Dylan’s Christian Anthology 5; Key West and that most foul murder

By Kevin Saylor

An index to all the Untold Dylan articles on Rough and Rowdy Ways can be found here.

The last two songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” run for a combined 26-plus minutes. On the CD release, “Murder Most Foul” occupies its own second disc, so perhaps it is best to see “Key West” as the true final chapter on the album, with “Murder Most Foul” as an extended coda.

In many ways, “Key West” serves the same function as the album finale that “Highlands” did for Time Out of Mind. In “Highlands,” Dylan, riffing on Robert Burns, says that his heart is in the highlands, a paradisal, otherworldly place (although it is simultaneously described as an actual geographical location), even as his physical body remains in this world while he is alive. He calls the Highlands his home even though he currently is far away “like a prisoner in a world of mystery.” Like Dylan’s Key West, his Highlands is a liminal space, “way up in the border country.”  “Key West” plays a similar role. It is described as “the place to be,” “fine and fair,” “on the horizon line,” “the place to go,” “ the gateway key,” “the enchanted land,” “the land of light,” and “paradise divine.” Clearly, Key West is a place set apart from and superior to all other locales in which the rest of the songs on Rough and Rowdy Way are set. The singer of “Key West,” released 23 years of “Highlands,” is closer to his final destination than the singer of the earlier song. “Highlands” ends: “Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day/ Over the hills and far away/ There’s a way to get there and I’ll figure it out somehow/ But I’m already there in my mind/ And that’s good enough for now.” In the new song, he is already in Key West, the borderline city on the horizon, the place of passage to our ultimate goal.

But why Key West? It is the southernmost city in the contiguous United States. (Since many aging retirees migrate to Florida, there is perhaps a submerged joke about Florida being “God’s waiting room.”) In the song’s description, Key West resembles the Blessed Isles of Greek mythology. The previous song had ended with the “killing frost…on the ground,” but with the singer looking to the rising sun. In Key West, however, “winter…is an unknown thing.”  Key West is thus a land of blessedness and contentment, a place where every tear shall be wiped away.

But Dylan wants to insist that this Key West is a real place, not an imaginary island. Immediately after singing, “Key West is the enchanted land,” (n.b. “the” not “an”) the perona says, “I’ve never lived in the land of Oz/ Or wasted my time with an unworthy cause.” (There are other references to The Wizard of Oz in the lyrics). Key West exists not somewhere over the rainbow, but “down by the Gulf of Mexico.” Dylan mentions actual locations in the Florida city: Amelia Street, Bayview Park, Mallory Square; and historical facts: “Truman had his White House there.” In other words, the Key West he describes is a real place, although not identical with the city in Florida. Like the Scottish highlands in the earlier song, Key West is a symbol of an actually existing paradise divine, not the bogus land of Oz. Trying to construct “My Own Version of You” is an “unworthy cause”; trying to make your way to this city “on the horizon line,” the City of God that is the true destiny of all souls who have won the hard hope achieved in “Crossing the Rubicon,” is an admirable goal. It is the ultimate and perhaps the only true goal. It is not some head in the clouds opiate of the masses; in this Key West the singer has “both [his] feet planted square on the ground.” It is the “gateway key” to St. Peter’s gate, the key that the persona of “Crossing the Rubicon” turns before crossing the river.

But if this is the case, the song certainly commences in an odd fashion, with a murder: “McKinley hollered; McKinley sqaulled/ Doctor said McKinley, death is on the wall/ Say it to me, if you got something to confess/ I heard all about it, he was going down slow/ I heard it on the wireless radio/ From down in the boondocks, way down in Key West.” The opening couplet revises the beginning of Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues,” a song Dylan would have known as a young man from Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. “White House Blues” uses a technique Dylan frequently employs: composing a topical song by incorporating floating verses from older songs. This allusion to Charlie Poole works on several different levels.

For one, it connects “Key West” to “Murder Most Foul,” itself an (ostensibly) topical song incorporating scores of references to previous songs. Each song uses the assassination of a president as a launching pad to engage in larger issues. “Murder Most Foul” includes a quote from “White House Blues”: “Hush, little children.” “White House Blues” and “Murder Most Foul” are both written well after the assassination and mention by name the presidential successors, Roosevelt and Johnson.

