MURDER MOST FOUL (MMF) by Bob Dylan
Released on Disc 2 of Rough and Rowdy Ways (2020)
Official lyrics: https://www.bobdylan.com/songs/murder-most-foul/
Official video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NbQkyvbw18
MMF LIVE VERSION
Tom Palaima – vocals
Joe Goodkin – guitar
Recorded by Shane Hendrickson at Studio 3024, Chicago, IL, on October 12, 2023 in one unedited take and performed from memory.
We hope our live version helps listeners to feel and understand the magnitude and emotional depth of this masterpiece by Bob Dylan.
About Joe Goodkin: Joe (b. July 8, 1977) is a Chicago-based singer/songwriter who has written and recorded twelve albums of original music under the name Paper Arrows and his own name. He travels the country and world singing modern folk song cycle retellings of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad (The Blues of Achilles), a combined 450 performances in almost every US state as well as Greece and Italy. His 13th album is called Consolations and Desolations and will be available everywhere you get digital music on October 27, 2023.
More at: https://www.joegoodkin.com
“I played a 1963 Gibson J-50 acoustic (like this one https://guitar.com/reviews/vintage-review/vintage-bench-test-1963-gibson-j-50/ ). An intriguing coincidence (if you believe in coincidences) that it is from the year Kennedy was killed and the young Bob Dylan experienced such trauma (see Background below). I favor Gibson guitars for their darker tone and I especially favor vintage Gibson guitars for the additional sonic complexity that develops from aged wood and the decades of history that reside in the instrument.”
“I was first made aware of Bob Dylan’s music through cover versions of “All Along the Watchtower” (Jimi Hendrix) and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” (Guns N’ Roses). I got a chance to see Bob live in 1993 in Chicago. As my focus in music shifted from strictly guitar playing to songwriting/singing, I began to absorb his influence directly through his massive catalogue. The album Time Out of Mind was a game changer. Over the last few years I’ve been lucky enough to learn and perform Bob’s songs at least a dozen times (both in person and virtually) for Tom Palaima’s UGS 302 class at the University of Texas at Austin: Bob Dylan History Imagination. These performances have been both intimidating and inspiring, allowing me to get inside some of the seemingly limitless genius of Mr. Dylan’s singular oeuvre.”
About Tom Palaima: Tom Palaima (b. October 6, 1951) is in his last academic year as Robert M. Armstrong Professor of Classics and founding director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory (est. 1986) at the University of Texas at Austin.
Since the 1990’s he has taught seminars, written book reviews and public intellectual commentaries, and lectured widely on human creative responses to war, violence and social injustice, ancient and modern, and on music and songs as social commentary, including the song poems of Bob Dylan.
He serves on the editorial board of The Dylan Review. He was a prime mover in the decision of TDR to publish Dylan-inspired poetry, including his own, and to emphasize inspiring the upcoming generation to explore and feel Dylan’s music and express themselves about how his songs and performances affect them.
Why record the song? During Covid (Spring 2020-Spring 2023) Joe Goodkin and Tom Palaima performed “Murder Most Foul” three different times via Zoom for annual iterations of Tom’s award-winning UGS 302 class at the University of Texas at Austin: Bob Dylan History Imagination. Tom then was using the printed text as a crutch.
They took advantage of Tom’s going to Chicago for a MacArthur Fellows Forum in mid-October 2023 to record MMF in the studio. Tom decided the only way to ‘know and feel’ the song fully and understand its complexity was to learn it by heart. This he did over a period of about six weeks.
The version of MMF here was done in one take in Studio 3024. It has certain live-performance ‘flaws’: ‘live’ substitutions and small mistakes and two vocal pauses filled by Joe’s fine guitar.
Tom also chants “Look Out” instead of “Hold On” when JFK realizes the trap he is in. He was so deep inside the song that he was warning the president himself rather than reporting the president’s own realization.
But we also got to update the chronology: “For the last sixty years they’ve been searching for that.” The end result is what it is and it’s our “Murder Most Foul.”
BACKGROUND TO DYLAN’S EPIC by Tom Palaima
Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” is a deeply disconcerting hymn of associative and dissociative memory and memorialization.
