The Dylanite world, and the wider world beyond it too, have welcomed Bob Dylan’s new album Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020) with open arms: it has given him his ninth number one in the UK and surely never before in the internet age have so many superlatives and five-star reviews circulated for a new Dylan release. In the wake of such a flood of opinion, my aim in this piece will be not so much to evaluate or interpret this Dylan’s latest song offering, as to home in on a specific dimension of the album. This will be: the complex and multiple interrelations between a text (song, poem, book, film or whatever) and other, already existing texts in the world outside it – in other words the phenomenon which goes by the name of intertextuality. This is far from being Dylan’s only work where that dimension is strong, but this time round the new album is so (to coin a phrase) tangled up in quotes that there is a good case for considering it as the most intertextual of all his albums – and its stellar track, ‘Murder Most Foul’, as the most intertextual of all his songs.


The album’s title already places it under the sign of intertextuality: ‘My rough and rowdy ways’ is a song hailing from 1930 by Dylan folk-blues favourite Jimmie Rodgers. The opening track, ‘I Contain Multitudes’, takes its title direct from Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem-sequence Song of Myself, while that of ‘Key West (Philosopher Pirate)’ suggests a (forgive the pun) key poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’. References musical, literary, biblical and cinematic stud the album’s songs, incidentally providing further material in support of the recent affirmations of, respectively, Richard Thomas and Andrew Muir regarding the influence on Dylan of the Greco-Roman classics and of Shakespeare. For the classics, one need only point to the titles ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ and ‘Mother of Muses’ (highlighting Calliope, muse of epic poetry); and, for Shakespeare, to ‘the winter of our discontent’ from Richard III and the trademark phrase from Hamlet ‘to be or not to be’ (both in ‘My Own Version of You’), while the title of ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself comes from that same Shakespearean tragedy. Also reaffirmed is the already well-documented presence across Dylan’s work of Edgar Allan Poe, with his first-ever actual naming of the great Bostonian in a song text, in the line from ‘I Contain Multitudes’, ‘Got a tell-tale heart, like Mr Poe’.


Albeit the intertextual phenomenon is present right across the album, I will for the rest of this article concentrate on a single track, namely ‘Murder Most Foul’, for a number of reasons: first because I feel it is by far the best song on the album, second because it pushes Dylan’s intertextuality into unprecedented places, and third because it seems even officially to be set apart from the rest of the album. It was the first single (of three) to be released as an on-line trailer for the album, attracting massive interest as Dylan’s first new self-penned song since his Nobel (and indeed since 2012 and Tempest); the CD release places it in splendid isolation as sole track on the second disc; and the back flap of that same release features John F. Kennedy’s photo above the words in gothic script, Murder Most Foul. The song has the further distinction of being the longest-ever track to feature on a Dylan album (clocking in at 16:54 and dethroning ‘Highlands’ from 1997 and its score of 16:29), All this may justify a certain special treatment for this song.

As already widely noted, ‘Murder Most Foul’ falls into two distinct parts: a narrative of the Kennedy assassination, and a second part centred on the late DJ Wolfman Jack, consisting of what we may provisionally term a lengthy playlist replete with artist and song references. 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 a live performance of the standard  ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. The Kennedy theme may also recall other Dylan songs which revisit US history (the Civil War in ‘Cross the Green Mountain’) or pay homage to the illustrious dead (John Lennon in ‘Roll on John’). For the song’s second part, however, while there is a forerunner in another medium, namely radio in Dylan’s fondly remembered show ‘Theme Time Radio Hour’, there is no precedent in the Dylan songbook.

The cultural references in this song are abundant to the point of plethora and have been keeping hardcore fans fascinatedly busy. Dylan’s naming and quoting takes in (mostly American) music, cinema, theatre, history, geography and more. The citations are almost all at the popular end of culture, though high culture is represented by Shakespeare (not only in the title as we have seen, but also in allusions to The Merchant of Venice and Lady Macbeth), and Beethoven (whom Dylan had made a character in ‘Tombstone Blues’ and has already referenced on this album in ‘I Contain Multitudes’). The cinema references include Marilyn Monroe, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and, notably, Abraham Zapruder’s film about the assassination itself – and, as we will see below, a number of film titles where one would not expect them.