McKinley was murdered for political reasons by an anarchist and “Murder Most Foul” intimates Kennedy may have also been killed for political reasons. All three songs use art to confront and try to understand violence. In “White House Blues,” the doctor tells McKinley that he “can’t find the ball.” This is a specific reference to a particular shooting and a physician’s inability to help one patient by removing the shot from his body. In Dylan’s rewrite, “Death is on the wall.” As he did with the album title, Dylan revises to universalize. Ultimately, the writing is on the wall for all of us–death spares no one. Dylan’s doctor is also a priest, asking the dying, hollering McKinley if he has anything to confess, any burden of sin he needs to unload before meeting his Maker.

However, “Key West” is set in contrast to this world of violence. The persona hears the radio blasting the news from the safety of Key West. In fact, the city in the song is a place of reprieve from violence, even from death. As we near the end of the album, it may be worthwhile to stand back and consider its progress through the sequence of tracks. Rough and Rowdy Ways begins with the universality of mortality (“I Contain Multitudes”), manoeuvres past false prophets (“False Prophet”) and false idols (“My Own Version of You”), proclaims deliberate devotion to the God Who Is (“Made Up My Mind to Give Myself to You), discovers the proper way to meet death (“Black Rider”) thumps a Bible and proclaims a creed (“Goodby Jimmy Reed”), asks for inspired wisdom and enacts a baptism (“Mother of Muses”), struggles through adversity to reclaim hope (“Crossing the Rubicon”), and finally arrives in the land of realized hope (“Key West”).

In the second verse, the singer changes the dial on the radio that brought the bad news of McKinley’s assassination. “I’m searching for love, for inspiration/ On that pirate radio station/ Coming out of Luxembourg and Budapest/ Radio signal clear as can be/ I’m so deep in love that I can hardly see/ Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West.” Instead of violence, he searches for love and inspiration, which can only be found on pirate, i.e. unofficial and unlicensed, radio. Pirate radio allows one to broadcast the naked truth, here the truth about love, considered taboo by the powers that be. (Interestingly Radio Martí, originally intended to be called Radio Free Cuba, was broadcast from Key West to Cuba while Castro was in power.)   When the clear signals come in from Luxembourg and Budapest, two cities famous for pirate radio, the singer falls deeply in love. The pirate radio broadcast is a metaphor for feeling the Holy Spirit which gives light and freedom as described in “Crossing the Rubicon.” To hear the unadulterated Truth is to fall in love and be set free. It is available to everyone who looks for it and discovers where to turn the dial.

The third verse then tells us, “Key West is the place to be/ If you’re looking for immortality/ Stay on the road, follow the highway sign/ Key West is fine and fair/ If you’ve lost your mind, you’ll find it there/ Key West is on the horizon line.” This stanza makes it fairly clear that Key West is a symbol for the eternal City of God where death is undone. Various roads scatter across Rough and Rowdy Ways. This road is Jesus’s narrow way that leads to life (Mt. 7:14), Dante’s straight path that does not stray into the dark wood of error and sin (Inferno 1), the “path in the mind” (“I Contain Multitudes”), the path on which you must travel light on the slow journey home (“Mother of Muses”). It is the King’s highway and the signs are posted if you know where to look. Hint, “thump that Bible” as in “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.” It is the place to find true sanity in God if you’ve lost your mind in the world. In verse six, it is the “key to innocence and purity.”

In verse ten, it is “under the sun/Son,” where you “feel the sunlight (light of the Son) on your skin/ And the healing virtues of the wind (Holy Spirit)/ Key West is the land of light.” Taken together, this description seems sufficient to indicate that in the song, Key West stands for the Christian Heaven, or at least as the place set aside for true believers who possess the expectant hope of salvation.

If so, it helps interpret one of the strangest verses on the album: “Twelve years old, they put me in a suit/ Forced me to marry a prostitute/ There were gold fringes on her wedding dress/ That’s my story, but not where it ends/ She’s still cute and we’re still friends/ Down on the bottom, way down in Key West.” On May 22, 1954, two days shy of his thirteenth birthday, Robert Allen Zimmerman celebrated his bar mitzvah. The choice was his family’s, hence he was “put into” a suit and “forced” to participate in the ceremony.

