Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
Just $1.99 per week for the first 24 weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); }

Where Don McLean gracefully obscures his pop music references, Bob Dylan, seen here on July 22, 2012, drops names without subtlety.

FRED TANNEAU/AFP/Getty Images

Because something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? – Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man

Bob Dylan, the Nobel laureate and impish nowhere man, has released a new song. Murder Most Foul is a dark C-major contemplation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as brutally frank as the Dallas footage by Abraham Zapruder.

The sparsely arranged, structurally repetitive piano-bound ballad clocks in at an indefatigable 16 minutes 50 seconds. A sombre string player might be wearing a veil. Kettledrums happen in the cold distance.

Story continues below advertisement

Pop culture references abound, with shout-outs to the Beatles, Nightmare on Elm Street, Buster Keaton, Oscar Peterson and so on. It’s an attention-getter, audacious in its musical simplicity and freewheeling in its lyricism. The Antichrist is invoked.

And servile music writers are losing their collective minds over the song.

In a short piece from the fogey house organ Rolling Stone magazine, a critic is blue-in-the-face breathless: “This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song … as allusive as it is elusive … mesmerizing arrangement.” An excitable headline writer declares the song, Dylan’s first original one released since 2012, as “absolutely mind-blowing,” and “about so much more” than the killing of JFK.

One supposes it is about more than the magic-bullet takedown in 1963. And maybe guessing Dylan’s motivations for releasing this song at this time is the parlour game we need. But let’s not elevate Dylan and his new elegy with so much gusto, irreverence and overcomprehension.

One music writer’s knee-jerk reaction was that the song was “maybe” about COVID-19, without nailing down the suggested parallel – or even trying to do so. Another anointed Murder Most Foul as 2020′s American Pie, which is far too much praise.

President Kennedy was a-ridin’ high

Good day to be livin’ and a good day to die

Story continues below advertisement

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb

He said, “Wait a minute, boys, you know who I am?”

"Of course we do, we know who you are!”

Then they blew off his head while he was still in the car

That’s just bad poetic expression, nowhere near Don McLean’s American Pie standards. And where McLean gracefully obscures his pop music references, Dylan drops names without subtlety: “Play Oscar Peterson, play Stan Getz; play Blue Sky,” play Dickey Betts/Play Art Pepper, Thelonious Monk; Charlie Parker and all that junk …”

(McLean, instead, sang about “the jester on the sidelines in a cast.” Wonder who that was.)

Story continues below advertisement

There are better songs about the death of JFK, notably Phil Ochs’s Crucifixion. In 2013, the Cowboy Junkies and songwriter Scott Garbe released The Kennedy Suite, an ambitious Canadian-made song cycle that went criminally undernoticed.

If we see Murder Most Foul as a lament for America, there are more graceful allegories, including Joe Henry’s Our Song and Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson. (Both use past heroes of baseball, America’s national pastime, as a metaphor for the country’s decline.)

All that being said, if Murder Most Foul is a poor man’s American Pie, perhaps it’s what America deserves. In 2016, a country inexplicably voted for an unqualified candidate to be its leader, and now the President’s shortcomings are being exposed in crisis.

“I said the soul of a nation been torn away,” Dylan sings on Murder Most Foul, his voice typically tubercular. “And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay.”

The title track to Dylan’s Tempest from 2012 is 14-minute sea shanty ode to the RMS Titanic. Eight years later, America’s ship has come in.

Find out what’s new on Canadian stages from Globe theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck in the weekly Nestruck on Theatre newsletter. Sign up today.

Related topics

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies