Unpacking Bob Dylan’s Gripping 17-Minute Song ‘Murder Most Foul’

When asked about the Kennedy assasination in 1971, Bob Dylan responded, “If I was more sensitive about it, I would have written a song about it, wouldn’t I?” To the world’s surprise, it turns out that Dylan did, in fact, eventually write such a song. The 17-minute-long “Murder Most Foul,” named after a quote from “Hamlet,” is the longest song in Dylan’s discography, exceeding the length of “Highlands” from 1997’s “Time Out of Mind.” Dylan has revealed “Murder Most Foul” was a song “recorded a while back” that his fans “might find interesting,” so one can’t help but speculate about his choice to release it now. Presumably, the shock and awe sweeping the nation amid our current global crisis echoes the collective American psyche in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assasination. After all, we can only gauge the severity of a large-scale catastrophe by comparing it to its antecedents. Dylan has long called out injustice as he sees it, setting stories to songs in his trademark way. This time around, however, storytelling is just the start. Shuttling between moods, shifting perspectives, and saturating lyrics with a wealth of disparate cultural references, he outdoes himself in this new enigmatic work.

Dylan begins, “It was a dark day in Dallas, November ’63 / A day that will live on in infamy,” referring to the six inches of rain that had fallen on the day of Kennedy’s assasination and quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Infamy Speech” after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Two lines in, the lyrics are already filled with allusions, and they only grow denser in the remaining 16-plus minutes. He quotes a line from one of his own classic songs, “Hurricane,” about the false conviction of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, drawing a parallel between two acts of injustice. The timing of the new song’s release suggests a second parallel, framing the current crisis as yet another sketchy operation. This is further supported a few lines later when Dylan observes, “Was a matter of timing and the timing was right.”

He continues, “Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing,” a description easily applicable to the current situation in which we stare blankly at an uncertain future. Quarantined alone, we look to art and popular culture to occupy ourselves, whether for better or for worse, and it’s difficult to measure Dylan’s irony when he offers, “Hush, little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand.” Indeed, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” the Fab Four’s U.S. breakthrough, was released in late 1963, shortly before John F. Kennedy’s murder. The sarcastic tone continues, “Put your head out the window, let the good times roll,” suggesting that there’s no hope, and we might as well shrug and sink with the ship. 

“I’m goin’ to Woodstock, it’s the Aquarian Age,” sings Dylan, alluding to the shift in collective consciousness associated with liberal youth in the ‘60s. The current pandemic might be the first time since then that a radical shift in mentality has swept the globe to such an extent. No one saw this coming, and people are still in disbelief, hoping to suddenly wake up from a terrible dream. Dylan hints at this too, singing of “living in a nightmare on Elm Street,” with Elm Street of course being the street on which Kennedy was riding. We all know Kennedy’s famous line, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you.” Here, however, Dylan quotes it without the sentence that followed it, framing it in a different context. It’s essentially a vote of no confidence in government, which is understandable considering the handling of the current crisis. If this isn’t desperate enough, Dylan continues, “I’m going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride,” referring to the legendary crossroads where man meets the devil. As if to make us understand clearly what he means, he bluntly adds, “Goodbye, Uncle Sam!”

Dylan marches on, reflecting, “I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free.” This line takes on a new significance in a time when we are literally forced to choose between human life and economics. He begins, at this point, a litany of musical references, naming songs by Little Richard, the Everly Brothers, Larry Williams, and himself. It gives the sense of a desperate attempt at sensory overload, in hopes of escaping harsh realities. “I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier,” he adds, referring to Kennedy’s 1960 acceptance speech, in which he declared, “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier.” As if not yet dismal enough, Dylan continues, “The age of the Antichrist has just only begun.”

The pop culture allusions keep coming, with shout outs to Tom Jones and Ray Charles. Dylan mentions Wolfman Jack, a popular disc jockey in Kennedy’s time, claiming, “he’s speaking in tongues.” Consider that just last week, in defiance of quarantine recommendations, Americans crowded a church where a pastor instructed them all to turn around and hug the people behind them. Dylan nods to the Eagles, the Platters, Queen, the Allman Brothers, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker. He mentions silent comedy stars Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and makes more references to Shakespeare. He warns, “Your brothers are comin’, there’ll be hell to pay,” presumably in reference to Bobby Kennedy. He continues, “Love Field is where his plane touched down / But it never did get back up off the ground,” alluding to Love Field airport, where Kennedy landed before the parade, and arriving at a parallel that many of us will not recover from this current virus. 

In his usual uninformed fashion, Trump suggested in the end of February that the COVID-19 crisis was a “hoax” created by the media. Now, misinformation and conspiracy theories abound about the origin of the virus, or if the pandemic is being used to justify draconian dictates. And, with news that a lack of tests are being administered by unprepared, overwhelmed medical communities, no one can really trust the numbers. Potential misinformation looms everywhere. Consider this parallel when Dylan sings, “Play it for Houdini spinning around his grave,” nodding to magician Harry Houdini, who spent his late years debunking hoaxes. 

Having already called the assasination the “greatest magic trick ever under the sun,” Dylan makes it quite clear that he suspects sinister plots at play, and one might reasonably infer that he sees a parallel in what’s happening now. At this point, he sings, “Play ‘Deep In a Dream,’ and play ‘Driving Wheel’ / Play ‘Moonlight Sonata’ in F-sharp,” and continues to name different songs to “play.” He sings as if surrendering to an onslaught of consumer culture, desperate to fill the void. By the end, the range of requests spans centuries, and the pleas have assumed the form of frenzied incantations — anything to ease the pain, soothe the soul, at least distract the mind. The final entreaty, desperate and disapproving, resounds, “Play “Murder Most Foul.”

“Murder Most Foul” is hardly concerned with musicality. Piano, drums, bowed bass, and fiddle make a satisfactory backdrop for Dylan’s words, but Dylan wastes no effort in attempting any semblance of a memorable melody. A few steps removed from a spoken word piece, the song is clearly all about the lyrics — which offer more than enough to demand many repeated listens. The song is a quirky, erudite, cultural critique. The prevailing tone leans toward cynicism and despair, especially regarding government institutions and shadowy forces. 

It’s safe to assume someone who claims to have watched the infamous “Zapruder’s film” of the assasination “thirty-three times, maybe more” is a skeptic. To release a song that recollects the event now is almost definitely to suggest a similar state of affairs. Dylan’s calls to Wolfman Jack, to play anything that comes to mind, vary in their tone from horrified to humorous. There’s a palpable undercurrent of sarcasm, mocking the youth who cling to cultural distractions, aloof. A glance at content live streaming this very moment should confirm any suspicions regarding the relevance of this observation today. 

On the other hand, the myriad of songs and works mentioned span such a range that they altogether highlight the collective passion that persists through ages, and helps people make it through times like these. After all, Dylan ultimately adds his own song to the list. In the end, the voluminous allusions to songs and various figures and items of pop culture are left open ended, raising questions about the role of art in our lives during times of crisis. Is it pathetic escapism, or is it the saving grace that gets us through? That is the question left lingering.

Murder Most Foul” is available March 27 on Apple Music.