Dylan alludes to the prophet Hosea who was instructed to marry a harlot, Gomer, because “the land hath committed great whoredom” (Hos. 1:2). The gold fringes refer to a decorated Torah covering. So, marrying a prostitute at 12 years old is Dylan’s metaphor for his bar mitzvah, which he did not want. Yet he still finds much in his Jewish heritage that is attractive. He is on good terms with Judaism, if not a fully practising, Orthodox Jew. He has had his sons bar mitzvahed, been photographed at the wailing wall in Jerusalem, celebrated passovers, been spotted in Temple, raised money for Jewish causes, written a song defending the state of Israel (“Neighborhood Bully”), etc.

The references on Rough and Rowdy Ways to the Holy Spirit, Christian gospel, the theological virtues, baptism, and other aspects of Christianity suggest strongly, if not conclusively, that Dylan remains the believing Christian has continuously been since the late ‘70s. This, then, would seem to be as close as we are ever likely to get to an explicit declaration by Bob Dylan, ne Robert Zimmerman, that he is a messianic Jew. If that is correct, then the lines in stanza four–”Well, it might not be the thing to do/ But I’m sticking with you through and through/ Down in the flatlands, way down in Key West”–refer to Jesus, even if that is not a popular position to take, amongst most of Dylan’s fans or in the general political and social climate.

In “Key West,” Dylan sings beyond the genius of the sea. The subtitle of “Key West” is “Philosopher Pirate.” Throughout Rough and Rowdy Ways, Dylan is a philosopher pirate broadcasting via his own version of pirate radio a semi-coded message of faith, hope, and love to a tangled and torn world. His music projects a philosophy of belief to people living under the tyranny of political correctness and media conformity, and even more under general depravity and corruption. As he says, “I’ll drink to the truth” and “I have no apologies to make” (“I Contain Multitudes”).

Finally we have the coda to the album, at nearly 17 minutes the longest song Dylan has ever released, dropped unexpectedly as a single in March. “Murder Most Foul” is a treasury of references, to American pop culture and history in particular, but also to Shakespeare, Beethoven, the Bible, and much else. I have tried to make sense of Dylan’s mosaic of allusions on the songs on Rough and Rowdy Ways, exploring how he employs them to create meaning in his lyrics. In truth, I have touched on only a small fraction of these allusions. I will not here try to make sense of the scores of references in this one song, although I strongly suspect Dylan’s choices are not promiscuous. Many of these references are far more straight-forward and recognizable than allusions elsewhere on the album. He cites well-known information about the Kennedy assassination. He names familiar names from contemporary culture, such as Patsy Cline, Marilyn Monroe, Don Henley and Glen Frey, Nat King Cole.  Whereas elsewhere it takes some digging or a broad knowledge similar to Dylan’s own to catch the allusions, here they are often on the surface.

In doing so, and by setting this artistic litany in the context of a traumatic national event, Dylan suggests the importance of the creative imagination in dealing with real-world tragedy. Kennedy’s murder is just the starting place, a synechdoche for all the violence, hatred, and darkness in the world. “Murder Most Foul” does something similar to the title song of Tempest, where Dylan uses the sinking of the Titantic to make more general comments on human responses to tragedy and death. The second line of the new song already expands its scope beyond the shooting of JFK: “‘Twas a dark day in Dallas–November ‘63/ The day that will live on in infamy.”

By quoting Roosevelt’s speech reacting to the attack on Pearl Harbor, a quote famous enough to be recognizable by most listeners, Dylan indicates that the event in Dallas was not an isolated occurrence, but a continuation of sanguinary human history that extends far beyond December 1941 to that primal eldest curse, Cain’s murder of Abel. The song takes on slavery and race relations in America as well. The lines “The day they blew out the brains of the king/ Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing” must refer primarily to the Kennedy shooting. The details don’t fit the assassination of Martin Luther King. But how can we not hear an echo of that act of hatred in the title “king”? And possibly, in a muted manner, we might think about the execution two thousand years ago of the King of kings. The line “Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime” certainly refers to the Tulsa massacre of 1921. It also refers to the Bob Wills song “Take Me Back to Tulsa” that includes the lines: “Little bee sucks the blossom/ Big bee gets the honey/ Dark man picks the cotton/ White man gets the money.”

