I am writing this isolated during the coronavirus pandemic. Writing is a solitary vocation, but this is different. Isolation sucks delight from life, replacing gladness with uncertainty. Jamie Kaihoi, a friend and member of our church recently reminded us to “Choose Joy,” suggesting we should, among other things, choose to listen to music. We always need music, especially during a pandemic. It’s something we can be grateful our technology provides.
Three months into the pandemic on March 27, 2020, Bob Dylan released a new song, “Murder Most Foul.” Accompanying the release was a simple statement: Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over 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.”
Dylan has long been gripped (some commentators say obsessed) with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and that is on view here. This is a not a song designed to gain new fans, and at 17 minutes long, with sparse instrumentation and allusive lyrics, it is unlikely to be a radio hit. The performance is simple: piano, a single violin, quiet percussion, Dylan’s voice. Intimate, as if we have stumbled into the troubadour’s quiet space where we can listen to what at first seems to be the rambling musing of a troubled soul and soon is revealed to be a sustained reflection on life and death illuminated by metaphor and human creativity in a broken world. On Salon online, author and music critic David Masciotra says:
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.
At first “Murder Most Foul” is about the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, seen not merely as an event in history but as a window of insight into fallen reality. The tragic assassination, yes, taken with ferocious seriousness, so seriously that as we listen, we soon find ourselves reflecting on the death not just of a man but of all we hold dear.
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son
The age of the Antichrist has only begun.”
Air Force One coming 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 its murder most foul
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
Then Dylan meanders through popular culture, weaving a network of musicians and songs, events and memories, inviting us to take seriously what we often use as an escape. In the face of death—whether assassination or pandemic—we need more than escape, and in art we have hints that there is something more. Dylan’s lyrics pile allusion upon allusion, some I catch, many beyond me, and knowing Dylan, I suspect some are included simply to play with us.
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 his grave
Play Jelly Roll Morton
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 “Dumbaroton’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”
The song’s “themes of doom—and possible redemption,” writes Brian Hyatt in Rolling Stone, “feel alarmingly in tune with our current moment, which may have prompted Dylan to choose it for release.” Perhaps this is the final irony: The song that can help us see with greater clarity during the pandemic never mentions the pandemic. Such is the mystery that is poetry.