On December 13, 1963, approximately three weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, the twenty-two-year-old folksinger Bob Dylan received the Tom Paine Award, given in recognition of distinguished service in the fight for civil liberty, from the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee at a banquet at the Hotel Americana in New York City. Seated next to Dylan was the novelist, playwright, and essayist James Baldwin, seventeen years Dylan’s senior. At this, their only known meeting, by all photographic indications at least, Dylan and Baldwin got along well with each other.
Profoundly uncomfortable at his coronation as leftist folksinger prophet — the designated torchbearer of the tradition of Depression-era singers like Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston — he was receiving from the stalwarts of the Old Left in attendance at the event, a nervous Dylan drank heavily and gave an awkward, rambling, disjointed acceptance speech in which he criticized the assembled audience for being old and out-of-touch. He mocked their bald heads and said they needed to “make way for the young.” Most transgressively and controversially, however, Dylan said that he recognized himself in Kennedy’s accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald: “I’ll stand up and get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Harvey Oswald, I don’t know exactly where, what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit that I too — I saw something of myself in him.”
Dylan was roundly booed, and the response to his speech was a disaster. (In a 1964 New Yorker profile, he explained what he was trying to say in the speech more coherently: “I had to say something about Lee Oswald. I told them I’d read a lot of his feelings in the papers, and I knew he was uptight. Said I’d been uptight too, so I’d got a lot of his feelings. I saw a lot of myself in Oswald, I said, and I saw in him a lot of the times we’re all living in. And, you know, they started booing. They looked at me like I was an animal. They actually thought I was saying it was a good thing Kennedy had been killed. That’s how far out they are. I was talking about Oswald.”)
In Wicked Messenger: Bob Dylan and the 1960s (by far the best treatment of Dylan’s engagement with politics in the 1960s and beyond), Mike Marqusee writes that “to speak ill of the dead president — worse yet, to identify with his killer — was to breach the most daunting taboo in America, [one] that neither the old Left nor the liberals were prepared to violate.” He also points out that “Dylan’s impromptu identification with Oswald was a blunt instrument enabling him to register a sense of alienation that had gone way beyond disquiet over racism and nuclear arms.” This more profound and far-reaching sense of alienation would point the way to and form the backdrop of Dylan’s great mid-sixties work to come.
Most immediately, the kerfuffle over Dylan’s ill-conceived speech effectively ended his involvement with direct political activism and the type of topical songwriting he had cut his teeth on in anthems like “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” The songs Dylan would write from 1964-1967 and beyond (often famously accompanied by electric instrumentation) would be more surreal, abstract, impressionistic, prismatic, poetic, paranoid, visionary, and opaque. If Kennedy (and Oswald) are in these songs, they are there implicitly, like phantoms; there are no more casual shoutouts to President Kennedy like the one in 1963’s “I Shall Be Free,” where JFK calls up Dylan on the phone to ask him what actions he thinks are necessary to make the country grow. (Dylan’s horny, sophomoric response is a namecheck of attractive European actresses, presumably to be imported and thus increase the GNP: “My friend John, Brigitte Bardot…Anita Ekberg… Sophia Loren… Country’ll grow!”)
Dylan made his mythic arrival in New York City just four days after Kennedy was inaugurated in January 1961, and it’s almost too easy to do a surface reading of Dylan’s first three albums as products of the Camelot era: they are sincere, earnest, youthful, multifaceted, and energetic, albeit shot through with a sense of apocalyptic doom and pessimism that presaged the fallout from both the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 and Kennedy’s death in 1963. It was perhaps these bleaker currents in his work that made Dylan better suited than anyone else in the international folk music community to inhabit and give voice to the vacuum of paranoia, unease, and increasing distrust of the entire substructure of Western life that marked the underbelly of the High Sixties (which arguably began in the wake of JFK’s assassination).
This atmosphere of dread, suspicion, violence, anger, and disaster is swirling and thick in key Dylan mid-Sixties tracks like “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” “Gates of Eden,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “Desolation Row,” and “All Along the Watchtower,” even if explicit, topical references to contemporary personages like Kennedy are generally absent. (The President of the United States stands naked in “It’s Alright, Ma,” but he seems more like Johnson or Nixon or Trump or either Bush than JFK for whatever reason, although his identity has been usefully malleable as the song has mutated in meaning and arrangement over the years.)
Surprisingly, Kennedy doesn’t show up very often in Dylan’s post-Sixties work, either. Perhaps the catastrophe of the Oswald speech in 1963 scared him into silence on the topic almost permanently. In the vast songbook: no direct mention of the President. In a thousand pages of compiled interviews: just a few fleeting references, none of which are substantive (“I mean, the Kennedys were great-looking people, man; they had style” is about the extent of it, in a 1984 interview with the UK’s Sunday Times). Kennedy does make a brief and glowing cameo in Dylan’s 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One, though, albeit a somewhat oblique one.
