks us to recall Hamlet’s suspicion that his uncle has murdered his father to assume the crown: murder most foul, strange and unnatural. Dylan varies this poetic rhythm to suit his needs – as he will – opening up the line at times, but this metre remains more or less the heartbeat of the song.
In the first half of the ballad, he shifts from a third person narration of events to inhabit Kennedy’s voice directly. Like Hamlet’s father, Kennedy is the revenant king come back to haunt the living. And like Old Hamlet, is only fleetingly present to us in snatches of dialogue:
Wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
Of course we do, we know who you are
And again, he returns to speak later in the song. His voice is heroic, both steady and tragic:
I’m riding in the back seat, next to my wife
Heading straight on in to the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
Oh Lord, I’ve been lead into some kind of a trap
He seems to relive the harrowing moment of death without actually describing it, as if not grasping exactly what is happening to him. Dylan then describes the aftermath in grotesque detail: “They mutilated his body and they took out his brain./ What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” (Curiously, F. Scott Fitzgerald uses a very similar strategy to narrate the tragic collision in The Great Gatsby – a sort of looking away, followed by explicit detail). Dylan perhaps does this here to mark the lasting trauma of the event – “I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” He then shifts into a wider voice. He laments the loss of a more hopeful, compassionate post-war America. The America he dreamt of in the early folk music he was writing around this time:
We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street from the street where you live
A pitch-perfect summary of the contradictory American longing for self-reliance and cold economics, set against the lost dream of folksy goodness. Dylan has described this new release as a gift to his fans. The final part of the song becomes an invocation of the American Songbook. Ben Beaumont-Thomas suggests that this America in decline is “offered salvation of sorts in pop music: the Beatles, Woodstock, Charlie Parker…Stevie Nicks.”
And of course in the song itself – Dylan’s dirge for the 1960s and for our own time, does exactly that – consoling his fans; certain to take up its place in his own late songbook. It’s a great song – an expansive song that won’t stop growing in our own troubled minds.
The song is available here:
I also review Dylan’s song ‘Key West’ from the same album, here: https://benedictgilbert.com/2020/11/14/that-bleeding-heart-disease-bob-dylan-key-west-review/
Richard F. Thomas, Why Dylan Matters (William Collins, 2017)
Ben Beaumont-Thomas, “Bob Dylan releases first original song in eight years, 17-minute track about JFK, The Guardian, Friday 27 March 2020:https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/mar/27/bob-dylan-new-song-kennedy-assassination
Alexis Petridis, “Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest songs – ranked!” The Guardian, Thursday 9 April 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2020/apr/09/bob-dylans-50-greatest-songs-ranked
Lyrics available at: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder-most-foul/
© 2020 by Special Rider Music