BOB DYLAN’S ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’ AND ITS MUSIC INTERTEXT

This is an updated and enlarged version of a text first published on this blog on 28 March 2020, the day after the song’s release online. I have kept the original entry as first impressions.

In what we can but call hard times, on 27 March 2020 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 appeared online at:

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

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 bards. 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’), as well as the line ‘Death will come when it comes’, which harks back to Julius Caesar (Act II, Scene 5, 36-37 – ‘Seeing that death, a necessary end,/Will come when it will come’).

Dylan had mentioned John F. Kennedy before now, 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]’.

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 broadcast radio-style 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 any obvious single theme.

The cultural references, for the most part in the song’s second part, are abundant to the point of plethora and are calculated to 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 a string of actors – 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 (mostly) US popular music (there is some British representation). We find 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 (‘Let the Good Times Roll’, Little Richard’s ‘Lucille’), mainstream rock (the Beatles, the Who, Queen, the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Woody 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’.

In a few cases Dylan directly links song and artist (e.g. Etta James and ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’) – see Appendix IA. In others he names the artist (Patsy Cline, Charlie Parker) but not any song (or, for jazz artists, instrumental piece) – see Appendix 1B. In the majority of instances, however, what we have is a vocal or instrumental composition with no artist name attached. It is here that we may suspect Dylan has sent out a challenge to his fans of the type:  ‘pin an artist to this song’.

I have done my best to respond to such a challenge by compiling, from the internet and from my own music collection, a list of what I believe are at least plausible artist-song links (see Appendix ID). Others may of course wish to suggest other artists: my list is offered as a contribition to debare. One element I think is worth emphasising is the freauency with which a song turns out to have been recorded by one or other of the unchallenged greats of US popular music – Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley – those figures who we mention in the same breath as Bob Dylan himself.

The intertextuality includes Dylan self-referencing and self-quoting (see Appendix IC). We may 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, in the line: ‘Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime’ – the references being presumably to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys’ number ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa’ and to the heinous crime that was the Tulsa race massacres of 1921. The song ‘Memphis in June’ (by Hoagy Carmichael) had already been referenced by Dylan in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; 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; and the phrase ‘they killed him’ echoes another song about political assassination,  Kris Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’ as covered by Dylan on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’. Notably, these self-references are for the most part to cover versions, the one significant exception, in a bold metatextual gesture, being ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself  – as cited verbatim in the closing verse: ‘Play “Murder Most Foul” (!)’, which places the whole song under the sign of a challenging circularity.

That circularity pertains to what we may call a certain ludic dimension in this song. Some on the internet share my own impression that ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ was never recorded by ‘the great Bud Powell’ (though it was by Ella Fitzgerald) – in which case Dylan would be asking the Wolfman’s ghost to play a non-existent track. Equally, at least three times Dylan puckishly demands that the DJ play a title – ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Merchants of Death’, ‘Lonely are the Brave’ – which research reveals not be not a song at all, but a film. Here we may recall Dylan’s description in ‘Chronicles’ of a library so inclusive it houses volumes such as ‘Sophocles’ book on the name and nature of the gods’, or ‘The Athenian General’ by Thucydides, which do not exist. In ‘Murder Most Foul’, we may conclude, some of the time and despite the deep seriousness of the song’s main theme, Dylan is artfully playing with his audience.

Meanwhile, this is not the first time Dylan has engaged in ‘song-within-song’ (I offer a no doubt incomplete list of previous examples in Appendix II, including ‘Sara’ where Dylan cites his own ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’!)). No Dylan composition, however, has ever before embraced this amount of musical intertext. His 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 incomplete and partial transcendence of the painful challenges of real life?

Both dimensions are surely there, and meanwhile we can be sure that 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 times.