Allusions extend further back to the Civil War, with references to Gone With the Wind, the Union song “Marchin’ Through Georgia,” and the Confederate “Blood Stained Banner.” And further back to Beethoven and Shakespeare’s violent tragedies. In “Murder Most Foul” the call to arms against the universal sea of troubles in human history is artistic not political. Or, if you prefer, it is politics by other means. The song calls for an imaginative more than an activist response to the hardness of human hearts. It bespeaks the healing power of art, and song in particular, in a fallen world where suffering is ineradicable. Throughout his career, Dylan has always believed that the key to genuine reform lies in changing hearts not changing laws. Or, if you prefer, that changing laws is only truly efficacious when hearts have been converted. As he sang in “Wedding Song,” “It’s never been my duty to remake the world at large/ Nor is it my intention to sound the battle charge.” But he does consider it his duty to lighten the world through the creation of beautiful and inspiring music. Music provides a tremendous reprieve from pain; it may even change people’s way of thinking and offer them a new set of rules.

Dallas, as the main setting of “Murder Most Foul,” provides a couple of coincidentally relevant names. The main waterway through Dallas is the Trinity River and the main airport in ‘63, Love Field. Roads and rivers are important throughout Rough and Rowdy Ways. In “Murder Most Foul” Dylan alludes to the the most famous intersection in American musical history, the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil: “I’m going to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride/ That’s the place where Faith, Hope, and Charity died.” The devil always meets people at the crossroads, those moments when we must make crucial decisions about the direction our lives will take. The devil tempts us to take the broad road to perdition, to resist the yoke that comes with adhering to the theological virtues.

The persona of “Murder Most Foul” is not going to the crossroads to sell his soul; he goes to force the moment to its crisis, to choose the narrow path, reject sin, and keep Faith, Hope, and Charity alive. In the next verse he sings, “Wake up, Little Suzie, let’s go for a drive/ Cross the Trinity River, let’s keep hope alive/ Turn on the radio.” In the Everly Brothers’s “Wake Up, Little Susie,” a teenage couple falls asleep watching a movie getting Susie into “trouble deep” with her parents for breaking curfew by six hours. They fear Susie’s reputation will be ruined because her parents and their friends will assume they have spent the night in an amorous embrace. The boy calls her to wake up so they can avoid getting into further trouble. We’ve already seen in “Mother of Muses” how Dylan uses awakening as a baptismal metaphor for rejecting sin: “Take me to the river…Wake me, shake me, free me from sin.” And on Slow Train Coming he included a song based entirely on this idea, “When You Gonna Wake Up?” The point of the allusion then is wake up little Susie and stop sinning. In this context, Dylan puns on Dallas’s Trinity River as a place to be baptized into belief in a three-personed God, which if not the only is at least the best way to keep hope alive. Then he connects all of this with turning on the radio, reinforcing the idea that music helps to sustain hope and rousing belief. Dallas’s “Love Field is where [Kennedy’s] plane touched down/ But it never did get back up off the ground.” “Murder Most Foul” is Dylan’s wake-up call that the we need to start flying once again from “Love Field.”

Another river is mentioned on “Murder Most Foul”: “Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat.” The English river provides Dylan with a homophone for mercy. Gerry & the Pacemaker’s hit single, though far simpler, actually has affinities with “Key West.” In Gerry Marsden’s song, the singer wants to stay in the place he loves, a place where people smile even at strangers and turn no one away, because elsewhere, “Life goes on day after day/ Hearts torn in every way,” and “People they rush everywhere/ Each with their own secret care.” In both songs, as in “Murder Most Foul,” the field of love, the place where torn hearts and secret cares are healed, lies across the river of Mersey/mercy.

In this examination of Rough and Rowdy Ways I have analyzed a small fraction of the allusions Dylan employs, trying to understand how he uses intertexts to create meaning. But of course Dylan’s collage technique works only if the songs are enjoyable, approachable, and to some degree understandable without recognizing and interpreting every (or even any) allusion. In the Divine Comedy Dante makes hundreds of allusions to scripture, Church fathers and doctors, Aristotle, Virgil, Ovid, and scores of other sources. But, if we are not moved by the story of the protagonist’s journey through the realms of the afterlife, we will not bother to read the poem let alone exert the effort to interpret it.  To use an ancient formulation, art must delight as well as (before really) instruct. I have neglected to a large extent the ways in which these songs are simply appealing–the musical arrangements, the vocal performances, the sound of the words. In truth, these things constitute the primary importance of the album as a work of art. Yet, if we take the time to look more closely, Dylan’s achievement opens up for us on multiple levels of meaning and illumination.

