"Murder Most Foul" is about the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy, 35th President of the United States.
The official story of Kennedy's death is that he was shot by a lone gunman named Lee Harvey Oswald. However, almost from the moment the assassination happened, many suspected a broader cover-up and conspiracy to kill the president. As years have gone on and research both meritorious and dubious has grown, the event has become the true granddaddy of all American conspiracy theories. Countless other smaller conspiracy theories trace back to the events of that day.
The song comes from the perspective of that conspiracy camp, but it's more than a simple conspiratorial rant or historical retelling. Dylan uses this piece to talk about the history of American music, which then becomes a way to talk about the American soul. In that way, it's a lot like Don McLean's "American Pie
." Both songs tell the story of American culture through the story of America's music. Dylan mentions 74 different songs in the lyric.
The JFK assassination played an important role in Dylan's life and music. His friend, one-time romantic partner, and fellow folk musician, Joan Baez, recalled Dylan tearing up clumps of grass after the news announced that JFK died. She believed the event was the catalyst for Dylan moving away from the political protest songs that made him famous and into the more surreal artistry that elevated him to legend.
Dylan appears to have recorded the song quite some time before its release. In the tweet announcing the song's publication
, he called it "an unreleased song we recorded a while back." This is rather vague, but the lyrics also mention searching for JFK's soul "for the last fifty years." 2023 is 60 years since the assassination, so it's likely that he would have written it closer to 2013, rounding down to 50.
"Murder Most Foul" was the first originally composed material Dylan released since his album Tempest eight years earlier. In between, he did three albums of cover songs: Shadows in the Night, Fallen Angels, and Triplicate.
Dylan released the song in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. The tweet announcing the release included a cryptic reminder to "Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you."
'Twas was a dark day in Dallas, November '63
JFK was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, at the age of 46.
The choice of the word "'twas" also suggests Dylan's intent with this song. A contraction of the words "it" and "was," 'twas has long fallen out of popular usage but is still recognizable as an old-timey word. Its most popular example among Americans is as the opening line of the Christmas poem A Visit from St. Nicholas, which starts with the line "'Twas the night before Christmas."
The word's obsoleteness and place as a fixture in Americana starts "Murder Most Foul" off with a nod to the national past, both as historical reality and as myth.
President Kennedy was a-ridin' high
Kennedy was literally parading in the back of a limousine when he was shot, and in a metaphorical sense he was also "riding high" as a popular image of hope in America. Many looked to him as the man who would push forward civil rights in America. There were also those who reviled Kennedy for being soft on Communism and abandoning people in the Bay of Pigs, but for most people Kennedy was a beacon of hope that the nation would be lifted out of racism, sexism, and corruption.
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
In the distant past of Judaism and Christianity, sacrificial lambs were literally lambs sacrificed to God. Lambs were very important to the ancient Abrahamic people.
In modern times, the term has become a metaphorical one, referring to people who are sacrificed in some way for the common good. It's not always actual murder and can instead be a sacrifice of their public image, success, or freedom (as is someone framed for a crime they didn't commit).
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
This is evidence of conspiratorial suspicions. This fits the conspiracy theorists view that JFK was killed as the result of a conspiracy of powerful people.
Wolfman, oh wolfman, oh wolfman howl
This is a reference to Wolfman Jack
, one of the most influential disc jockeys in American history. The Guess Who wrote "Clap for the Wolfman
in his honor.
"Rub-a-Dub-Dub" is an 18th century nursery rhyme. The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand
This refers to the UK rock group known as the Beatles, likely the most important popular music band in history. Their American radio success took off with their song "I Want To Hold Your Hand
" in December 1963.
There's three bums comin' all dressed in rags
Three men were seen arrested near the site of the JFK assassination. They came to be called the "Three Tramps" by conspiracy theorists. Various theories abound as to what role they served in the assassination. Officially they were released by authorities and cleared of all suspicion, apparently being simply three tramps who happened to be in the area. I'm goin' to Woodstock, it's the Aquarian Age
The 1960s were supposed to mark the start of the Aquarian Age of spiritual enlightenment and peace, referring to mysticism and astrology. This is maybe best encapsulated in the song "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In
The high-water mark of the '60s counterculture (often called the Hippies) was the 1969 Woodstock music festival, which was held in Bethel, New York (not actually in the town of Woodstock, New York).
Dylan didn't play that concert, but following a serious motorcycle in 1966 hid away in the tiny mountain town of Woodstock, New York. This reference seems to point to the festival rather than Dylan's past.
Then I'll go to Altamont and sit near the stageAltamont
was sort of a Bizarro, flip-side version of Woodstock. Held in December 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in California, it was marked by bad drugs and violence that culminated in the murder of a fan named Meredith Hunter, who was killed by the Hells Angels members who were hired as security.
Some historians consider this event and the Manson Family murders to jointly signify the death of the Hippies and flower power.
There's a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll
The grassy knoll is probably the most commonly known aspect of the JFK conspiracy theories. The story is that the fatal shots that day actually rang out from the grassy knoll, not from Oswald's position in the Texas School Book Depository.
Up in the red light district, they've got a cop on the beat
Living in a nightmare on Elm Street
The term "red light district" is used for city areas known for prostitution. Nightmare on Elm Street was a 1984 horror film, very influential in its genre and hugely successful at the box office. However, the reference seems to have two meanings, as Elm Street is also a street in East Texas that cuts through the Deep Ellum neighborhood, mentioned in the song's next line:
When you're down on Deep Ellum, put your money in your shoe
Don't ask what your country can do for you
Deep Ellum is an arts and entertainment district in East Texas. From the '80s to late '90s, it was a major hot spot for music. The Dead Kennedys played there a lot. This timeframe puts it at about the same time frame of the Nightmare on Elm Street film. It's unclear if this really means anything, or if it's just part of Dylan's tour through American cultural history.
Dealey Plaza, make a left-hand turn
Kennedy was shot in Dealey Plaza as his limo made a left-hand turn.
Goodbye, Charlie! Goodbye, Uncle Sam!
Since the War of 1812, Uncle Sam has been a fictional character embodying the United States. He's a tall, gray-bearded man in a Stars and Stripes top hat and used to appear on Army recruiting materials.
Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don't give a damn
This line refers to the 1939 film Gone with the Wind. Long considered one of the most important films in American history, one of its iconic lines is, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn." The character Rhett Butler says it to Scarlett O'Hara.
What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know
Lee Harvey Oswald is the man who "officially" shot JFK. Jack Ruby is the man who killed Oswald in November 1963 as police led Oswald to an armored car.
Tommy, can you hear me? I'm the Acid Queen
I'm riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
Ridin' in the backseat next to my wife
Headed straight on in to the afterlife
This is possibly the weirdest reference in the song. It's referring to "Acid Queen" on the Who's concept album Tommy. In that song, the Acid Queen is mystical sort of gypsy figure who tries to cure Tommy's blindness, deafness, and muteness with chemical and sexual initiation.
What's strangest in the quote is that JFK is being put in the role of the Acid Queen, as it was JFK riding in the limo's backseat next to his wife and heading "straight on in to the afterlife."
Wake up, little Susie, let's go for a drive
This refers to "Wake Up Little Susie
" by the Everly Brothers. Cross the Trinity River, let's keep hope alive
The Trinity River is the longest river in Texas. You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy, you filled me with lead
Larry Williams wrote and recorded "Dizzy, Miss Lizzy" in 1958. The Beatles covered it on Help
and Beatles VI
. I'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline
A patsy is a person that is used as an unwitting instrument in wrongdoing. They are set up to be framed or otherwise manipulated as part of a plot or conspiracy.
Patsy Cline was a highly influential American singer who died in a plane crash in 1963 at 30 years old. There wasn't anything suspicious about her death, so Dylan's use of her name in this way is kind of weird.
Zapruder's film I seen night before
The Zapruder Film is the best footage captured of the JFK assassination. It was taken by a Ukrainian immigrant named Abraham Zapruder. The film has been dissected endlessly since the assassination as people search for clues to what "really" happened that day.
Seen it 33 times, maybe more
As a numerological "master number," 33 is held as a significant couple of digits in many occult and esoteric groups. Most notably, though, 33 is held in high regard in Freemasonry. That secret society figures into many of the JFK assassination conspiracy theories.
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"
There's no way to know exactly what Dylan is getting at, but it's interesting to note that there's a wide range of ideas among JFK conspiracy theorists, with some believing that Kennedy's death was more than political and was an occult act mean to usher in an age of turbulence.
Air Force One comin' in through the gate
Johnson sworn in at 2:38
Air Force One is the name of the American presidential airplane.
A couple hours after Kennedy died, vice president Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as President at 2:38 p.m.
What's new, pussycat? What'd I say?
This line refers to the song "What's New Pussycat?
" by Tom Jones. Wolfman Jack, he's speaking in tongues
Again a reference to disc jockey Wolfman Jack, this time "speaking in tongues," which refers to the channeling of God or spirits in some religious traditions, particularly Christian ones. Play me that "Only the Good Die Young"
This refers to Billy Joel's "Only The Good Die Young
." Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung
" is a 1958 song by The Kingston Trio. Play St. James Infirmary and the Court of King James
"Saint James Infirmary
" is an old English song.
The Court of St. James is the UK's royal court.
The King James Bible is a widely used translation of the Bible and one of the few officially endorsed by the Church. Play Etta James, too, play "I'd Rather Go Blind"
Etta James recorded "I'd Rather Go Blind
" in 1967.Guitar Slim going down slow
Guitar Slim was a blue guitarist born in 1926. His most popular song was "The Things That I Used To Do
Play it for me and for Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe is a cultural icon. She was an actress and singer and remains the archetypal figurehead of American female sexuality.Play "Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood"
The Animals recorded the definitive version of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood
" in 1965. Nina Simone recorded it first in 1964.Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling any good
First Lady is the title given to the wife of the president of the United States. In this case, it's referring to Jacqueline Lee Kennedy Onassis. Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey
Take it to the limit and let it go by
Don Henley and Glenn Frey were founding members of the Eagles, who recorded "Take It To The Limit
" in 1975.
Play it for Carl Wilson, too
Carl Wilson was one of the Beach Boys. Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue
This may refer to Gower Street, which is a street of great historical significance to the evolution of Hollywood.Play tragedy, play "Twilight Time"
The Flying Platters recorded "Twilight Time
" in 1958. "Another One Bites the Dust"
Queen recorded "Another One Bites The Dust
" in 1980.Play "The Old Rugged Cross" and "In God We Trust"
Johnny Cash recorded "The Old Rugged Cross
" multiple times; the song has been a Gospel staple since it was written in 1915.
"In God we trust" is the official motto of the United States of America. Multiple songs have also been recorded with that title, but mostly all referring to the motto.
Play "Mystery Train" for Mr. Mystery
Elvis Presley recorded "Mystery Train
" in 1955. Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz
Oscar Peterson was a jazz pianist born in 1925. Stan Getz was a jazz saxophonist born in 1927.Play "Blue Sky," play Dickey Betts
Dickey Betts was the nickname for Forrest Richard Betts, a founder of The Allman Brothers Band. The band recorded "Blue Sky
" in 1972. Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk
Art Pepper was a saxophonist born in 1925. Jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was born in 1917.
Charlie Parker and all that junk
All that junk and "All That Jazz"
Jazz saxophonist and composter Charlie Parker was born in 1920. "All That Jazz
" is from the 1975 musical Chicago
. Play Buster Keaton, play Harold Lloyd
Keaton and Lloyd were both American movie actors. Play Bugsy Siegel, play "Pretty Boy Floyd"
Bugsy Siegel was an American mobster killed in 1947.
Woody Guthrie recorded "Pretty Boy Floyd
" in 1958. The song is based on a real American bank robber, so here we have two nods to gangsters.
