“Stay observant!” – Bob Dylan´s dirge for America

by Jens-Philipp Gründler

With the release of the third song from the forthcoming Dylan album, it’s time to look back to the first released to get some more perspective on what we are being offered. 

On the occasion of the publication of an unheard song, “recorded a while back”, Bob Dylan sends his audience the following greetings and wishes: “Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”

At first glance, the dirge “Murder Most Foul”, a quote taken from Shakespeare´s “Hamlet”, deals with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in November 1963.

Running at approximately seventeen minutes, the exquisite piece of music deals with the looming apocalypse of today´s America at an allegorical level. One could even go so far as to say that in it, Nobel prize winner in literature Dylan is mourning the general loss of the soul worldwide. The narrator tells us that on the day of the murder of the charismatic US president, “the age of the anti-Christ had just only begun.”

Dylan puts himself in Kennedy´s position lyrically: “[…] ridin´ in a long, black Lincoln limousine / Ridin´ in the back seat, next to my wife / Heading straight on into the afterlife.” And, he states, the murderer had killed the body but not the soul. For more than fifty years it could not be found, because “his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at”.

These sinister verses are of beguiling beauty, accompanied by still background music. When the narrator diagnoses the loss of truth in our world, he expresses bleak, metaphysical facts and the listener is free to interpret these on manifold levels.

One such cryptic message contains the following verse: “Hate to tell you, Mister, but only dead men are free”. According to Platonic philosophy, the soul appears here as an immortal substance which can be separated from the body. Freed from its physical prison, the soul of the murdered president, or more broadly formulated: the souls of the dead, float around eternally. As usual, Dylan proclaims enigmatic truths, tinged with a sense of eternity. That’s what makes his songs and lyrics so irresistible and thrilling. And that is why the realm of his poetry is such a paradise for those who are committed to the act of interpretation. It is a hermeneut’s heaven.

In general terms, the song “Murder Most Foul” narrates the gradual decline of American culture and moral decay. Even though it was written at an earlier date, the content seems to allude to Donald Trump´s presidency. Published at the end of March 2020 when the Corona crisis had reached its temporary peak in America, Dylan´s song could not fail to be understood as a commentary on current politics.

Dylan´s style of performance is reminiscent of spoken word poetry and of the eulogy in particular. More a recital than a chant, “Murder Most Foul” seems to offer universal meanings. The soul (of a nation) has been torn away and a slow decay began on the day of the assassination. Meanwhile the narrator tells us: “[I]t’s thirty-six hours past judgment day.”

Seen through the eyes of the murderer, we discover he has made a deal with the devil. At Dealey Plaza in Dallas where the killing took place, “Faith, Hope and Charity died”. However, we are reassured in Platonic terms, the invisible soul cannot be slain: “See if you can shoot the Invisible Man”.

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One comment

  1. “Dylan´s style of performance is reminiscent of spoken word poetry …” – totally true, and I’d add one more thing: it’s the most ancient form of literature as it is known today, the literature made by first aoidoi of the ancient Greece, by the Griots, by the rambling poet-singers. It’s this mode of literature Bob Dylan has always been faithful to and for this, in my opinion, he was awarded with the Nobel prize. Thus, it could be a belated Nobel for “Open-the-Door” Homer. And “Murder Most Foul” illustrates it as excellently as “Tempest”, “Ain’t Talkin'”, “Hurricane”, “Desolation Row” or “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”.

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