Murder Most Foul

One of the many interesting aspects of Dylan’s work is the never-ending evolution of musical styles. From folk to rock to country to gospel to balladeer, it never stops. For Murder Most Foul, Dylan takes on the styling of a piano man, a Billy Joel in a mellow state of mind.  As Tim Shorrock notes in his piece for The Nation: “Some of the phrasing also reflects his recent forays into the American songbook of Frank Sinatra that transformed his shows over the past decade into intimate, Paris-style cabarets.” 

Judging from the lyrics – Greatest magic trick ever under the sun /Perfectly executed, skillfully done – it would seem that Dylan has immersed himself in the multiple-shooters Kennedy conspiracy theory. He says “they” killed him, not “he”.  He calls Oswald a “patsy,” implying that he was just a pawn in another group’s game. He mentions three bums comin’ all dressed in ragsHe refers a “magic bullet”, a term meant to ridicule the idea that a single bullet could have hit both Kennedy and Connally. 

 Perhaps Dylan is a conspiracy theory believer. Or perhaps he’s saying – as he did in Only a Pawn in Their Game – that society as a whole is partially to blame for the conditions that drove Oswald to murder Kennedy.  

The song is one of the his most ambitious in a long, long time, perhaps since Jokerman. The overarching theme seems to be the decline of America, which Dylan implies starting with Kennedy’s assassination.  

What’s New Pussycat – wha’d I say

I said the soul of a nation been torn away

It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay

Jackie Kennedy put it eloquently when she said the death of her husband meant there would never be “another Camelot”, in other words, never again would there be an America of beauty, honor, and chivalry. It seems she was right. Johnson turned the Vietnam war into not only a military defeat but a national identity crisis. Nixon followed it up with Watergate and then came Reagan, evil with a sunny-face. And now the tragedy of Trump. 

The Kennedy shadow looms large for those of Dylan’s generation. Although Dylan in a recent interview said he does not remember where he was at the time of the killing, most do. I myself was four years old and I remember. 

 Kennedy visited Duluth multiple times during his campaigns. Dylan describes in his autobiography, Chronicles, a visit from Kennedy to his hometown of Hibbing in 1960. 

John Kennedy, before he became president, when he was still a senator, had come up to Hibbing on the campaign trail, but that was about six months after I left. My mother said that eighteen thousand people had turned out to see him at the Veterans Memorial Building and that people were hanging from the rafters and others were out in the street, that Kennedy was a ray of light and had understood completely the area of the country he was in. He gave a heroic speech, my mom said, and gave people a lot of hope….If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there. I wish I could have seen him.    

As always, there are numerous literary references. The title of the song is a reference to MacbethSparkNotes helpfully provides a translation to modern English. 

GHOST

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.

GHOST

Take revenge for his horrible murder, that crime against nature.

HAMLET

Murder?

HAMLET

Murder?

GHOST

Murder most foul, as in the best it is.

But this most foul, strange and unnatural.

GHOST

His most horrible murder. Murder’s always horrible, but this one was especially horrible, weird, and unnatural.

We also have numerous biblical references, such as sacrificial lamb,, faith, hope and charityspeaking in tonguesamong others.  

In the song, the narrator (Dylan) asks Wolfman Jack – the famed DJ from the 60s that Dylan listened to as a young man – to play a long, long list of oldies but goodies, many songs from the time before the decline, perhaps designed to bring solace to a nation with its soul cut out.  

There are way too many song references to go through. Rolling Stone created a good list.  

Lyrics

‘Twas a dark day in Dallas – November ‘63
The day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was riding high
A good day to be living and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?
Of course we do, we know who you are
Then they blew off his head when he was still in the car
Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
‘Twas a matter of timing and the timing was right
You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect
We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place
The day that 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 murder most foul

Hush lil children, you’ll soon understand
The Beatles are coming 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 going 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 and pour the cement
Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President
Put your foot in the tank and step on the gas
Try to make it to the triple underpass
Black face singer – white face clown
Better not show your faces after the sun goes down

I’m in the red-light district like a 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 barrel head, money to burn
Dealey Plaza, make a left hand turn
Go down to the crossroads, try to flag a ride
That’s the place where Faith, Hope and Charity died
Shoot ‘em while he runs, boy, shoot ‘em while you can
See if you can shoot the Invisible Man
Goodbye, Charlie, goodbye Uncle SamFrankly, Miss Scarlet, 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, says the wise old owl
Business is business and it’s murder most foul

Tommy can you hear me, I’m the Acid Queen
I’m ridin’ in a long black Lincoln limousine
Ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife
Heading straight on into the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
Oh Lord, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap
We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give
We’re right down the street from the street where you live
They mutilated his body and 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 searching for that
Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me
Hate to tell you, Mister, but only dead men are free
Send me some loving – tell me no lie
Throw the gun in the gutter and walk on by
Wake up, Little Suzie, 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’s 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
I never shot anyone from in front or behind
Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier

Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that 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, 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 anti-Christ has just only begun.”
Air Force One coming in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at two thirty-eight
Let me know when you decide to throw in the towel
It is what it is and it’s murder most foul

What’s New Pussycat – wha’d I say
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down 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 that Only The Good Die Young
Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung
Play St. James Infirmary in the court of King James
If you want to remember, 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 – Goin’ Down Slow
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe
And please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling that good
Play Don Henley – play Glenn Frey
Take it to the Limit and let it go by
And play it for Carl Wilson, too
Lookin’ 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 G-d 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’s got no master
Play Oscar Peterson and play Stan Getz
Play Blue Sky, play Dickie Betts
Play Art Pepper, play 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 all the numbers, play all 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 the Merchant of Venice, play the 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 ‘em we’re waitin’- keep coming – we’ll get ‘em as well
Love Field is where his plane touched down
But it never did get back up off of 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 gravePlay Jelly Roll Morton, play Lucille
Play Deep in a Dream and play Drivin’ Wheel Play Moonlight Sonata in F sharp
And Key to the Highway by the king of the harp
Play Marchin’ 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

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