Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Murder Most Foul

Twas 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

Like the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967, a one-record pop explosion, where a record appears and in an instant it can feel as if the whole world is listening, talking back, figuring it out, and playing with it as if it’s a cross between the Bible and Where’s Waldo?. In the strange way the song can hardly be heard once without sparking anyone’s need to hear it again, a world gathering around a campfire of unanswered questions, and it takes everyone around the campfire to hear the whole song
–> Greil Marcus (2020)

One year ago today Bob Dylan dropped this glorious song on us. I don’t know how many times I played the first few days, I just could not stop. Endlessly fascinating. Still, in hindsight, it is a great addition to Dylan’s canon of songs.

Rollingstone magazine ratet it @ #5 on their list of “The 25 Best Bob Dylan Songs of the 21st Century” & The Guardian ranked it @ #33 of “Bob Dylan’s 50 greatest songs” in April 2020.


The 10th and final track on his album 39th studio album, Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020). It was released as the album’s lead single on March 27, 2020, through Columbia Records. The song addresses the assassination of John F. Kennedy in the context of the greater American political and cultural history. It was Dylan’s first original music released since 2012 and generated an enormous amount of commentary. Lasting 16 minutes, 56 seconds, it is the longest song he has released, eclipsing 1997’s “Highlands” which runs for 16 minutes, 31 seconds.

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 (March 27, 2020)

The song’s title comes from a line in Hamlet although it may not be a coincidence that Stanley J. Marks self-published a pamphlet with the same title in 1967 espousing a Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory.

To me it’s not nostalgic. I don’t think of “Murder Most Foul” as a glorification of the past or some kind of send-off to a lost age. It speaks to me in the moment. It always did, especially when I was writing the lyrics out.
–> Bob Dylan (The New York Times – June 12, 2020)

Facts

Recorded: January – February 2020
Location: Sunset Sound Recorders Los Angeles, California
Producer: None listed
Engineer: Chris Shaw

Single released:
March 27, 2020
Album: Rough and Rowdy Ways (June 19, 2020)
Label: Columbia

Probable line-up

  • Bob Dylan (vocal)
  • Charlie Sexton (guitar)
  • Robert Britt (guitar)
  • Tony Garnier (bass)
  • Matt Chamberlain (drums)
  • Donnie Herron (violin)
  • Alan Pasqua (piano)
  • Fiona Apple (piano)
  • Benmont Tench (hammond organ)

I told Bob: ‘This is like (John Coltrane‘s) ‘A Love Supreme!’ He just kind of looked at me without saying anything, but it really is like ‘A Love Supreme’ to me. ‘Murder Most Foul’ is so profound and I get a lot of enjoyment out of making music with him. He transcends any musical genre. It’s not rock, or folk, or pop. It’s just Bob, man
–> Alan Pasqua (San Diego Union-Tribune. January 10, 2021)

I had met him many years ago, but I don’t really know why I’m on the record. I was there a total of like seven hours. I told Bob I was really insecure about it, and he was really encouraging and nice. He was just like, “You’re not here to be perfect, you’re here to be you.
–> Fiona Apple (NME Magazine, December 9, 2020)

Lyrics

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”

Selected Quotations

Dylan’s relentless cascade of song references points to our potential as human beings to create beautiful things, even in the face of our own capacity for malevolence. ‘Murder Most Foul’ reminds us that all is not lost, as the song itself becomes a lifeline thrown into our current predicament. The instrumentation is formless and fluid and very beautiful. Lyrically it has all the perverse daring and playfulness of many of Dylan’s great songs, but beyond that there is something within his voice that feels extraordinarily comforting, especially at this moment. It is as though it has traveled a great distance, through stretches of time, full of an earned integrity and stature that soothes in the way of a lullaby, a chant, or a prayer
–> Nick Cave (The Red Hand Files. April 8, 2020)

This song is a masterpiece. It’s history told through a radio station, you are here, you are there. Bob’s voice is transcendent as he tells our tale in a way only he could. This is a ‘don’t miss’ for any fan of great music and art.
–> Neil Young

Upon hearing the last six or so minutes of ‘Murder Most Foul’, in which Dylan unfolds a litany of singers and actors names, song and film titles, I found myself filled with tears but not out of despair but because those named are no more lost to us than hope itself. They weigh in the balance on the side of worth and even a little truth, against all of the viciousness that has taken place since the brutal events in November ’63, described in the opening stanzas. This song is “about President Kennedy” in the same way that, Moby Dick is about a whale of a time. Make no mistake, this is a writer and – perhaps more importantly – a singer, operating at the top of their powers. Backed by an ensemble playing with the closest attention to the narrative line, the album is sung with incredible nuance that belies most estimations of what it takes to be a great singer and one which I suspect is informed by Dylan’s investigations into so many great American songbooks over these recent years.
–> Elvis Costello

This is also why the song’s finest moment is its last: when the last member of the procession is the song itself, when the long line of “Play …!” admonitions ends with “Play ‘Murder Most Foul’!”. This is not hubris or self-aggrandizing on Dylan’s part – on the contrary. He steps into the procession together with all the others. And by doing so, he also makes sure the song lasts forever: every time the Wolfman has worked his way through the playlist, he will have to start all over again. It’s the Great American Songbook version of the eternal heavenly praise of the angels.
–> Eyolf Østrem (Murder Most Foul (2020) – An American Litany)

It’s also virtually devoid of melody, and unlike anything Dylan has ever released, with Dylan essentially delivering his spoken-word, stream of consciousness lyrics on top of a sparse accompaniment of piano, violin and light percussion.
–> Jeff Slate (NBC News – March 27, 2020)

One thought on “Bob Dylan’s Best Songs: Murder Most Foul

  1. Sorry, I think it’s his worst long song….I’ll listen 2 Joey or Tempest anytime over Murder Most Foul….I think a roadie wrote it

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