‘Murder Most Foul’: Dylan as the Bard, in the most Shakespearean of times

Bob Dylan

Like most everybody, journalist/author/Dylanologist Chris Morris was taken by surprise when Bob Dylan released the 17-minute song “Murder Most Foul” at midnight Thursday. “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” the songwriter wrote. “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.”

Morris, author of the memoir “Together Through Life: A Personal Journey with the Music of Bob Dylan” (2017), reacted to the release in an essay posted on his personal blog. Buzz Bands LA shares it below, but first, the song:


On Nov. 22, 1963, when the world and I could not seem to stop crying, my mother gave me a copy of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan” that she had bought for me as a Christmas present. (I have written of this before). Last night, as our fresh tears only began to flow while a plague settled further upon us, that day and Dylan both returned to me in a great rush.

Shock and gratitude simultaneously flooded every cell in my body as I listened for the first time to “Murder Most Foul,” a new and totally unexpected Dylan song that was sent along late Thursday evening by his publicity representative.

As this hushed, torrential thing unspooled over the course of 17 surprising minutes, I first was stricken by my recollection of the first time I ever heard Dylan’s voice, on the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated; the murder is the subject of the new work. Then, over the course of five or six more auditions, in the deepening darkness of my bedroom as night fully settled, the personal echoes receded, and I began to take a new measure of the musician’s considerable art.

If you are looking for a compelling melody to draw you in, you will search in vain here. “Murder Most Foul” seesaws on three lapping chords that repeat predictably over the full length of the song; the accompanists (so far unnamed) – piano, two or maybe three strings, the brushed drums we’ve grown accustomed to – do their best to obscure even that slight form by playing slightly out of sync with one another.

Dylan is in bardic voice, and it feels ancient.

Dylan himself does not so much sing as chant; he sounds less rough than on his releases of the last five years. He is in bardic voice (and more will be said about that other Bard here anon), and it feels ancient. One expects a lyre in the mix. Given the epic form, I found myself thinking of the passages in “The Iliad” in which Homer enumerates the fates of his dying warriors on the Trojan battlefield.

Anyone who was young and engaged by the Kennedy mythos in 1963 will experience something primal while listening to this song. The killing has plainly remained vivid for Dylan, who was 22 years old at the time. The event is depicted in harsh, graphic terms; there is even a reference mid-song to the autopsy (which leaves the fate of the president’s soul a mystery). Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby are mentioned in passing, but old-school conspiracy theorists will likely embrace Dylan’s not terribly veiled suggestion that the assassination was a mob hit. A couple of gangland references – most especially the line “it is what it is,” a coded reference to violence from Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” – lead one to believe that all these years later Bob does not embrace the Warren Report’s conclusions.

More than one Dylanologist will draw comparisons with such lengthy tracks as “Highlands,” from “Time Out of Mind,” or “Tempest,” the title track from the most recent collection of original material, released eight years ago before a turn to the Great American Songbook. Though in its form it more closely resembles the latter number, which served as a modern rewrite of/comment on the many antique ballads devoted to the sinking of the Titanic, “Murder Most Foul” does not play out as a tombstone blues like “He Was a Friend of Mine,” which was frequently essayed by American folkies (and folk-rock acts like the Byrds) in the wake of Kennedy’s death, and which Dylan himself recorded in 1965.

The new song’s title is drawn from a phrase first heard in “Hamlet,” and Dylan is going for something of Shakespearean breadth and density in the song. At one point, he tears himself away from the Kennedy narrative and leaps forward in time – to the comforting arrival of the Beatles (and Gerry and the Pacemakers!) on U.S. shores in the months following the assassination, and then on to the false Eden of Woodstock and the mud of Altamont. Nearing the 10-minute mark, with a tip of his hat to Tom Jones and Ray Charles, he arrives at the crux of the song:

What’s new pussycat, what’d I say?
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s 36 hours past judgment day

And then, suddenly, we are in the back of an ambulance delivering the mortally wounded president to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas. Behind the wheel, the driver is listening to Wolfman Jack, the raving, howling disc jockey who in 1963 was the star attraction at XERF, a “border blaster” station that blanketed America with its 250,000 watts of radio power. And, as Jack “speaks in tongues,” from that radio suddenly courses the history of American music …

Nina Simone, the Eagles, the Beach Boys, Bob Wills, Junior Parker (and Elvis), Oscar Peterson, Stan Getz, the Allman Brothers, Monk and Bird, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, Nat King Cole, Billy Joe Royal (serenading Marlon Brando), Smiley Lewis, Randy Newman, Jelly Roll Morton, Little Richard, Little Walter, Bud Powell …

… and Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and Bugsy Siegel and Pretty Boy Floyd, and Shylock and Lady Macbeth …

Until finally, as Wolfman Jack plays “the bloodstained banner … murder most foul,” nearly 250 years of American political and cultural history dissipate in the last evanescent chords of Dylan’s historical magnum opus.

Dylan hasn’t displayed this sort of creative reach since he unleashed ‘Desolation Row’ upon his unsuspecting public in 1965.

Though he has written other things of comparable length, I don’t believe he has displayed this sort of creative reach since he unleashed “Desolation Row” upon his unsuspecting public in 1965. As a friend aptly commented last night after hearing it for the first time, “That’s quite a big song.” Indeed, it contains multitudes not even touched on here that I will be parsing in the days to come.

It is either a feat of extraordinary prescience or an accident of fate that “Murder Most Foul,” about the loss of a president who to many represented a beacon of hope for America, was created and then released as our citizens are bunkered in their homes, as another president’s every horrific, soulless action pushes the country closer to the abyss, as the national clock ticks closer to midnight. Dylan’s song is about the death of something in this nation, where it may have begun and how it proceeded, but it also reminds us of many of the things that make life in this nation worth living.

One of those things for me is the music of Bob Dylan, and today and forever I am grateful for it.