JFK, Bob Dylan, and the Death of the American Dream

JFK, Bob Dylan, and the Death of the American Dream

JFK, Bob Dylan, and the Death of the American Dream

How Dylan’s new song, “Murder Most Foul,” speaks to my generation and pierces our collective soul.


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

On March 27, Bob Dylan released on the Internet “Murder Most Foul,” his first new song in nearly a decade. Delivered in the aging, tender, and cracking voice familiar to fans who caught his recent global tour, the song unfolds like an epic poem about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and the music, culture, and mystery that still surround one of the most shocking events in American history.

“This is an unreleased song that we recorded a while back that you might find interesting,” Dylan wrote on his website early that Friday morning. “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.” As I’ve listened to the song, over and over, during these last traumatic weeks, I’ve come to see “Murder Most Foul” as Dylan’s gift to the world at another terrible moment in our history, when our leaders have failed us and we are living through a calamity that seems to have no end. Like Kennedy’s murder in 1963, the federal government’s utter failure to protect the people in 2020 is a collapse of biblical proportions.

President Trump’s slow, cowardly, and stupendously foolish response to Covid-19 has allowed this nation to become the epicenter of the outbreak, and surpassed George W. Bush’s monumental blindness to the drowning of New Orleans in 2005. With hundreds of thousands of people in mortal danger and millions without jobs, health care, or hope, the country faces an existential crisis comparable to the Civil War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, World War II, the horror that unfolded after 9/11, and the terrifying future of climate change. High water’s rising, we’re up to our necks, and the specter of death is stalking the land: the perfect setting for a Bob Dylan song.

What we hear in “Murder Most Foul” is the weary voice of a Nobel laureate who’s closing in on his 80s, walking us through our trials and tribulations as only a great poet can do. It’s set to a bowed bass, a mournful violin, a piano, and a smattering of drums that blend together in a lovely, bluesy dirge perfectly fitting to the times and our shattered emotions. Clocking in at over 17 minutes, “Murder Most Foul” is the longest song Dylan has ever recorded, just surpassing “Highlands,” his wry commentary about aging on the Grammy-winning Time Out of Mind, released in 1997. On April 8, “Murder Most Foul” became Dylan’s first-ever No. 1 hit on the the Billboard charts—a phenomenal achievement for such a lengthy composition.

The effect of the song, with its pointed lyrics about treachery and betrayal, are similar to the sound Dylan captured in 2012 on Tempest, his last album of original songs. 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. Yet there is little joy to be heard in this recording, where the subject is dark and unfathomable: President Kennedy “being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb” by unseen men seeking to collect “unpaid debts” who killed “with hatred and without any respect.”

Backed by the melancholy chords of his piano, Dylan takes us through the terrible images of the Zapruder film of the assassination that he’s seen “thirty three times, maybe more” (“It’s vile and deceitful—it’s cruel and it’s mean / Ugliest thing that you ever have seen”). But, contrary to some of the hot takes you may have read about it, the point of the song is not to publicize JFK conspiracy theories or take us on a nostalgia tour of the 1960s. Like many of his songs, his message is much deeper, and far more profound.

At its most essential level, “Murder Most Foul” marks the collapse of the American dream, dating from that terrible day in Dallas, when a certain evil in our midst was revealed in ways not seen for a hundred years—a day that, for Dylan, myself, and others of our generation is forever seared into our collective memory. The murder and the hidden machinations behind it, he tells us, robbed us of Kennedy’s brain, a symbol for the positive, forward-looking American spirit that he represented, and “for the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that.” And this is the outcome:

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.

Second, the song is a reminder of the beauty of our music and culture. It’s a tribute to the artists, obscure and famous, who’ve taken us through the hard times, and who continue to lift us up as we brave this new world of Covid-19, social distancing, and the death of thousands by government failure and incompetence. In “Murder Most Foul,” that music becomes the counterpoint, the juxtaposition, to the horror and chaos of both JFK’s very public death and today’s global pandemic. (To get inside its structure, listen to Laura Tenschert’s beautifully narrated podcast about the song on her London-based show, Definitely Dylan.)

Dylan makes the leap from murder to music by conjuring up Wolfman Jack, the legendary disk jockey celebrated in the film American Graffiti, who represents the ghosts of all those DJs from New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, and New York who introduced him to the secrets of American music when he was a kid in Hibbing, Minnesota, growing up near Highway 61 in the aftermath of World War II. Starting with the Beatles, whose joyous music would “hold your hand” soon after the assassination, the names of dozens of musicians and singers float through:

Play Oscar Peterson and 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

Sometimes the music and the culture seem to emanate through the voice of Kennedy himself, who could have heard Wolfman Jack on the radio during his years as a senator, when he was hanging out in Hollywood and Las Vegas with Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, and other friends and family of his wealthy, ambassador father.