Play "Cry Me A River" for the Lord of the gods
"Cry Me A River
" has been recorded by many artists from 1955 to modern times. Play it for Lindsey and Stevie Nicks
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks were key members of Fleetwood Mac.Play Nat King Cole, play "Nature Boy"
Cole recorded "Nature Boy
" in 1947. Play "Down in The Boondocks" for Terry Malloy
Billy Joe Royal recorded "Down In The Boondocks
" in 1965.
Terry Mallow is a character from the 1954 crime drama On the Waterfront
Play "It Happened One Night" and "One Night of Sin"
Joe Cocker recorded "One Night of Sin" in 1989.
It Happened One Night may refer to the 1934 film starring Clark Gable.
Play "Merchant of Venice," play "Merchants of Death"
"Merchant of Venice" is a play by William Shakespeare.
In World War I, the term "merchants of death" was used to describe businesses and banks that funded the war. Anti-war folks used the term frequently.
Play "Stella by Starlight" for Lady Macbeth
"Stella By Starlight" is a jazz standard.
Lady Macbeth is a character from the Shakespearean play Macbeth. She gets her husband to kill his father, becomes Queen of Scotland, and then commits suicide.
Love Field is where his plane touched down
Love Field in an airport in Dallas. Play "Misty" for me and "That Old Devil Moon"
" is a jazz standard. Play Misty for Me
for me was also a 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood, but considering how the above lyric fits in with the "play X for me" pattern established for the rest of the song, it's probably just a coincidence. Play "Anything Goes" and "Memphis in June"
Cole Porter recorded "Anything Goes
" in 1934. In 1945 Hoagy Carmichael recorded "Memphis in June." Play "Lonely At the Top" and "Lonely Are the Brave"
Randy Newman wrote and recorded "Lonely at the Top
. Lonely Are the Brave
was a 1962 Western.
Play it for Houdini spinning around his grave
Harry Houdini was a magician, escape artist, and celebrity in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Play Jelly Roll Morton, play "Lucille"
Jelly Roll Morton was a jazz musician born in 1890.
" is a song by Little Richard.Play "Moonlight Sonata in F-Sharp"
Ludwig Van Beethoven wrote "Moonlight Sonata
" in 1802.
Play "The Blood-stained Banner," play "Murder Most Foul"
"The Blood-Stained Banner" is another name for the Confederate Flag.
With the final line, Dylan is inserting his own "Murder Most Foul" into this long list of significant American songs.
The title of "Murder Most Foul" may be borrowed from a 1964 film directed by George Pollock and starring Margaret Rutherford, but it may also be borrowed from a line in the Shakespearean play Hamlet. The latter is most likely the culprit because Shakespeare is referenced a couple other times in the "Murder Most Foul."
In discussing his own death in Hamlet, the ghost of Hamlet's father states: "Murder most foul as in the best it is, but this most foul, strange and unnatural."
At 16 minutes 56 seconds, "Murder Most Foul" is the longest song Dylan has released, eclipsing his Time Out of Mind
," which ran 16 minutes 31 seconds.
"Murder Most Foul" became Dylan's first #1 song on any Billboard chart when it topped the Rock Digital Song Sales tally. Dylan had previously reached the runner-up spot on three different occasions. Both "Like a Rolling Stone
" and "Rainy Day Women #12 And #35
" peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 in 1965 and 1966 respectively, while his 2000 single "Things Have Changed
" got to #2 on the Adult Alternative Songs listing.
Rough And Rowdy Ways debuted at #1 on the UK albums chart. At 79 years and one month old, Dylan became the oldest artist to top the tally with original material, surpassing Paul Simon, who was 74 years and 8 months when Stranger To Stranger reached the summit in 2016.
Fiona Apple plays piano on "Murder Most Foul." She recalled to Pitchfork
feeling "really insecure" and "under qualified" about contributing to the icon's music. However, Dylan encouraged her to be herself, saying, "You're not here to be perfect, you're here to be you."