Here are the lyrics provided by Denise Konkal – a massive improvement on my stumbling approach earlier today.
So to the meanings (this part of the article contributed by Tony)
The title is a quotation from Hamlet (I.v.27-28), where the Ghost talks about his own death:
Murder most foul as in the best it is But this most foul, strange and unnatural.
And if you want to search for a more obscure source of the quote, there is a fairly well-known movie of the name, a “Miss Marple” film made by MGM based on Agatha Christie’s novel “Mrs McGrinty’s Dead”. It had quite a cast: Margaret Rutherford, Charles Tingwell, Terry Scott, Windsor Davies… UK readers will know these names.
The song seems to be going its own way until we get to “Rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul,” which immediately sends me off in a different direction of looking for connections through the references – for this is a song stuffed full of references.
I don’t know about Rub-a-dub-dub in the USA, but in England most people will know this as a children’s rhyme. In fact it dates back to the 14th century and runs
“Rub a dub dub three maids in a tub”
and is an admonition of the fairground attraction in which supposedly respectable men ogled naked ladies. By the 18th century the sexual content was removed by making them “three men in a tub”, and it was the men in the tub who were the butcher etc rather than the butcher and friends looking at the naked women.
Hey! rub-a-dub, ho! rub-a-dub, three maids in a tub,
And who do you think were there?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker,
And all of them gone to the fair.
although at the time of the rhyme’s popularity many would still have understood that the working men of the village would have gone to see the naked ladies.
Dylan seems to be referencing the link to childhood by continuing with the reference to “little children”, but which then mutates through recent musical history into a more contemporary version of “rub a dub dub” with reference to Woodstock etc.
The contrast is then complete, “There’s a party going on behind the Grassy Knoll,” and then “nightmare on Elm Street” – the children’s poem has mutated into a horror movie, and the mutations continue for next we are in Deep Ellum, the arts quarter of Dallas, wherein we find, “Elm Street” with of course its film connotations.
What Bob is doing, or so it seems to me on the first day of thinking about the song, is jumping through cultural references that part-connect to each other. So we get “Don’t ask what your country can do for you” a re-write of “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You” from J F Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 coming into his mind.
“Cash on the ballot” is possibly a reference to “Care not cash” an attempt to solve the homelessness problem in San Fransisco, but then we are back to Dealey Plaza where the President was shot, “The place where faith, hope, and charity died,” – a counter line to “the day the music died” relating to the deaths of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens.
And then we jump again, “Frankly, my Scarlett, I don’t give a damn,” being Gable’s last words to Leigh (played by Scarlett O’Hara) reply to the question, “Where shall I go? What shall I do?”
Then back to the President with
What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby; they oughta know
Jack Leon Ruby was the Dallas nightclub owner who shot . He fatally shot Lee Harvey Oswald on November 24.
Then we jump again, this time to the Who, with their most famous album
Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen
At this point, with the stanza that starts,
I’m riding in a long, black limousine
Riding in the backseat next to my wife
… I’m unsure and have several scenarios swirling around (including “Things have changed” until suddenly we are back to references with the Everly Brothers…
Wake up, little Suzie; let’s go for a drive
Cross the Trinity River; let’s keep hope alive
Turn the radio on; don’t touch the dials
Parkland hospital, only six more miles
Suzie was the character created in the Everly Brothers song, Parkland Memorial Hospital was where the dying Kennedy was taken. Then we are back to Little Richard with “You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy” (not an exact quote I think).
Then there is Patsy Cline who died in a plane crash aged just 30, and the Zapruder film, the home movie by Abraham Zapruder of Kennedy’s motorcade passing by, which filmed the President’s assassination.
And then Dylan references a song he’s sung…
I’ve blood in my eye, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the new frontier
And the references go on and on. “What’s new, pussycat?” (Tom Jones) and “What’d I say?” (Ray Charles)… Wolfman Jack appears and then Billy Joel’s “Only the Good Die Young.”
Tom Dooley was hung for the 1866 murder of Laura Foste (remembered in the song “Hang down your head Tom Dooley”), and no one is quite sure who wrote the utterly famous “St. James Infirmary” but the reference to the Port of King James has me for a moment.
After this, it gets more obvious, but in essence, what we have is Dylan moving from the thoughts of the assassination across to the thoughts of the music that means so much to him. It is a set of memory connections starting with the killing and moving on to all the songs that Dylan loves and that bring him comfort. Songs to take his mind away from the downward spiral of mankind.
Indeed towards the end it is more and more the names of people and songs. Unless it turned up in a film I don’t know that there is a specific “man with the telepathic mind” – but clearly we are swimming in the world of sounds and images.
Maybe Dylan has a jukebox at home and does sometimes shout out “Play Number 9, play Number 6“, but mostly he is telling us who he wants to remember – all the people whose music, lyrics and films have meant something to his life, to contrast with the awfulness of Kennedy being shot.
And so we end with play “The Blood-stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul!”
The Blood stained banner was the third national flag of the Confederate States of America and was adopted March 4, 1865 containing “as little as possible of the Yankee blue”, and then the song title “Murder Most Foul.”
And there we are.
If I have missed some obviously important references points or failed to make connections, sincere apologies. I heard the song for the first time about six hours ago, and spent much of the time trying to get the words sorted before Denise came along and sorted out my mess, and then wrote this immediately.
The point of doing this is hopefully to start unravelling the ideas and suggestions and hints contained through all these references. It can of course be seen as just the thoughts that flow through Bob’s mind as he thinks again of the death of the president. It might be something more as it leads in its final part back to the flag of the Confederacy.
Of course I have missed a lot – my knowledge is far from complete, I was working against the clock, and above all, I am an Englishman, not an American.
But I hope something in here helps you get a firmer grasp on Dylan’s song.
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The index to all the 597 [the song above makes it 598] Dylan compositions and co-compositions that we have found on the A to Z page.
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