Article by David Masciotra originally appeared in Salon on April, 4 2020.

Bob Dylan's new song, "Murder Most Foul," arrives in the mailbox like a postcard from the apocalypse. In an effectively restrained voice, America's most important songwriter delivers an act of mourning for John F. Kennedy that enlarges into political prophecy, almost as if he is auditioning for authorship of a follow chapter to the book of Revelation. 

The music is slow, almost appropriately like a dirge, and when a delicate touch of the piano bleeds into tearful string accompaniment, a space emerges for the singer's voice. He transports our mind's eye back to the vantage point of Dallas in November of 1963, promising that — no matter our age or ideology — we can also find the debris of our damaged souls at that same blood stained locale. As Dylan declares midway into "Murder Most Foul," we are riding to the "place where faith, hope, and charity died."

As America grew more commercially dominant and technologically powerful throughout the 20th century, it also transformed from a republic into an empire, accumulating during its metamorphosis a collection of characteristics that would usher in an era of political darkness. The seemingly disconnected acts of organized violence — in the jungles of Vietnam where America waged an unjust war, the inner cities where leadership exploited and abused the poor, the skies and rivers choking on the contamination of countless pollutants — all coalesced into a deep spiritual disease. It is a disease that reveals its gruesome symptoms yet again in this moment, as COVID-19 demonstrates the horrific fallout that results from separating citizens according to race and class, and deliberately neglecting the public good in the name of profit.

"Murder Most Foul" begins at the literal and figurative scene of the crime. Its opening lines communicate exactly where Dylan believes the country's "soul was torn away." It was not due to an accident, or even the unfortunate luck of Lee Harvey Oswald's aim, that JFK died, taking something essential in the American spirit with him in his last breath. According to Dylan, it was a planned execution by an unnamed "they."

The plural pronoun makes it clear that Dylan rejects the "lone gunman" theory of the Dallas assassination. The first verse has JFK, like Christ in Gethsemane, protesting his own fate, "He said, 'Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?'/ 'Of course we do, we know who you are'/ Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car."

The "they" turns into a "we" with the boast, "We already got someone here to take your place." Within seconds of history — or a handful of lyrical lines — it is all over: "It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise/ Right there in front of everyone's eyes/ Greatest magic trick ever under the sun/ Perfectly executed, skillfully done."

David Talbot, the founder of Salon and author of "Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years" and "The Devil's Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America's Secret Government," provides more specific identification of "they" than Dylan. I asked him, over an exchange of emails, for his interpretation, based on his years of research, including countless interviews with journalists and former government officials. He wrote: 

I believe the 'they' Dylan is referring to is the high-level national security operation led by deposed CIA Director Allen Dulles that targeted Kennedy, who was trying to prematurely end the Cold War, and then engineered the cover-up of the crime. Dulles conveniently got himself appointed to the Warren Commission, which pinned the assassination solely on the conveniently dead Oswald, and then played such a dominant role in the official investigation that it should have been called the Dulles Report.

Dylan uses the power of song to amplify Oswald's own defense that he was no more than a "patsy" in the conspiracy to kill Kennedy, and he also identifies the same "they" as responsible for the death of Robert F. Kennedy, President Kennedy's attorney general and brother, who would also fall prey to an assassin less than five years later during his own presidential campaign. 

Talbot's historical research and analysis, along with that of other revisionist historians like James Douglass, indicates that JFK and RFK were both breaking from the national security state at the hour of their respective deaths. The president's public rhetoric telegraphed an emphasis on peace, and a withdrawal from the imperialistic aims that his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, described in his famous farewell address, when he warned America about the dangers of the "military-industrial complex." It is impossible to assert counterfactuals with certainty, but many historians believe that even though Kennedy had initiated the Vietnam misadventure, it's unlikely he would have launched a full scale invasion of Vietnam.

Leftist intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, on the other hand, represent a faction that would argue Kennedy was no different, in ideology or policy, than other militaristic presidents. Dylan's nostalgic romanticization of a lost age, they might contend, is naive and misinformed. Talbot claims that Chomsky and other Kennedy skeptics lack information and perspective:

Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn — who were unable to perceive the obvious rupture between President Kennedy and his national security apparatus — have simply not done the exhaustive research that I and other revisionist historians like Douglass have done. Chomsky, et al., are captives of their own deterministic thinking and have not studied the voluminous documents or interviewed the hundreds of people whom I have, including many Kennedy insiders and national security advisers. When Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — the esteemed historian and a Kennedy White House adviser — told me "we didn't control the CIA or the Pentagon," that made me shiver.

