Song of the Week – Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan

My occasional song of the week post does not mean it is a great song necessarily but one that is, for some reason, notable…

Hamlet: O God!
Ghost: Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder
Hamlet: Murder!
Ghost: Murder most foul, as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange and unnatural

—The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, Act I, Scene Five

Though Bob Dylan’s reputation as troubadour to the masses has long since been a given thing, in recent years his output has been one of covering the Classic American Songbook, something Rod Stewart also did when he ran out of ideas.

The most recent album of which I’m aware is one called Triplicate which came out in 2017 and which covers songs such as “Stormy Weather and “As Time Goes By.” A few years ago, Dylan appeared in a commercial with IBM’s Watson computer. The computer said it had analyzed all of Bob’s lyrics and found it his main themes were that “time passes and love fades.” Dylan said, “That sounds about right.” Funny. I thought his main themes were injustice and antiwar. But I guess I must have misinterpreted.

If you think I’m being harsh on Dylan well, I am. He seems to have completely turned his back on his past and now has become the song and dance man he once told the press he was. And I say this as a megafan, albeit a somewhat disappointed megafan.

And so it was with some interest when I heard that “at midnight on March 27, 2020, Bob Dylan released โ€œMurder Most Foul,” his first studio release since 2017โ€™s Triplicate and first original song release since 2012โ€™s Tempest. He noted on Twitter that fans โ€œmight find [the song] interestingโ€ and also to โ€œstay safe, stay observant.โ€

Hmm, okay. So what is this song? Well, at 16:54 it is now the longest song in Dylan’s catalog. It was recorded sometime in the “recent past.” And what is it about? And how well-received? (Rolling Stone calls it “absolutely mind-blowing” but they have been uncritically pro-Dylan for a long time.)

Well, no elliptical statements here. It is about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and also somewhat of a recitation of popular culture. And songs, perhaps played by DJ Wolfman Jack who gets name-checked here.

The Music Enthusiast is somewhat of a JFK assassination buff having read quite a bit about it and visited Dallas and the scene of the crime a couple of times. In that respect, Dylan has done his homework about what happened here. He corroborates what many of us already know – this was not some random act by a lone nut.

But why the recitation of songs (“Only the Good Die Young,” “Mystery Train,” “Blue Sky.” (As an Allmans nut, it pleases me no end that one of their songs got in there. Dylan specifically references Dickey Betts but that’s in part due to it rhyming with Stan Getz and in part due to them having known each other and played together before.)

He also name-checks movies (It Happened One Night) and plays (Merchant of Venice). And he mentions Jelly Roll Morton, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. But also – Bugsy Siegel?

The music is kinda hypnotic and rather than sing, he is largely reciting all of these cultural touchpoints. Some critics have said that Dylan is using this song to soothe us during a time of widespread disease and death. Maybe. But this is not Top Ten stuff and really, who will even hear it outside of his fans?

Some have also compared it to Don McLean’s “American Pie” which also uses the device of death to frame an epic about cultural happenings. Frankly, while McLean isn’t half the songwriter Dylan is, I think “American Pie” is the better of the two.

What do I think is going on? Well, that maybe Dylan is saying Yeah, you can take down our leaders but you can’t kill the great art that is out there. We can still enjoy “Misty” no matter how many Kennedys or MLKs or Gandhis or Malcolm X’s you take out.

That’s my guess. But your guess is every bit as good as mine.

There is definitely something hypnotic (maybe even dirge-like) about this song and – love or hate Dylan – I’d encourage you to give it a listen.

Lyrics here

Spotify link

37 thoughts on “Song of the Week – Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan

  1. Thank you. You prompted me to watch this. I had kind of ignored it ’til now. I mean, really? 16+ minutes? But I am glad I listened. As you say, it is hypnotic. I could not stop listening. It is like a slice of a Baby Boomer’s memory chips. Subtle, yet stark. Mundane bits of remembrance mostly, yet utterly fascinating. Put it all together and it is somehow monumental. The way he repeats play this and play that, like he is compiling a playlist – a very 21st century pastime. And just the sheer act of what seem to be random memories – this is the way our memories work; it is like lying in bed trying to go to sleep; your brain keeps reminding you of stuff you have seen and heard and experienced. Reminds me somewhat of Simon and Garfunkel’s “A Simple Desultory Philippic” and Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but the song it brought to my memory the most is Larry Norman’s “Nightmare #71” – you might that one entertaining – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rD7YODSdmDo

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      1. Well, yeah. First thought is simple stream of consciousness; but it feels like a kind of memorial Rubik’s cube of American history (at least the last eighty years or so). For we Boomers, I’d have to say that the JFK assassination is a pivot-point in our communal memory banks. So, Dylan’s composition seems to pinch that dot on our timelines, like pulling a thread, and then a bunch of our remembrances begin to appear as the timeline unravels. The mood of the piece is not particularly dark – even though the overall theme seems to be death and destruction – but it is powerfully melancholy. The wandering piano line, the sweet-sad violin/cello, the barely audible but persistent brush on the snare. It is quite a masterful composition, really. I feel like he’s basically saying, “Hey. Listen up, fellow Boomers. We have had quite a life. We seen a lot of wild and crazy shit. We’re almost done. And that traumatic event that is in the center of our existence – the loss of JFK, who represented youth and hope and strength – remains essentially unsolved.” Like so much of our lives, things happen and we don’t ever fully understand why. We are left with a sense of incompleteness, a lingering sadness about what may come next. We have hoped, and we have rebelled, and we have experimented, and we have tried to find purpose and meaning; and now we are facing death ourselves. In some ways, seen through the right lens, our generation was betrayed by the assassination of JFK. It caused us to feel hopelessness in the core of our being. It wounded our psyche. We have been valiant to press on, but now when death is knocking on our door, it is too soon. Every death within our generation feels like ‘murder most foul.’ Watching our beloved musical icons pass away over the past few years has been emblematic of the destiny of our generation. Not looking forward to all of us just f-f-fading away.