It is music, though, that dominates the second part, thanks to the conceit of reanimating Wolfman Jack as Dylan’s personal DJ. 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’s ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’), country (Patsy Cline), folk (‘Tom Dooley’, ‘Deep Ellum Blues’), soul (Etta James and her ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’), 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, members of the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac), and fellow songwriters: Woody Guthrie, but also Randy Newman’s ‘Lonely at the Top’ and even, a shade surprisingly, the masters of suave cool Burt Bacharach and Hal David via their ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and ‘Walk On By’.

In a few cases Dylan directly links song and artist (as with Etta James); in others he names the artist (Patsy Cline, Charlie Parker) but not any particular number. 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’. A general element which I think is worth emphasising is the frequency 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 musical intertextuality includes Dylan quoting himself. The Hoagy Carmichael composition ‘Memphis in June’ had already been referenced in ‘Tight Connection to My Heart’, on Empire Burlesque; ‘blood in my eye’ echoes the Mississippi Sheiks’ ‘Blood in My Eyes’, covered on World Gone Wrong; ‘rising sun’ recalls another cover, ‘House of the Rising Sun’ on Dylan’s first album. Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pretty Boy Floyd’ has been both covered (on a tribute album) and quoted (on his first album) by Dylan. The phrase ‘they killed him’ recalls Kris Kristofferson’s ‘They Killed Him’, as covered by Dylan on ‘Knocked Out Loaded’, a precedent as a song about political assassination. Dylan even offers a self-quote of a quotation, having already used the title of Joe South’s song ‘Down in the Boondocks’ earlier in the album, in ‘Key West’). We may also note what must be the first mention in a Dylan song of Tulsa, the city in Oklahoma which now houses the Dylan archive: the line ‘Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime’ begins evoking a country number by Bob Wills and goes on to recall what must surely be the heinous crime that was the Tulsa race massacres of 1921.

Various Dylanites have posted online lists of the song’s musical allusions. Indeed I have done so myself, with a haul running to almost 70, on this blog on 19 May 2020. The range and depth of Dylan’s musical knowledge come over as remarkable, but the self-references in particular are, notably, for the most part to cover versions. The one significant exception is a bold metatextual gesture  by which ‘Murder Most Foul’ itself is  cited verbatim in the closing verse: ‘Play “Murder Most Foul” (!)’, thus placing 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, on several occasions Dylan puckishly demands that the DJ ‘play’ a title – ‘It Happened One Night’, ‘Merchants of Death’, ‘Lonely are the Brave’ – which research reveals not to be a song at all, but a film. Here we may recall Dylan’s description in his 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 tricks with his audience.

All this does not mark the first time that Bob Dylan has engaged extensively in song-within-song creation (we may recall how in ‘Sara’ he cited his own ‘Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’). No Dylan composition, however, has ever before embraced this amount of musical intertext. The intertextuality of ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’, and of ‘Murder Most Foul’ in particular, combines deep collective emotions with the return of Dylan the trickster.  We can be sure that Dylanite research will continue on an album and a song that the fan community can only receive with gratitude, as an offering and reward for our loyalty that comes to solace us in hard times.


Note added 29 June 2020: This post reprises and updates material from my posts of 28 March and 19 April 2020 (on Murder Most Foul) and of 18 April 2020 (on I Contain Multitudes).

Note added 21 August 2020: This text has now been published in the Dylan zine THE BRIDGE, No 67, Summer 2020, pp. 37-41.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Web on 14 July, 2020 at 21:22

    My “Rough and Rowdy Ways” by Jimmie Rodgers is a song hailing from 1930, not 1960. An album collecting his songs by that name was released in 1960.


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