"Murder Most Foul" both resembles Dylan's previous work and differs from it. Musically, it bears the most similarity to "Highlands" and "Ain't Talkin'" — two other lengthy ballads without traditional choruses in which the repetitive music, over an extended period of time, enables Dylan to adopt a hypnotic vocal effect as he speaks and sings, even when whispering, with the urgency of a tornado siren. All three songs, but most especially "Murder Most Foul," grow darker and ominous as each verse makes way for the next. "The age of the Antichrist has begun," Dylan sings in the new epic.

The demolition of the hope of the 1960s began with the assassination of JFK, and continued to haunt the surroundings of counterculture. Dylan makes the familiar comparison between Woodstock and Altamont — an outdoor Rolling Stones concert in California where the Hell's Angels, hired to provide security in an act of monumental stupidity, killed an 18-year-old attendee named Meredith Hunter.

References to music dominate the latter half of "Murder Most Foul." Dylan pleads with his nameless audience to "play" a roll call of great pop, country, blues, jazz, and rock and roll artists, in a seeming act of mourning for what is lost — both the physically and spiritually dead. There are lines when Dylan seems to offer the multicultural brilliance of American music as a source of comfort and a signpost toward redemption — "Play Etta James, play 'I'd Rather Go Blind'/ Play it for the man with the telepathic mind." There are also lines when Dylan's reference takes on the tone of a taunt, as if art and popular culture — even at its best — is little more than a diversion, a distraction from the horror of a president's blood spilling into the streets:

Hush, little children, you'll understand The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand.

When Dylan cites the great music of the 20th century, calling out everyone from Thelonious Monk to Dickey Betts, "Murder Most Foul" almost becomes a waltz. But the music deconstructs back into dark dirge mode when Dylan turns to a commentary on what he himself is doing, making the song almost meta-musical. 

The winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, who is famously adversarial with the press, anticipates how his own song will fall into the annals of entertainment, prompting music critics to exercise their microscopic attention spans and soup-bowl shallow understanding of the relationship between art and history.

"Play 'Marching Through Georgia' and 'Dumbarton's Drums,'" Dylan sings as he reaches his finale, "Play 'Darkness' and death will come when it comes/ Play 'Love Me or Leave Me' by the great Bud Powell / Play 'The Blood-Stained Banner,' play 'Murder Most Foul.'"

As if on Dylan's cynical command, most critics have so far focused on the 17-minute running time of "Murder Most Foul." The New Yorker offered the dazzling insight that the song is "weird," and NPR made the critical contribution of publishing an alphabetical list of all the songs Dylan references in the lyrics. No major publication has run a review that devotes any time to dissection of Dylan's use of plural pronouns when naming Kennedy's killers.

David Talbot sees higher stakes in "Murder Most Foul" than its qualification as Dylan's longest song:

There is a clear parallel between the assassinations of the 1960s — including the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — and the devolution of American democracy. In my lifetime we've seen the presidency steadily deteriorate, from the New Frontier of President Kennedy to the new Dark Ages of Donald Trump. Dylan signaled that he was prompted to release this stunning song about America's decline by the current pandemic, which has exposed the sickness and corruption of our institutions and leadership. 

Bob Dylan has always played coy with his labeling as the "voice of a generation," and has often dismissed the investment many fans and scholars make in the interpretation of his lyrics. Frustrated with journalists in the late 1960s, he famously and charmingly referred to himself as a "song-and-dance man."

With the release of "Murder Most Foul" in a time of extreme American pain and need, Dylan has embraced his unique cultural and artistic authority to present a prophetic examination of American decline, taking a musical magnifying glass to the erosion of America's historical promise and the "slow decay," to use his words, of the American soul.

The 78-year-old Dylan is not the commercial juggernaut he was in previous decades, but his new songs always attract attention. "Murder Most Foul" already has 2.2 million plays on YouTube. The popular reaction to the song, as with the response to coronavirus, the attacks of 9/11, and the JFK assassination itself, will demonstrate the difference between hearing and listening.