***

APPENDIX I – MUSICAL INTERTEXT IN ‘MURDER MOST FOUL’

1)         Artists named by Dylan but not linked to composition

Art Pepper

Charlie Parker

Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks + Lindsey Buckingham)

Jelly Roll Morton

John Lee Hooker

Oscar Peterson

Patsy Cline    

Thelonious Monk

2)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted – officially recorded by Dylan

Blood In My Eyes – Mississippi Sheiks; Bob Dylan 

Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan

Mystery Train – Junior Parker; Elvis Presley; Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

Pretty Boy Floyd –  Woody Guthrie; Bob Dylan

They Killed Him – Kris Kristofferson; Bob Dylan

3)         Compositions with titles cited or quoted: artist/composition linked by Dylan

I Want to Hold Your Hand – Beatles

I’d Rather Go Blind – Etta James

Blue Sky – Allman Brothers (Dickey Betts)

Love Me or Leave Me – Bud Powell (?) (or Ella Fitzgerald? – see section 4 below)

Take it to the Limit – Eagles (Don Henley, Glenn Frey)

4)         Compositions with titles cited or title or other elements quoted Dylan but not linked to artist: artist(s)/composition linked by author’s research

(NB: for ‘Drivin’ Wheel’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ I have named two different compositions as credible candidates)

All That Jazz – Ella Fitzgerald

Another One Bites the Dust – Queen

Anything Goes – Frank Sinatra

Baby Scratch My Back  Slim Harpo

Blood Stained Banner – The Williamsons

Cash on the Barrelhead – Louvin Brothers; Gram Parsons

Crossroads – Robert Johnson; Eric Clapton with Cream

Cry Me a River – Julie London; Linda Ronstadt

Deep Elem Blues – Jerry Garcia

Deep in a Dream – Frank Sinatra

Dizzy Miss Lizzy – Larry Williams; Beatles

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – Nina Simone; Animals

Down in the Boondocks – Billy Joe Royal; Ry Cooder

Drivin’ Wheel 1- Roosevelt Sykes

Drivin’ Wheel 2 – Emmylou Harris

Dumbarton’s Drums 1 – Corries

Dumbarton’s Drums 2 – Royal Scots

Ferry ‘Cross the Mersey – Gerry and the Pacemakers

Going Down Slow – Guitar Slim

In God We Trust – Hillsong Worship

Key to the Highway – Little Walter; Big Bill Broonzy; Eric Clapton

Let the Good Times Roll – Louis Jordan

Lonely at the Top – Randy Newman

Lonesome Road (Long Lonesome Road) – Ian and Sylvia; Joan Baez

Long Black Limousine – Elvis Presley

Love Me or Leave Me – Ella Fitzgerald

Lucille – Little Richard

Marching Through Georgia – Jay Ungar and Molly Mason: Tennessee Ernie Ford

Memphis in June – Hoagy Carmichael; Annie Lennox

Misty – Ella Fitzgerald

Moonlight Sonata – Beethoven

Nature Boy – Nat King Cole

On the Street Where You Live – Vic Damone

One Night of Sin – Elvis Presley

Only the Good Die Young – Billy Joel

Saint James Infirmary – Louis Armstrong

Stella By Starlight – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Stan Getz; Miles Davis

Take Me Back to Tulsa – Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys; Merle Haggard

That Old Devil Moon – (vocal) Frank Sinatra; (instrumental) Clifford Jordan

The Old Rugged Cross – Alan Jackson; Johnny Cash

Tom Dooley – Kingston Trio

Tommy Can You Hear Me  – The Who

Twilight Time – Platters

Wake Up Little Susie – Everly Brothers; Simon and Garfunkel

Walk On By – Dionne Warwick

What’d I Say – Ray Charles

What’s New Pussycat – Tom Jones  

APPENDIX II – Previous examples of song-within-song in Dylan

A Day in the Life – Roll on John

Amazing Grace – Foot of Pride

Danny Boy – Foot of Pride

Dixie – Man of Peace

Memphis in June – Tight Connection to my Heart

My Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup – Black Diamond Bay

Nearer My God to Thee – Caribbean Wind

Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (Dylan) – Sara

Strike Up the Band – Handy Dandy

Which Side Are You On? – Desolation Row

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