This month in the MIT Reader, Timothy Hampton, author of Bob Dylan’s Poetics: How the Songs Work, writes a fascinating analysis of Dylan’s epic new song, “Murder Most Foul.” Click here to learn more about Hampton’s book on Dylan.Click here to read the full essay. An excerpt appears below:
“In the years since his visionary 1960s work, Dylan has turned to a variety of narrative forms to represent the sweep of national history. 1983’s ‘Blind Willie McTell’ drew on the traditions of epic poetry to offer a bleak unmasking of the racism that both infects the country and powers one of its greatest artistic traditions, the tradition of the blues. 1986’s ‘Brownsville Girl,’ written with Sam Shepherd, offered a post-modern story-within-a-story to explore the erosion of courage beneath the fake virtue of the Reagan years. And now comes ‘Murder Most Foul,’ the 17-minute song released last month, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s daily flood of lies and insults from the house where Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Kennedy slept.
‘Murder Most Foul’ is about the assassination of JFK. But it is also about what constitutes an event, and about how an event takes on meaning beyond itself. At still another level, it is about the haunting of America, about the role of spirit in the national life. The title comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where the ghost of old Hamlet tells his son of his death: ‘Murder most foul, as in the best it is’ (that is, all murders are foul), but ‘this most foul, strange and unnatural” (because fratricide and in secret), must be avenged. So we are in the land of ghosts, of the death of the ‘king,’ as Dylan calls Kennedy at one point.
The style of Dylan’s song is of an incantation. The half-chanted vocal over piano chords and a bowed bass remains largely on a couple of notes. There is little melody to speak of, and the harmony only occasionally moves off of the tonic chord, to add a bit of drama by moving to the dominant. It tells the story of how the death of Kennedy, possibly a plot by Southerners eager to put Lyndon B. Johnson in power, was also the death of American purpose and direction. It matters not whether Kennedy was a good president or a bad one. His murder was most foul, and that event paved the way, in Dylan’s mind, it would seem, for the process of long decay, the rootlessness and suspicion, that we have lived since then: ‘The Age of the Anti-Christ has only begun,’ he says at one point. The song jumps around in time and focus, imagining the president in conversation with his killers, lamenting what has happened, noticing the landmarks on the way to the hospital, as if Dylan’s persona were right in the car with the first couple.”