Bob Dylan Breaks His Silence to Remind Us the American Soul Is Still Alive

In normal times, it is unlikely the world would stop to listen to an almost 17-minute-long song. But the times are not normal and Dylan’s fascinating ballad 'Murder Most Foul' sends listeners back to the murder of JFK

Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev
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Bob Dylan performing at a concert in France in 2012.
Bob Dylan performing at a concert in France in 2012. As far as is known, 'Murder Most Foul' was recorded about eight years ago.Credit: AFP
Ben Shalev
Ben Shalev

One of the prominent patterns in Bob Dylan’s songs is what one could refer to as “ballads.” One characteristic of the ballads that typify most of Dylan’s songs is their stubborn repetitiveness; one stanza repeats itself over and over. (Dylan never adopted the winning pop format of stanza-chorus, and in those rare instances when he did, he ended up with his greatest hits, like “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” or “Just Like a Woman.”)

The second characteristic of the ballads is their exceptional length, which, together with the repetitive format of a stanza just turns these songs into floods of words. During the 1960s, Dylan poured out “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” (7:08 minutes), “It’s Alright Ma (I’m only Bleeding)” (7:29 minutes), “Desolation Row” (11:21 minutes), and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” (11:23). During the 1970s we got “Lily Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” (8:51), and “Hurricane” (8:33). During the 1980s there was “Brownsville Girl” (11 minutes) and during the last decade, “Tempest” (13:54).

The longest ballad Dylan has delivered to date is “Highlands,” a whopping 16 minutes and 31 seconds, the song that closed out the album “Time Out of Mind.” But this endless song was surprisingly knocked off the top of the list of longies last Friday when Dylan released “Murder Most Foul,” 16 minutes and 57 seconds in full. This is his first original song since his album “Tempest.”

In normal times, it is doubtful that the world would stop and listen to a song that is almost 17 minutes long, no matter who the illustrious and honored artist and songwriter is. But the times are not at all normal and it seems that over the past few days people have been listening to “Murder Most Foul.” They are also listening because Dylan – in a rather unusual manner that completely contradicts his prickly and contrarian image – has invited them to listen. “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” tweeted Dylan. “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 - Murder Most Foul (Official Audio)

They did it

As far as is known, “Murder Most Foul” was recorded about eight years ago during the work on the album “Tempest.” Why did Dylan release it now? Maybe because of the shocking historic event whose existence we are now living through seems to him to be a good time to release a song about another historic event that stunned the world – the murder of U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

The beginning of the song creates the impression that Dylan’s main urge is to take a position concerning the identity of the murderer, or maybe murderers. “They,” he says repeatedly. “They” did it, not Lee Harvey Oswald – who is not mentioned by name in the song.

“They” as in the connotation of the establishment. Dylan doesn’t say so explicitly but he hints at this through an interesting link to the song in which he took his most decisive position on a contemporary issue: “Hurricane.” The phrase that makes your ears prick up is “Wait a minute, boys.” In “Hurricane,” the person who says “Wait a minute, boys,” is one of the corrupt cops, who tells his colleagues at the murder scene: “Wait a minute, boys, this one’s not dead.” This is the beginning of the framing, the false narrative that put the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter into prison. At the beginning of his new song, when “they” come to kill JFK, the shocked president tells them: “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?” “Of course we do, we know who you are,” the boys, our finest sons, answer – and “then they blew off his head” to make sure he was dead.

President John F. Kennedy in 1961.Credit: RMB,AP

But as “Murder Most Foul” goes on – and on, and on – it turns out that the issue of the identity of the murderers is not really something that interests Dylan. In fact, the new song is the opposite of “Hurricane” – in its motives, rhythm and especially its tone. It does not occur on a national level, it does not work on the ground, but it hovers overhead in space and time, observes and contemplates.

The key point is where “they,” the murderers, after “they mutilated his body and they took out his brain,” come to take what they are really interested in, his soul. But they don’t remove it: “But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at. For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that,” sings Dylan. No reason to rejoice? Something is rotten in the American kingdom, to quote from the play the name of the song is taken from. “They” are still running the corporation, but they have not yet murdered the American soul.

So then, where is this soul? On the radio. In songs. “Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack,” asks the bleeding president from one of the most popular radio disk jockeys – and the listener immediately thinks of the line: “Hey Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me.”

For the next eight minutes JFK does not stop asking for songs. His blood is running out but his head is full of names. Etta James, John Lee Hooker, Guitar Slim, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Queen, Elvis, Nat King Cole, Stevie Nicks, Jelly Roll Morton, Bud Powell – and this is just a very partial list. Some of the names came to Dylan because they needed to rhyme – What rhymes with Stan Getz? Dickey Betts! But most of the names reflect Dylan’s taste and his burning love for blues, rock ‘n roll, folk and pop music of the 1940s and 50s – and when they are laid out one next to the other they look like a playlist of the radio show he hosted from 2006 to 2009. In fact, it is possible that the idea for writing the song was born out of one of these playlists.

This extreme name-dropping could very well become quite tiring, despite the firm canvas of the text – but it is not tiring. It even has a hypnotizing dimension, due, to a great extent, to the music. What music? The man talks for 17 minutes, will say those who see Dylan more as a writer/poet than a musician. But under this almost-no-music on the surface there is a great deal of music. Without its wrapping, without its nuances, it wouldn’t work.

The musical material is minimal, but it is handled in a way that is gentle, precise, attentive, creative and more than anything else, as strange as it may sound, diverse. Inside the extreme repetitiveness lies a never-ending revival. The touch of the pianist, the drawing of the bow of the contrabassist, the rustlings of the drummer, the ornamentations of the violin – the names of the musicians do not appear anywhere – assume a different form in every twist of the infinite river of song. Dylan’s presentation contributes, too, to the constant movement inside the familiar framework. It is always the same screeching and nasal rusty voice, but every line has its one different hue, form, fabric and emphasis – and the man whose throat is making these sounds, who will soon be 79 – has succeeded after so many years to stay relevant, fascinating, creative and completely unexpected.

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