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        1. Wow, excellent analysis. I kinda alluded to something like that in a couple of sentences but you took it to another level. And strictly speaking, Dylan isn’t a part of the boomer demographic though perhaps his main audience is

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        2. Dylan is not a baby-boomer. Boomers were post WW2, when the men came home and people started having babies again. Boomers are generally thought to be post 1946. Dylan was born in 1941 (a war baby).
          But, yes, Murder Most Foul will become one of Dylan’s masterpieces.

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    1. Firstly, I have never heard of Larry Norman. Complete and total mystery to me. But I listened to the song an yea, somewhat Dylan-esque though more the “Highway 61” side of things.

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      1. Yeah, Larry Norman was part of a band called People!, that had one hit, “I Love You,” in like 1968. The band broke up and he recorded solo after that, nothing that broke the charts, though.

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  2. I would have said that since turning his back on protest songs, around 1964, his main theme is playing with words. There is the odd exception though – notably Hurricane.

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      1. I think Dylanโ€™s done a lot of trying to diminish peopleโ€™s expectations – probably just doesnโ€™t like the weight of them. He stopped being a protest singer and went electric, then he walked away from his rock career in the mid 1960s and went to Woodstock.

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        1. Heโ€™s probably wonders why everyone scrutinises and analyses him, while contemporaries like Paul Simon just get to make records with far less attention?

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        2. I love Paul Simon as a songwriter but he never really had – or even pretended to have – the social impact heft of a Dylan. Simon is seen as a great songwriter but only one of them won a Nobel prize.

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        1. I like it too. Moody. My disappointment comes in that I wish he would do more of this shit. He could hammer our current guy with just a few words. But I guess he deserves his downtime like everybody else.

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        2. I like Bobs later output. Just CB’s opinion man. I dont take him to seriously but I do like his word play and the music behind it. Bob’s a rocker.
          Doc, now this is kinds weird. I just got nudged towards Willie Nile (knew of him but never bit). While I was reading your take one of Willies songs came on my music box ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’. He does a bit of what Bob does on the cut you featured. He even sounds like him. Check it out man.

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  3. I mean…. “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” vs. “Blowin’ in the Wind”? Or “Still Crazy After All These Years” vs. “All Along the Watchtower”? Or “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” vs. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”? Or “You Can Call Me Al” vs. “It Ain’t Dark Yet”?…..

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    1. Sure, but that’s a facile comparison. Settng up strawmen and knocking them down. Like I said, even Simon doesn’t put himself in that category. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a great songwriter. You conveniently overlooked ‘Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “America,” “Dangling Conversation.”

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    2. Plus, if I may, Dylan has some doggerel he’s written too. Go back and check out the (deservedly panned) ‘Self Portrait’ album. Why, one of the few good things on there is – “The Boxer.” ๐Ÿ™‚

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        1. Heh! I’ve had guys come over and say, “How can you like Paul McCartney? He wrote “Ebony and Ivory!” He wrote “Silly Love Songs.” Oh, please. Every artist has got some baggage.

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  4. You are right about that! As I’m sure you know, for every recorded song we like of theirs, most artists have a dozen or more songs that never even saw the light of day. Who knows? We might have liked the discarded ones as much as the ‘kept’ ones. Also, the ‘silly’ songs are often fun, and who wants every song to be the same? Some day I’ll share with you about my “Nostalgic Dip” project…

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  5. This is in my ears for the third time now. Itโ€™s good to feel like heโ€™s back – I too had gotten tired of the constant stream of half-arsed cover albums. All the bootleg series releases of late (aside from being more expensive than they ever should be) only served to highlight what was being missed

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  6. When it comes to Bob Dylan, I feel the man has always been fiercely independent and done whatever he wants without caring much what other people think about it. Based on his music I have heard, I think the outcomes have varied from brilliant to dismal and everything in-between.

    I have to say my initial reaction to this tune is that I feel a bit lukewarm about it. I understand the assassination of JFK was a traumatic event for the country. At the same time, I think the story has been told so many times, so I’m wondering whether we needed another version.

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    1. I can hardly disagree with anything you say. My first reaction on hearing of it was, “Very timely, Bob.”

      I think, though, that it’s not so much about the assassination – although it is – as that he uses it as a springboard for other ideas. But yeah, he could have done a JFK tune casting doubt on the “lone nut” theory years ago when his opinion would have mattered. I like seeing him taking on political matters again. But I’d much rather he take on the current idiot-in-chief who has proven to be dangerous in so many ways.

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