Immediately after President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 people turned to one another in shock and apprehension and knew inistinctively that this changes everything. We’re in a similar situation now, which I suppose is why Bob Dylan rummaged through his unreleased material to find the song “Murder Most Foul” which he released a few days ago.
It’s something of a dirge, slow and dramatic and most definitely not hummable. The lyrics focus on the assasination itself, describing much of the action, the violence, the panic, and how it was “the greatest magic trick under the sun” because “thousands were watching and no one saw a thing.” Dylan hints at conspiracy. The villain speaks in plural, as in “we’re going to kill you with hatred without any respect,” and at one point Dylan asks “What is the truth and where did it go?” and answers “Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ought to know.” And yet, this is not a finger-pointing song like the ones he was so famous for long ago. If Dylan has a theory about who was behind the Kennedy murder, he isn’t saying here.
A few things I learned as I studied the song: Deep Ellum is the neighborhood in which Kennedy was shot; the Trinity River flows through Dallas (and speaking of a trinity, who are the “three bums…dressed in rags?); Parkland Hospital was where they took Kennedy, and Zapruder’s film caught the murder and has been studied ever since.
The title of the song is taken from Shakespeare’s Hamlet wherein Prince Hamlet’s uncle has murdered Hamlet’s father, so he can marry Hamlet’s mother and be king. The uncle wants power. Hamlet wants revenge. In the end no one in Denmark gets what they want. The ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his demise as “murder most foul,” and Dylan applies the phrase to Kennedy’s assassination in the beginning, middle and end of the song.
But Dylan does not just focus on the assassination. The song is seventeen minutes long, so he has plenty of time to move forward through history and mention the subsequent touchstones of sixties rock music: the Beatles, Woodstock, Altamont. It seems funny that he would conjure up these iconic images now when he tried so hard to avoid that scene at the time and preferred to “just sit here and watch the river flow.”
Dylan moves on to name check many musicians. He seems to be paying tribute to performers he admires, much as he did time and time again in his autobiography Chronicles. Here he also quotes from countless songs, and at first the lyrics and song titles seemed rather random. But upon further listens it’s easier to see how he weaves in the titles to tell the story of bygone times.
I remember how Dylan’s Love and Theft was released on 9/11 and how I’ve always associated the album with the tragedy. And, in fact, how songs like “Mississippi” and “High Water” seemed to be written about the terrorist attack. “Murder Most Foul” will be remembered the same way, as somehow pertinent and necessary in our current struggles.