In the book, Dylan describes his mother’s reaction to Kennedy’s visit to his hometown of Hibbing on the campaign trail in 1960, about six months after Dylan had left to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis: “My mother said that eighteen thousand people had turned out to see him at the Veterans Memorial Building and that people were hanging from the rafters and others were in the street, that Kennedy was a ray of light and had understood completely the area of the country he was in. He gave a heroic speech, my mom said, and brought people a lot of hope…. If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming [to Hibbing]. I wished I could have seen him.”
Elsewhere in the memoir’s brutal, amnesiac chapter about the making of Dylan’s 1970 album New Morning, Dylan laments Kennedy’s assassination, along with those of his brother Robert Kennedy and the civil rights leaders Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., in terms that reflect his preoccupation at the time with new fatherhood and family dynamics: “I didn’t see them as leaders being shot down, but rather as fathers whose families had been left wounded.” In the same chapter, he also expresses confusion and dismay about a September 1965 Esquire magazine cover that depicted a “four-faced monster… my face along with Malcolm X’s, [John F.] Kennedy’s, and Castro’s” in a rifle scope. Mock-outraged, Dylan asks, “What the hell was that supposed to mean?”
Fifty-five years after that magazine cover, and fifty-seven years after Kennedy’s assassination, in the ill-starred spring of 2020, Dylan finally offered us his thoughts about JFK’s death and what it was supposed to mean, in the form of his longest-ever song (an overwhelming sixteen minutes and fifty-six seconds) entitled, in a nod to Hamlet, “Murder Most Foul.” He released the song out of nowhere at midnight on March 27, during the early weeks of the COVID-19 quarantine in the United States, and the unusual circumstances of its release perhaps allowed for the 78-year-old Nobel laureate in literature to earn his first ever number-one single on the Billboard charts (US Rock Digital Song Sales) with the song, making it surely one of the most unlikely “hits” of the twenty-first century.
I listened to “Murder Most Foul” for the first time on the morning of its release as I began my quarantined day in the usual fashion: walking my dog through my neighborhood behind a hospital in Athens, Georgia, at about seven a.m. By about the ten-minute mark, I started to choke up for the first time in months, and I couldn’t even account for why. By the time I returned home, having walked an extra two blocks so I could listen to the song in its lengthy entirety, I felt both exhausted and cleansed, and also like I had engaged with one of the only pieces of art that expressed what was happening in America in the past few weeks as the realities of the pandemic and its costs began to stagger and stupefy, as well as what had been happening in America since November 22, 1963.
“Murder Most Foul” is a lot to digest, and there’s no way I can do it justice here. Suffice to say that it’s one of Dylan’s great songs of this century and that one of the ways it can be read is as a grand farewell, a lament, elegy, condemnation, and epic playlist, for the previous (American?) century.
Over sparse, funereal, virtually unchanging instrumentation of piano, bowed bass, brushed drums, and violin, Dylan’s vocal delivery of the song’s eighty-two rhyming couplets is all “incantation” (to quote Timothy Hampton in his excellent overview of the song) and at times nearly Sprechgesang (speak-singing). For its first section, it operates as a standard ballad: Dylan recounts Kennedy’s murder in Dallas in unflinching detail, reinhabiting the role of angry, unyielding, Old-Testament-style prophet he unveiled in the song “Masters of War,” written during the last winter Kennedy was alive. The killing is presented as a setup, an audacious premeditated crime committed in broad daylight by grinning enemies as devious and faithless as the assassins of Julius Caesar, a twentieth-century ritualistic sacrifice of a king: the “Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/Perfectly executed, skillfully done.” The first section concludes with the narrator crying out for the famous 60s disc jockey Wolfman Jack to “howl” a lament in response to the atrocity that’s taken place and then regresses into nursery rhyming juxtaposed with the first appearance of the title, the steal from Shakespeare: “Rub a dub dub — it’s a murder most foul.”
In the second section of the song, time splinters and fractures: the horror of Kennedy’s murder seems to explode it. Looking ahead to the future, the assassination seems to spawn Beatlemania, “the Aquarian Age,” and even the Vietnam War, at the same time as phrases and figures from the Anglo-American past (“frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” blackface singers and whiteface clowns, wise old owls, the Invisible Man of Wells and/or Ellison) float free of their moorings into the catchall and velocity of the song’s unyielding structure. Icons of assassination conspiracy theories like the three bums and the grassy knoll pop up like figures in a nightmare funhouse and jostle for position alongside strictly factual locations associated with Kennedy’s death (the Triple Underpass at the end of Dealey Plaza and Elm Street, the street on which Kennedy was actually shot).