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 Marilyn Monroe
Play please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood
Play it for the First Lady, she ain’t feeling that good.

“Murder Most Foul” references so many musicians that Dylan experts have posted on Spotify a stream of songs that he identifies. There are the Rolling Stones (Altamont), The Who, Elvis (“Mystery Train”) Bo Diddley, Jelly Roll Morton, B.B. King (“play Lucille”), Patsy Cline, Nat King Cole, Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Stevie Nicks, Miles Davis, and the dozens of artists who covered “Stella by Starlight” from the 1944 Hollywood classic The Uninvited. And on and on, mixed with images from old movies, famous songs, and legendary figures from the American past—Birdman of Alcatraz, Bugsy Siegel, Pretty Boy Floyd, On the Waterfront (“Play Down in the Boondocks for Terry Malloy”).

Dylan even makes a few allusions to his own songs, including “Blood in My Eyes,” a cover, from his 1993 album World Gone Wrong, of a song by the Mississippi Sheiks, a 1930s African American string band that was led by a former slave fiddler, and “Dignity,” a rollicking favorite from his 2008 Tell Tale Signs bootleg about a time when “the soul of the nation is under the knife.” As the names and the titles fly by, you hear the music and culture that America experienced from the time of the Depression to our current era.

The contrast between the culture of Dylan’s musical past and the Trump-stricken country of today is summarized in his take on Kennedy’s plea to the nation, turned upside down:

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
I’m going to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
That’s the place where Faith, Hope, and Charity died.

These are old, familiar themes for Dylan. That cash is the money that “doesn’t talk, it swears” from his 1965 song “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” which also contains the immortal line, as applicable now as it was then, that “even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked.” And it’s the same tainted cash that “will never buy back your soul” from his bitter critique of the military-industrial complex in “Masters of War,” his famous antiwar ballad from 1963.

In that sense, “Murder Most Foul” may have been written for Trump’s America, but it’s also the America of the forever wars that began in the era before Trump, when militarism and empire dominated our foreign policy and killer drones became the weapons of choice for Democrats and Republicans alike. And, in Dylan’s mind, the nightmare of today dates back to November 1963 and Kennedy’s death. And that’s where my story picks up, because Dylan’s JFK story—“history told through a radio station,” as Neil Young put it—is the story of my generation as well.

I first learned about Kennedy’s “murder most foul” one morning in Tokyo, when my dad walked into my room as the shocking news came through the shortwave static of his Sony transistor radio. The president, our beloved JFK, had been shot in Dallas just a few hours ago, and was dead. “Assassinated? Assassinated?” my mother said, over and over, as we tried to absorb the brutal facts of the terrible event. I was all of 12 years old, and was shocked to the core.

Like so many of my fellow baby boomers, I looked to Kennedy an an idol. He was the young, vibrant leader who personified everything positive and hopeful about the country I had come to love from afar while spending my boyhood in Japan and South Korea, where my missionary parents went as relief workers after World War II. He was the spirit behind America’s exciting space program and the inspiration for thousands of young men and women who enlisted in the Peace Corps and the War on Poverty to help make the world a better place. His murder was the moment I realized that something was seriously wrong with the land of my birth.

Up to that point, America, to my innocent eyes, was a benevolent place, a land of abundance that produced sturdy, well-made cars like the Plymouth station wagon my father loved to drive. The election victory of the boyish, exuberant Kennedy in November 1960 only solidified my faith. Through the radio, I listened excitedly to his call to send Americans to the moon. I even wrote him a fan letter from Korea, and was thrilled beyond measure when I received a response from his assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell, that included a signed photograph of the president.

But with his sudden death, the old, familiar America I knew suddenly vanished, only to be replaced by something sinister, unexplained and mysterious. Most shocking was the blatant nature of the crime, which Dylan recalls in “Murder Most Foul”:

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.

The details of the assassination and the accused killer as they unfolded in the Japanese newspapers I read were mystifying, and I wanted to know more. Like Dylan, I pored over the Zapruder film stills when they were published in Life magazine. I read everything I could about the event in the school library, scouring every issue of Time and Newsweek when they came out. In the months that followed, the news was especially bad from Vietnam, which I had visited with my family in March 1963. By 1964, President Lyndon Johnson was escalating the war, pummeling the country with bombs and napalm, and by 1965, when US Marines landed by the thousands in Da Nang, “the horror” later spelled out in Apocalypse Now by Marlon Brando was in full force.

That was the time of Freedom Summer and the murders by the Ku Klux Klan of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi. We had already begun our terrifying lurch into the dark and lunatic decade of assassinations: In addition to JFK in 1963 there was Medgar Evers, then Malcolm X in 1965, and Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968. America was coming apart at the seams. The nation’s soul had indeed been “torn away.” But, through it all, there was one constant: the music, especially the rock and roll, jazz, and folk I was hearing on the radio.

I was introduced to Bob Dylan by Pete Seeger, who came to play at my American school in Tokyo during his world tour in 1964. After zipping through a repertoire of folk songs and civil rights anthems, Seeger told us of a new talent in New York City “who’s writing the most amazing songs.” He then picked up his 12-string and sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan’s powerful, apocalyptic song from the days of the Cuban missile crisis.

I was stunned by the soaring words; I’d never heard anything like that before, not from the Beatles, not from the Kingston Trio, not from Johnny Cash, not from anybody. That magnificent song, which Patti Smith performed so movingly at Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016, set the stage for everything that was to come from the gifted singer from Hibbing.

His songs seemed perfectly tuned to my surroundings, even in Japan. I’ll never forget first hearing “All Along the Watchtower,” with its haunting line, “Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl.” It was 1968, and Japanese citizens were protesting, often ferociously, the US military’s use of bases in Japan to attack Vietnam. From my house in Tokyo looking out at the Kanto Plain, I could spot American war planes landing and taking off from a US airbase far to the west. Dylan’s music was ominous—and a fitting soundtrack to what I was living through.

His music has remained closely attuned to the American zeitgeist well into the 21st century. On September 11, 2001, Dylan released Love and Theft, a searing blend of rock and blues perfect for our new, dark era. Its highlight was “High Water (For Charley Patton),” a tribute to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the songs and blues riffs it generated. It included these chilling lines, which we later heard echoed by Bush himself in his hunt for the 9/11 perpetrators:

Judge says to the High Sheriff,
“I want him dead or alive
Either one, I don’t care”
High water everywhere.

Dylan’s eye for the truth came home to me one night in 2014, when I took my daughter Roxanne to see him at Constitution Hall in DC. It was the day after Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri, and most of us were raw with shock and anger. Dylan closed the show with a slow and melodic “Blowin’ in the Wind” that brought tears to my eyes. His perennial question, “How many deaths will it take ’til we know / That too many people have died?” resonated deeply, just as it did when it was released during the civil rights movement in 1962.

I had a similar experience last year that illustrated the power he can hold over an audience. On December 8, I went to The Anthem in DC for what would be Dylan’s last performance before his “Never Ending Tour” was cut short by the coronavirus. Midway through his set, I watched with astonishment as the audience sat silent and spellbound through two songs: “Lenny Bruce,” a loving tribute to the radical comedian (“the best friend you never had”) and “Girl From the North Country,” his touching, prayerful song to a long-lost love from his days growing up in Minnesota. I have never seen a rock and roll crowd so quiet, so awed, so stilled. It was a moving tribute to our last true American troubadour.

It’s with that voice, breaking with emotion, that Bob Dylan, during the pandemic of the century, has dropped this song about Kennedy, the end of the American dream, and the music that has defined and consoled us all these years.

Take me to the place 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

Those lines, summoning the spirit of the blues and another execution long ago, are the sign of a master songwriter at work. All the songs and musicians he mentions are signposts of that America he once knew, that “old weird America” from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which Dylan drank from when he was just starting out, an America that’s disappeared in the maw of endless war and free-market capitalism that mark the Trump era and the year of the coronavirus.

Viewed through that lens, “Murder Most Foul” is a shout-out to the great music Dylan heard as a youth on the airwaves, learned in the coffeehouses, bars, and concert halls of Minneapolis, New York City, Cambridge, and London—and then passed on to us. It’s the music that, in his eyes, defined the America where “faith, hope, and charity” were our guideposts—the music that helped us defeat fascism, create the New Deal, face down systemic racism, and build the New Frontier that Kennedy never saw. Now is the time, he seems to be saying, to bring back that faith and do everything we can to keep it.

As Dylan knows only too well, that vision can be snuffed out in an instant. “Play the Blood Stained Banner,” he sings as he closes out the song, in a reference to the last flag of the Confederates who ripped the country apart during the Civil War; “play Murder Most Foul.” As I look out on the abandoned and frightened streets of my city and sense the fear and tension rippling through the country, I can only say: “Yes, and play a song for me too, Mr. Bob Dylan.”

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