Article by Bradley Morgan
Music champions truth. It allows us to navigate the boundaries of our worlds, gives us the courage to shape limitations, and pushes them beyond the scope of our imaginations into the unknown. It is there where we become a part of what makes the music so important to us, allowing it to shape our identities and beliefs. The music becomes who we are.
There are songs that serve as the soundtrack to falling in love, overcoming adversity, or achieving greatness. These are the songs that enter our lives at exactly the right moment. Wishing whatever cosmic dance is swirling around us, we create a bond with a piece of music that stays with us forever.
However, perhaps rarer are not the songs that we take with us, but rather the songs that take us with them. There is usually discomfort and a lack of sureness as we ascertain where exactly these songs are leading us, but we follow as we are guided into the unfamiliar.
As an avid fan and amateur historian of Bob Dylan (or Dylanologist, if you will), I have always been excited to see new material from pop music’s master bard. “Murder Most Foul” was a surprise release when it dropped digitally on March 26 (the album it’s on, Rough and Rowdy Ways, dropped on June 18). The first original composition after an eight-year hiatus, the song came with a message from Dylan:
Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.
Usually, a new Dylan song would have me pumped about an impending album release. However, Dylan’s note was concerning. This was no ordinary announcement.
When “Murder Most Foul” was released, I had just completed my first week living alone under Illinois’ “stay-at-home” order. The world, or at least the United States, was just becoming aware of the severity of COVID-19. Local, state, and national leaders were struggling to make sense of the pandemic and potential consequences of the biggest global health crisis in generations. “Murder Most Foul,” at first notice, seemed to be a gift from someone who was grateful for all the people who had supported him for six decades, the fans and followers who had to shift their priorities towards ensuring safety for their loved ones and themselves.
Every headline I saw covering “Murder Most Foul” only seemed to note the novelty of the song’s length and subject: 17 minutes dedicated to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (16 minutes and 54 seconds, to be exact). Given that a track on Dylan’s previous album of original recordings was a 13-minute epic about the RMS Titanic, and was quite a clunker at that, I felt I could wait until the morning to hear the song. Between the release note, anxiety about COVID-19, and music journalists’ dull comments about the singer’s longest song to date, I just did not have the energy to hear what Dylan had to say in that moment — truly a first in my nearly two decades of fandom.
Just as I had done every morning under “stay-at-home” orders, I woke up feeling confused and slightly numb. Mustering the energy to start the day had now become a new tradition following the first full week of the fluctuating normalcy of pandemic life. After several minutes, I remembered that I had a new Dylan song to listen to.
I pulled up “Murder Most Foul” on my phone and absent-mindedly tossed it aside on the bed, still absorbed in this mystifying morning ritual. The song slowly faded in with a gentle and elegant violin backed with a somber piano. I could hear a slight breath before Dylan revealed the opening line in the cinematic landscape he was crafting:
Twas a dark day in Dallas, November ’63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high
Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die
Usually, upon an inaugural listen to a new Dylan song, I find myself rapt with attention as I concentrate with missile-like precision. However, as I lay in bed listening, nothing was coming to mind. I felt blank. I listened to Dylan recite his tone poem, a dedication to President Kennedy, before seemingly going off on a tangent of various pop culture references. I did not understand what was happening, but I was aware enough that there was possibly something I was missing. Dylan’s last original album, Tempest, was hit or miss for me, and I did not feel compelled to really explore that collection of songs too deeply after a few listens. However, something else was happening here, but it had yet to reveal itself.
By the afternoon, my social media feed was filled with friends and fellow Dylan fans sharing articles on “Murder Most Foul.” The tone of the music press had not changed much since the first wave of reviews. They continued to remain focused on the song’s length as another odd quirk in Dylan’s storied career, only now they included a list of the names, movies, and songs mentioned with a brief line or two explaining who and what they were. However, no one had really provided any context.
