A GIFT IN HARD TIMES: BOB DYLAN REGALES HIS FANS WITH NEW SONG ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

Note added 29 June 2020: I updated this piece in a new post on 19 April 2020, but have left this version here unchanged, as first impressions. Material from this post is also incorporated in my post of 28 June 2020 on the Rough and Rowdy Ways album.

Yesterday 27 March 2020, in a time of ever greater difficulty for all of us worldwide, Bob Dylan treated his fans to his first newly released original song since 2012 – indeed, the first newly composed original to surface since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The song is at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=RD3NbQkyvbw18&v=3NbQkyvbw18&feature=emb_rel_end

and was introduced online by its author thus:

‘Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. 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.’ – Bob Dylan

The song is entitled ‘Murder Most Foul’. It is about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, decades years on from the appalling event in 1963, but is also a tribute to musical and cinematic intertextuality. It is further distinctive as being Bob Dylan’s longest song to date, clocking in on my computer at 16:54 minutes and dethroning the previous champion, ‘Highlands’ (16:29) from the 1997 album ‘Time out of Mind’.

kennedy

The title is from Shakespeare, from Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5, 27-28), when the ghost of Hamlet’s father declares of his own death, ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is / But this most foul, strange and unnatural’. The phrase ‘murder most foul’ recurs at the end of each stanza. So prominent a Shakespearean reference serves to strengthen the argument of Andrew Muir’s recent book ‘Bob Dylan and William Shakespeare: The True Performing Of It’ linking the two cultural icons. Dylan has sourced Hamlet twice before, allotting Ophelia a whole stanza of ‘Desolation Row’ and quoting her evocation of the ‘primrose path’ [to hell] in the Tell-Tale Signs version of  ‘Ain’t Talkin”. Shakespeare also features in the new song in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth (whose husband’s phrase ‘walking shadow’ Dylan had earlier quoted in ‘Forgetful Heart’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy in earlier songs, at least twice – in ‘I Shall Be Free’ on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan he imagines ‘President Kennedy calling me up’ on the phone, and the box set ‘Trouble No More’ includes in its DVD part a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham [Lincoln], Martin [Luther King] and John [Kennedy]’.

free

 

Schematically, we may divide the new song into two parts, the first focusing on the assassination and the second consisting mainly of musical and cinematic intertexts. The dividing line comes when Dylan addresses the ghost of the late DJ Wolfman Jack and asks him in repeated imperatives (‘Play …’) to play a whole series of works or artists. The result looks something like a title list from Dylan’s erstwhile radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, although without an obvious theme.

The intertextuality includes Dylan quoting himself. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; ‘rising sun’ recalls another cover, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on Dylan’s first album; the phrase ‘soul of a nation’ appeared on one of the outtakes of ‘Dignity’ that appeared on Tell-Tale Signs; Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan. We may also note what to my knowledge is the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive, the reference (‘scene of the crime’) being presumably to the deadly Tulsa race massacres of 1921.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and will certainly keep the hardcore fans busy. They are almost all at the popular end of culture, although high culture is briefly represented when Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’) puts in a cameo appearance with his Moonlight Sonata. The cinema references include Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself.

The musical allusions, through song titles, artist names or direct quotes, embrace a whole multiplicity of genres in a gloriously disorganised journey through US (and occasionally UK) popular music: old-time (‘Marching Through Georgia’), jazz (Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Nina Simone), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James), blues (Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker, and ‘St James Infirmary’, the song which Dylan drew on for ‘Blind Willie McTell’), rock’n’roll (‘Mystery Train’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

Dylan’s motivation in delivering such a catalogue may be ambivalent. Are we talking about popular music as an embodiment of the American culture threatened by the killing of Kennedy, or music as an escape from the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile the Dylanite research will continue on this song, which the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard time

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