David Masciotra is the author of "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky, 2015) and the forthcoming "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters" (Bloomsbury Publishing). Contribute through LaterPay to support David's Salon articles — all money donated goes directly to the writer.

"THE SAVING OF OUR WORLD from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” Martin Luther King, Jr - Presente! (January 15, 1929 - Assassinated April 4, 1968) Minister | Orator | Political Prisoner | Direct-Action Activist


April 4 is not only the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., but it was also the day, one year earlier, when he gave his pivotal speech denouncing the war in Vietnam. The speech was an act intolerable to the ruling class - and may have sealed his fate.

From "Beyond Vietnam:" “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… …If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight. Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” April 4, 1967 Beyond Vietnam: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam Audio of the speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OC1Ru2p8OfU


Image: MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR Panel: WE FOLLOW THE PATH LESS TRAVELED Mural: THE CITY AT THE CROSSROADS OF HISTORY By Mike Alewitz/2014 Mural commissioned for the Puffin Gallery of Social Activism, Museum of the City of New York. Censored by Museum Director Susan Henshaw Jones and the Puffin Foundation. (Jones used the occasion of Martin Luther King’s birthday to break her silence and justify the censorship of the artwork. One of her objections to the mural was the inclusion of Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King as central figures in the image) See: https://www.change.org/p/the-museum-of-the-city-of-new-york-let-the-people-of-new-york-see-labor-s-story-stop-the-censorship-of-the-city-at-the-crossroads-of-history

Bob Dylan has chosen this moment, of all moments, to release his masterful epic (full lyrics below) on the assassination of President Kennedy, "Murder most Foul."  Why now?

Could it be that his artist’s heart feels a world under assault, once again, by the powers that be?  For whatever the actual lethality of the virus, there is no doubt that we are all suffering from the same sort of “shock and awe” we did when our collective hopes for a New Frontier were blown away in 1963.

You don’t have to have a religious streak for it all to feel something like the fulfillment of the prophesy spoken to Dylan’s narrator:

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, "Son, The Age of the Antichrist has just only begun"

When Kennedy died, so died the efforts he had been making to end the Cold War, to withdraw from Vietnam, to create a rising economic tide that would “lift all boats.”

And while much has been made of Lyndon Johnson’s carrying-on of Kennedy-era social and civil rights initiatives, the reality was as Martin Luther King described it: “The promises of the Great Society have been shot down on the battlefields of Vietnam, making the poor, white and Negro, bear the heaviest burden, both at the front and at home.”

Well, as Mark Twain once allegedly said: "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes."  

Dylan describes the Kennedy assassination as “the greatest magic trick ever under the sun/ Perfectly executed, skillfully done.” 

It happened so quickly, so quick by surprise

Right there in front of everyone’s eyes

It would seem Dylan, courageously, has sent us a message when we needed it most, with little in the way of encryption. It is up to us to break the simple code, take in its meaning, and act.

Act as we didn’t then.

“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.”

And also with you, Bob.  

John Kirby is the director of Four Died Tryingan upcoming feature documentary about the extraordinary lives and calamitous deaths of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy.  


Lyrics by Bob Dylan

[Verse 1]

It was 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

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb

He said, "Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?"

"Of course we do, we know who you are!"

Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car

Shot down like a dog in broad daylight

Was a matter of timing and the timing was right

You got unpaid debts, we've come to collect

We're gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect

We'll mock you and shock you and we'll put it in your face

We've already got someone here to take your place

The day they blew out the brains of the king Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing

It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise

Right there in front of everyone's eyes

Greatest magic trick ever under the sun

Perfectly executed, skillfully done

Wolfman, oh Wolfman, oh Wolfman, howl

Rub-a-dub-dub, it's a murder most foul

[Verse 2]

Hush, little children, you'll understand

The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand

Slide down the banister, go get your coat

Ferry 'cross the Mersey and go for the throat

There's three bums comin' all dressed in rags

Pick up the pieces and lower the flags

I'm goin' to Woodstock, it's the Aquarian Age Then I'll go over to Altamont and sit near the stage

Put your head out the window, let the good times roll

There's a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll

Stack up the bricks, pour the cement

Don't say Dallas don't love you, Mr. President

Put your foot in the tank and then step on the gas

Try to make it to the triple underpass

Blackface singer, whiteface clown

Better not show your faces after the sun goes down

Up in the red light district, they've got cop on the beat

Living in a nightmare on Elm Street

When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe

Don't ask what your country can do for you

Cash on the barrelhead, money to burn

Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn

I'm going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride

The place where faith, hope, and charity died

Shoot him while he runs, boy, shoot him while you can See if you can shoot the invisible man

Goodbye, Charlie! Goodbye, Uncle Sam!

Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don't give a damn

What is the truth, and where did it go? Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know

"Shut your mouth," said a wise old owl Business is business, and it's a murder most foul

[Verse 3]

Tommy, can you hear me? I'm the Acid Queen

I'm riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine

Ridin' in the back seat next to my wife Headed straight on in to the afterlife

I'm leaning to the left, I got my head in her lap

Hold on, I've been led into some kind of a trap

Where we ask no quarter, and no quarter do we give

We're right down the street, from the street where you live

They mutilated his body and they took out his brain

What more could they do? They piled on the pain

But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at

For the last fifty years they've been searchin' for that

Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me

I hate to tell you, mister, but only dead men are free

Send me some lovin', then tell me no lie

Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by

Wake up, little Susie, let's go for a drive Cross the Trinity River, let's keep hope alive

Turn the radio on, don't touch the dials

Parkland Hospital, only six more miles

You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead

That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head

I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline

Never shot anyone from in front or behind

I've blood in my eye, got blood in my ear

I'm never gonna make it to the new frontier

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

They killed him once and they killed him twice

Killed him like a human sacrifice

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, "Son

The age of the Antichrist has just only begun"

Air Force One comin' in through the gate

Johnson sworn in at 2:38

Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel

It is what it is, and it's murder most foul [Verse 4]

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 thirty-six hours past Judgment Day

Wolfman Jack, he's speaking in tongues He's going on and on at the top of his lungs Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack

Play it for me in my long Cadillac

Play me that "Only the Good Die Young"

Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung

Play "St. James Infirmary" and the Court of King James

If you want to remember, you better write down the names

Play Etta James, too, play "I'd Rather Go Blind"

Play it for the man with the telepathic mind

Play John Lee Hooker, play "Scratch My Back"

Play it for that strip club owner named Jack

Guitar Slim going down slow

Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe

[Verse 5]

Play "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"

Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling any good

Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey Take it to the limit and let it go by

Play it for Carl Wilson, too

Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue

Play tragedy, play "Twilight Time"

Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime

Play another one and "Another One Bites the Dust"

Play "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In God We Trust"

Ride the pink horse down that long, lonesome road

Stand there and wait for his head to explode

Play "Mystery Train" for Mr. Mystery

The man who fell down dead like a rootless tree

Play it for the reverend, play it for the pastor

Play it for the dog that got no master

Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz

Play "Blue Sky," play Dickey Betts

Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk Charlie Parker and all that junk All that junk and "All That Jazz"

Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz

Play Buster Keaton, play Harold Lloyd

Play Bugsy Siegel, play Pretty Boy Floyd Play the numbers, play the odds

Play "Cry Me a River" for the Lord of the gods

Play Number nine, play Number six

Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks

Play Nat King Cole, play "Nature Boy"

Play "Down in the Boondocks" for Terry Malloy

Play "It Happened One Night" and "One Night of Sin"

There's twelve million souls that are listening in

Play "Merchant of Venice", play "Merchants of Death"

Play "Stella by Starlight" for Lady Macbeth

Don't worry, Mr. President, help's on the way

Your brothers are comin', there'll be hell to pay Brothers? What brothers? What's this about hell?

Tell them, "We're waiting, keep coming," we'll get them as well

Love Field is where his plane touched down But it never did get back up off the ground

Was a hard act to follow, second to none

They killed him on the altar of the rising sun

Play "Misty" for me and "That Old Devil Moon"

Play "Anything Goes" and "Memphis in June"

Play "Lonely at the Top" and "Lonely Are the Brave"

Play it for Houdini spinning around in his grave

Play Jelly Roll Morton, play "Lucille"

Play "Deep in a Dream", and play "Driving Wheel"

Play "Moonlight Sonata" in F-sharp

And "A Key to the Highway" for the king on the harp

Play "Marching Through Georgia" and "Dumbarton's Drums"

Play darkness and death will come when it comes

Play "Love Me or Leave Me" by the great Bud Powell

Play "The Blood-Stained Banner", play "Murder Most Foul"