Even most of the opinions by friends I had were somewhat confounded by Dylan endlessly listing off names like Stevie Nicks or references The Who and Queen. One even texted me to say that Dylan was just rambling. While a few people admired the song, it seemed that whatever Dylan was trying to convey was lost on most, and that “Murder Most Foul” was another example highlighting that Dylan was decades past his prime.
I waited a week before I relistened to “Murder Most Foul.” I had to be ready, emotionally and mentally, to focus on the message. The weather outside was dreary and dull with a faint mist that had been falling throughout the day. I threw on a hoodie, put my earbuds in, and set out on a walk as the violin set the scene.
From Dylan setting the scene in Dealey Plaza to the violent aftermath and from the conspiracy theories to the pop culture references, I listened to every word with such intent as if to find a hidden meaning in each one. “Murder Most Foul” had been written and recorded several years before the novel coronavirus outbreak, so I wanted the answer to the question everyone was asking: Why intentionally release a song about the Kennedy assassination during the COVID-19 pandemic? As the sprawling epic unfolded, it had begun to bare itself, and I was left devastated and feeling so incredibly alone and hopeless.
“Murder Most Foul” cuts a wide swath regarding the life, demise, and legacy of the slain president. With meticulous attention, Dylan notes details such as the street where Kennedy was shot, the time Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as successor, and even the dreadful details of the autopsy. Not dismissive of the more lurid aspects of the president’s reputation, Dylan even makes nods and references to conspiracy theories that have surrounded the assassination for decades. The profile Dylan is capturing is one of a complex and flawed man who still embodied all the characteristics of a charismatic and inspiring leader.
As I was relistening, the first inkling of a deeper understanding emerged. In the first verse, several men approach Kennedy informing him he has unpaid debts and that they have come to collect. ”We’re gonna kill you with hatred,” Dylan sings as the men inform Kennedy that they have already found a replacement. From there, Dylan alludes to the assassination as a skillfully executed magic trick operated by men who have so much more to lose with Kennedy still alive.
Several verses later, Kennedy becomes aware that he is being led into a trap. Dylan singing, “We’re right down the street from the street where you live,” suggests that Kennedy was baited by those close to him. Upon his death in the song, Kennedy’s mangled body continues to be inflicted with pain in the afterlife. It is within these brutal and gory details that Dylan reveals the essence of his tribute to Kennedy:
But his soul’s not there where it was supposed to be at
For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that.
Hearing those lines, the enigma of “Murder Most Foul” was starting to become clearer, as well as the role of Kennedy’s death in Dylan’s life. The heart of the song exists within those lines. Though these men had brutalized every aspect of Kennedy’s being, from his body to his reputation, they could not find what they were truly after: his soul. I wanted to understand what Kennedy’s soul meant to Dylan, as well as the meaning behind its disappearance.
Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected to the presidency and the first born in the 20th century, was the symbol for a new generation coming of age in a world where technology was accelerating social progress faster than ever before. Wealthy, attractive, charming, and graceful, Kennedy embodied a bold set of ideals that was aimed to propel America into a new era of prosperity and progress. When Kennedy said to Americans, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” it was a bold, idealistic declaration about what we could achieve as a unified nation. But what did Dylan mean when he said Kennedy’s soul was missing?
Distraught by COVID-19 and the abrupt changes it brought to our lives, I thought about all the missteps and negligence that deepened the crisis — not just the inactions of Donald Trump’s administration, but how the lack of response to COVID-19 was the product of so much avarice and greed that had been allowed to run rampant throughout my lifetime and before, championed by the enemies of progress and the agents of regression. The Sandy Hook shootings. The 2008 housing crisis. The 9/11 attacks. All monumental events that abruptly shaped my world and how I interact with it. And what about the things before my time? The Moral Majority and the rise of evangelical influence in American politics. The 1970s energy crisis. Vietnam. Where the hell was the greater good? I had my answer when Dylan sang:
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.
What disturbed me so much was my interpretation of Kennedy’s soul as being the last bastion of American progressivism — a lost set of ideals that had been carbon copied over the decades with continuously diminishing results. I was devastated by this realization. Under COVID-19, I knew that things would be difficult for long time. However, as the latest in a seemingly endless barrage of cultural and societal setbacks since Kennedy’s death, the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time I became aware of the possibility that perhaps the “bad guys” had won. My heart was breaking.
Even Dylan seemed resigned enough to throw in the towel. Lines I did not hear or understand before were jumping out, telling me that the game was truly over:
Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me
I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free.
I’ve blood in my eye, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier.
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son
the age of the Antichrist has just only begun.”
Going through the early stages of a global pandemic, burdened by the weight of an unsure reality, these were not words that left me inspired and hopeful for the future. For six decades, Dylan has been writing songs that moved millions of listeners, myself included. He spoke truth to power and unveiled grand illusions, all the while staying several steps ahead of his fans and critics in, his words, a constant state of becoming. It is difficult to not listen to someone like that.
Perhaps the most perplexing part of “Murder Most Foul” to some listeners is when Dylan ostensibly switches name-drops multiple people and works in popular culture. When Dylan sings, “I’m going to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age / Then I’ll go to Altamont and sit near the stage,” he is juxtaposing the free love movement of the hippie counterculture with the symbolic end of that movement by placing himself right in the action where Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death.
All that sounded like it fit with Dylan’s theme of America’s soul slowly decaying, but I could not quite place how John Lee Hooker, Don Henley, or Robert Franklin Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” fit in. At one point in “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan references Wolfman Jack, the famous American disc jockey notable for his howling radio persona. Behind the wheel of a Cadillac, Dylan requests for Wolfman Jack to play him a variety of songs dedicated to different people. The playlist is a veritable whos-who of iconic figures and songs.
Over the next few weeks, I listened to “Murder Most Foul” every few days to figure out the significance of Dylan’s mosaic of pop culture references. I still found the song difficult to listen to, but having uncovered what I thought was some truth made the experience increasingly bearable bit by bit with each listen.
Like virtually every human being on the planet, my life slowed down considerably. All things considered, especially when it comes to the extreme consequences of COVID-19, I was still fortunate. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I had a very active and busy lifestyle. I worked full-time, volunteered regularly with several non-profits, pursued hobbies like taking music classes, and had an actively robust and healthy social life. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my life became more isolated than I was accustomed to and many aspects of my life abruptly changed or stopped. Now, I work with reduced pay and benefits, volunteer sparingly, do not attend music classes, and the few times I see friends it is within a virtual setting.
No longer did it make sense to think about life six, nine, or twelve months in the future. I had to reframe my mind to be concerned with the here and now, making sure I had everything I needed for the next two to four weeks. There was a strong shift from thriving to just simply surviving.
The future was unknown and unfamiliar, as it always is, but now it felt more sinister. So, I found solace in the books, music, and movies that had always brought me joy, Spending time with beloved albums or films became a welcomed escape. Unlike the uncertainties that I faced outside or when reading the news, I knew my favorite works of art would shield me. I had been on this journey before and I knew how the story had a happy ending.
When I had accepted these changes, evaluated myself and my needs, and rediscovered what brought joy, I finally began to understand the significance of Dylan’s long list of requests for Wolfman Jack. The allure of hopping behind the wheel of a long Cadillac and driving towards the horizon with my favorite songs playing on the radio is something I certainly relate to. It represents escape and pushing forward. What is beyond the horizon is unknown, but there is a great soundtrack for getting me there.
Dylan was only 22 years old when Kennedy was assassinated. As a then-baby-faced seeker of truth and idealist, Dylan and many other Americans were eager to follow Kennedy, a modern-thinking president who shared their values Then, on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, a shot rang out and the world stopped at the sound of progressivism’s death knell. Or, as Dylan sings, “Where faith, hope, and charity died.”