It is grounded in Dylan’s own original intense experiences of personal loss and menacing social hatred during 1963, the year when he celebrated in late May his twenty-second birthday. During that year Dylan in his famous Town Hall Concert (April 12, 1963) recited a capella, as it were, his seven-minute poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie.” Guthrie at age fifty was then about a decade into hospitalization with the extremely debilitating neural disorder Huntington’s chorea.
On June 12, 1963, in a suburb of Jackson, Mississippi, Medgar Evers, a black World War II veteran, a lawyer and NAACP field secretary for Mississippi, arguably the deepest of the Deep South states, with all that this phrase implies, was shot dead in his driveway coming home late at night to his wife and three children.
Soon afterwards, Dylan wrote his penetratingly honest assessment of the incident “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and performed it on July 6 at a black voter registration rally in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi in the presence of Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel. Bikel recollects the event, here.
Less than three months later, Dylan and his then true love Suze Rotolo sat riveted to coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath (November 22-25, 1963).
Finally, on December 13, 1963, three weeks after Kennedy was killed, at the dinner where he received the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, Dylan, having spoken in favor of pro-Castro activists, segued to the Kennedy assassination. He bravely and honestly said:
I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone – I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me – not to go that far and shoot.
THE POWERFUL MESSAGE OF “Murder Most Foul” (MMF) by Tom Palaima
The reference in MMF to searching for Kennedy’s soul for ‘the last fifty years’ gives us an indication that Dylan was thinking, as would only be natural, about the killing of JFK around the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The song distills the essence and the long-term impact of this shockingly brutal public murder upon American culture and the ‘soul of the nation’.
As I wrote during the covid period in an essay not long after the release of MMF in late March 2020, “Grassy Knoll Covid Morning,” Athenaeum Review 5 Winter 2021 FOLIO:
For close to seventeen minutes Dylan, with piano, cello and light percussion accompaniment, hypnotically meditates upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He takes us through the events of those late November days in 1963 when “the soul of a nation has been torn away” and “the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” The subdued meditative mood of the song matche[d] the gray mood of COVID times.
Dylan’s song is Nobel Prize-worthy. I would say he makes us relive the miserable killings, the grief of the Kennedy family, the quick changing of the political guard and what it all meant for us and our country, but in truth MMF makes us take these things deep into our minds and souls and really live them for the first time.
I lived through the assassination of JFK. I was twelve years old and sitting on the front steps of my neighbor friend Robbie’s house in the early afternoon on Sunday November 24, 1963, when his divorced mother came out the front door looking shaken and distracted. Because there were no adults around for her to talk to, she said, not really to us, “They just shot President Kennedy’s —.” I forget what she called Lee Harvey Oswald. Neither my friend Robbie nor I felt very much. We did not talk about the president or his presumed killer being shot. We were more interested in the Cleveland Browns football game that afternoon. By weird fate the Browns were playing against the Dallas Cowboys. I saw my Catholic parents grieving during this period, my mother crying during iconic televised and photographed moments like John John’s final salute to his father.
Dylan in his sung words and [with his] sea-like musical accompaniment takes us “Deep in a Dream,” into the kind of reverie where “junk” or heroin takes the jazz musicians he calls out. He re-creates what it was like for Kennedy himself to realize that he was being “led into some kind of a trap” and “gunned down like a dog in broad daylight” while “ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife / heading straight on into the afterlife.” Dylan conveys the meaning of this “vile, cruel and mean” act to Americans then and to us now, as it was captured forever on the famous Zapruder film.
Dylan never uses the clinical and emotion-obliterating word ‘assassination’. He makes us feel the horrific moment as a murder most foul (a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that he uses to conclude all four main stanzas, and to end the song itself), a killing “with hatred, without any respect.” And we do feel what it was like when “they killed him once and they killed him twice / killed him like a human sacrifice.”
Dylan takes us away into our distracted American lives filled with Beatles music, Hollywood movies, Woodstock, Altamont, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Don Henley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hoagey Carmichael, Shakespeare, the Who, Wolfman Jack and “the great Bud Powell.” He jars us [back] out of our American dreams by alluding to other brutal murders of innocents and not-so-innocents in our country’s history: Sherman’s march to the sea (1864), the Tulsa race massacre (1921), the sordid hanging for murder of Civil War veteran Tom Dula (1868), the violent killings of notorious gangsters Charles Floyd (1934) and Benjamin Siegel (1947). He then leaves us with a “blood-stained banner” and a final “murder most foul.”