This kaleidoscopic technique, reminiscent of the anything-goes style of historical and cultural referencing in mid-Sixties Dylan epics like “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Desolation Row” as well as the wildly allusive, almost cut-up lyrical procedures on more recent albums like Time Out of Mind and “Love and Theft,” gains in scope and daring in the third and fourth sections of “Murder Most Foul,” where time and space become even more elastic and malleable.
Dylan moves us back in time to just before the assassination occurs in the third section and (daringly, astonishingly) puts us in the limousine with the Kennedys, even switching the voice of his narrator to that of Kennedy himself, before and after he is shot, for eight lines. We jump to Kennedy’s infamous autopsy at Parkland Hospital, which is presented in the song as a second violation and mutilation of his body after its shooting, an almost satanic inversion of some funereal procedure from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, here designed to destroy Kennedy’s soul instead of prepare it for the afterlife. (Mysteriously, Kennedy’s soul seems to escape.) Someone (back in the limousine?) turns on the radio, and snatches of 50s rock’n’roll burst through the static.
And then, perhaps for the first time since that night in the Hotel Americana in December 1963, Dylan publicly identifies with Oswald: “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline/I never shot anyone from in front or behind/Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear/I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier.” The voice here might be that of Oswald, or it might be that of Kennedy, or it might be both at the same time. Just as quickly, that voice changes again to someone else’s, presumably Dylan’s or the song’s central narrator’s, who is viewing the ultimate American snuff film, Abraham Zapruder’s home movie of the Kennedy assassination, again and again and calling it what it is: the “Ugliest thing that you ever have seen.” This “objective” record of the event provides no consolation, no quarter, no clarification; it only reconfirms the murder’s blasphemy and obscenity. “It is what it is, and it’s murder most foul.”
Which brings us to the song’s fourth and final section, its most audacious and unexpected one. The floodgates open, and the radio takes over. Our master of ceremonies, Wolfman Jack, reappears like a character in a Shakespeare play (or from a mid-Sixties Dylan album) driven mad by what he’s witnessed, eyes rolling back in his head, crazed, “speaking in tongues.” Even though the Wolfman has lost his marbles, he seems to be the best, the only hope for grace, solace, or recompense for everything else that has happened in the first ten minutes of the song and in the corrupted previous half-century of American life. Dylan asks the Wolfman to play him a song, and play him another song, and another one after that, and Wolfman Jack seems to have the entirety of the American songbook (and more) at his disposal at whatever cosmic radio station he is broadcasting from.
At some point the song’s narrator — let’s just go ahead and call him Dylan — takes over DJ duties from the afflicted Wolfman Jack, and all of the “on-air” experience Dylan gained as the host of his Theme Time Radio Hour on satellite radio from 2006 to 2009 comes into deeply satisfying play. Dedications are sent out to Jack Ruby, Marilyn Monroe, and Jackie Kennedy, even to the convicted murderer the Birdman of Alcatraz. Billy Joel songs rub shoulders with Civil-War-era Appalachian murder ballads. Everything from the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, and Warren Zevon to Union Army war songs and Beethoven are name-checked and requested. Kennedy shows back up and lands again at Love Field in Dallas on the morning of his death, almost to remind us what the song was originally about, and then he disappears back into the sea of the roll call of songs, artists, and dedications.
There’s an air of desperation as the phantasmagoric time-travelling radio show goes on and on, as if Dylan is searching for the one song, the one record, the one artist, the one note or phrase or forgotten meldoy, that might somehow make sense of Kennedy’s murder and the void of nihilism and suspicion it left in its wake. And yet there’s also an air of the possibility of redemption, of glee and sly humor, of delight in the vast and unaccountable accounting of human experience that Dylan has found in the songs and the records and the stories they tell. Is it enough? Well, not really, but it’ll have to do. The last song requested in “Murder Most Foul,” is “Murder Most Foul.” Dylan’s song is written into the history it has recounted, and leaves open the question of whether it is trapped in that history or escapes from it.
In one of the first interviews he gave after he almost died from a rare lung infection in 1997, Dylan said, “Those old songs are my lexicon and prayer book… I believe in a God of time and space, but if people ask me about that, my impulse is to point them back toward those songs. I believe in Hank Williams singing “I Saw the Light.’ I’ve seen the light, too.” In a moment of great darkness, Dylan released a great song that defies time and space. The light it emanates is that of the old songs it references and is stitched together from, as well as the light from Dylan’s own battered, angry, sorrowful, and unforgetting conscience. Here’s hoping the country that produced Dylan, lost Kennedy, and is either entering into or slowly emerging from the “slow decay” predicted in “Murder Most Foul,” can finally see the light too and reckon with its painful history. America perhaps doesn’t deserve the jazz funeral march Dylan wrote for it, but like all the best gifts, he gave it anyway. Every time I listen to it, I can’t stop myself from crying.
— Jeff Fallis
JEFF FALLIS is a poet and critic who teaches at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He once shook hands with Bob Dylan after a concert in Chattanooga, Tennessee.