It was now being revealed to me that “Murder Most Foul” was Dylan coming to terms his first experience with collective trauma, an event that wrought psychological harm on himself as well as the rest of the nation. Grasping to come to grips with their fear, anxiety, and anger, many Americans were struggling to explain how such a beloved figure could be so brutally murdered in public. Nearly 60 years later, the trauma still resonates with Dylan as he sings:
Zapruder’s film, I seen night before
Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more
It’s vile and deceitful, it’s cruel and it’s mean
Ugliest thing that you ever have seen.
I related to Dylan’s need to seek consolation in the art that helped him process the Kennedy assassination. It is within the darkest of times that we insulate ourselves and seek shelter among the voices and images that assuage our fears. Even the most unidentifiable of fears: that of the unknown.
At 22, I cannot imagine what Dylan must have felt about the future immediately after Kennedy’s murder. By this point, he had just finished the recording sessions for his third studio album, The Times They Are A-Changin’, the last folk album of his with a clear and explicit message about the political and social upheaval of the era. Given that Dylan was already becoming disillusioned by the demands of his fans and peers in the folk music community to live up their expectations of a topical protest singer, I am sure that he was self-aware enough that condemning the assassination on a follow-up album so soon would not heal the mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds he was forced to endure alongside millions of others.
The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc around the world. It is the largest source of collective trauma in decades. The lives of millions of people have been uprooted by this cataclysmic event that threatens the structure of our global foundation. It is forcing societies to adapt for group survival while people, as individuals or in groups, struggle to find meaning. Life as we knew it is gone, and while the future is always unwritten, what exists ahead seems frightening and uncomfortable.
Having recorded “Murder Most Foul” over five decades since the Kennedy assassination, Dylan has the advantage of looking back to see how history has unfolded. Though removed from the event by so many years, it still echoes in Dylan’s mind, and reflecting on the aftermath and his life since is just another step in the endless journey of healing from collective trauma. Citing so many songs, icons, and films, Dylan is acknowledging the role those cultural touchstones played in his life and the remedial effects they had on his well-being. They bring comfort and he can call upon them when reflecting on where he has come from, where he currently is, and where he is heading. Uncertainty and fear about the future are alleviated when we engage with the art that leaves us unburdened.
Like myself, so many people are seeking comfort from art during the pandemic. They are revisiting their favorite series and films with family. They are supporting independent musicians and hosting dance parties with roommates. They are sharing their thoughts on books with friends over video chats. Even on the professional end of the spectrum, entertainers are relying on streaming media to reach audiences and grieve with them together. No hurdle seems so great that it stops the healing influence of art within our lives.
My feelings of complete hopelessness upon the first few listenings of “Murder Most Foul” gave way to a broader understanding and acceptance once I considered the role art played during the biggest crisis of my lifetime. I had to go on a journey that, in order for me to survive as intact as possible, required me to stop, breathe, and accept that I am in a situation I cannot change. All I can do is surround myself with the art that makes me happy.
So, in “Murder Most Foul,” is Dylan really saying that bad guys have won? No, not at all. Evil and dangerous people will come and go, poisoning our society until they have passed on either through natural forces or by the will of the people. Their lingering toxicity will ripple out and fade away like raindrops on the ocean. Someone will come and take the place of their tyrannical predecessor, but they too will fade away into dust blown away by the histories of time.
As for Kennedy’s missing soul, it is still out there. It has not yet been found by those who wish to destroy it forever. I do not know when it will resurface, but its absence should not instill fear and hopelessness. It will manifest itself at the time when we desperately need it the most.
This was the lesson I had to learn by trusting that the song would guide me to where I needed to go. Working to understand “Murder Most Foul” during the COVID-19 pandemic was a difficult journey, but it opened my eyes to the various roles that music plays in our lives. There are songs I take with me on a journey, and there are songs that take me with them on a journey.
In order for me to truly appreciate the songs I call upon to get me through difficult times, I had to appreciate the relationship between art and trauma. As long as there is art, there is no hopelessness.
Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan’s newest studio album and the record where “Murder Most Foul” appears, is available now.
Published in partnership with Columbia Records.