I have tried further to argue that Rough and Rowdy Ways reveals, as I believe all of Dylan’s albums at least since Slow Train Coming if not before have always revealed, a Christian anthropology. The songs portray a world gone wrong moving inexorably toward apocalypse. But apocalypse, after all, is an unveiling, a revelation of the beneficent Creator’s true providential ends. Similarly, the songs portray fallen human beings, struggling against violence and malignancy both outside themselves and within, plagued by fear, uncertainty, and doubt, but who are nevertheless, through the grace offered by the Holy Spirit, open to redemption and capable of faith, hope, and charity.

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  1. Death is on the wall is a reference to necrosis starting from the walls of the bullets that shot McKinley. President McKinley is also a CB radio.

  2. Death is on the wall is a reference to necrosis starting from the walls of the wound made by the bullets that shot McKinley. President McKinley is also a CB radio.

  3. As far as I know, Dylan has never declared himself to be a ‘Messianic Jew’ though his song lyrics often contain both Judiac and Christian allusions – seldom wherein neither are left unquestioned:

    Well, my ship’s been split to splinters
    I’m drowning in the poison, got no future got no past
    But my heart is not weary, it’s light and free
    (Bob Dylan: Born In Time)

    Forget Nietzsche, there be ancient mythologies that say God did away with Himself, and fragmented into a Universe in order that he might get to know Himself which as an Absolute He could not.

    Other mythologies (at least according to Robert Graves) that say that He got rid of the Great Mother Goddess for the same reason.

    Mixed-up confusion, for sure.

  4. In short the aricle above puts forth the argument that ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ reveals a Christian anthropology based on grace which is all well and good until it’s claimed that the article establishes with a high degree of certainty that Dylan’s personal beliefs are what the analyst’s so clearly are.

    The lyrics of the songs are doubled-edged, and what Dylan’s own spiriual beliefs are we know not, and whatever they be are not clearly stated beyond that there is likely a streetcar named ‘Trinity”.

  5. I don’t think it is possible for the speaker to be listening to the death of McKinley as there was no functioning radio news in 1901. I believe wireless radio broadcasts first were introduced about 1920, so that the speaker can only be listening to the song about the assassination in later years.
    Pirate radio -Tilos radio Budapest in 1991, Radio Luxembourg posssibly in the late 50s?
    As I have stated before, piracy and smuggling played a huge part in Key West’s history during the 1800s. Salvaging the loot from local shipwrecks became extremely lucrative.
    One of the earliest reviews of Dylan’s art is still worthy of quote:
    ‘‘What he offers is mystery, not just opacity, a geometry of innocence which they(the readers) can flesh out. His poems have to be open, empty, inviting collusion. To write thus is to practice a very modern art, though, as Dylan is well aware, it is an art with a complicated past.’ Frank Kermode, The Metaphor at the End of the Funnel.`
    I always think it’a a pity to reduce it to a particular religious view of the world, even if it may seem possible at the time.

  6. Broaddly speaking, Judaism focuses on correct coduct, under One Almighty God Chistianity on correct faith under a three-fold God; that is, ‘grace’ is earned, not granted on faith alone. A ‘Messianic Jew’ would be considered a Christian because of this distinction – transforming a human to the status of God is a

  7. Insightful article – though I do think you missed the point of Ferry Across the Mersey.
    “Slide down the BANNISTER..
    “FERRY across the Mersey…”
    Guy Bannister and David Ferrie (goggle them) are considered to be ‘important’ players in JFK’s assassination… I think it’s brilliant the way Dylan weaved both their names into two lines of the song – followed by the infamous “three bums…” line to remind us that we are still talking about JFK and not Gerry and the Pacemakers….

  8. Dylan is a master at that – playing with words – driving analysts crazy on purpose methinks (lol).

  9. With all due respect, there is another possible inference from the references to McKinley’s assassination. He involved us in the Spanish-American war, and sent troops to Cuba from Key West. Dylan also mentioned Truman’s Little White House there. So Key West is not just a place of delight — it played a part in a war.

    Then there is also the odd coincidence that President Trump has his ‘winter White House’ at Mar-a-Lago, not far from Key West…

  10. Thank you Pamela Brown! Both McKinley and Kennedy — the two 20th-century U.S. Presidents who were assassinated — launched attacks on Cuba from Key West (Kennedy’s being the assassination attempts on Castro). The Key West described is very much the real place, Key West, FL. The narrator — the Philosopher Pirate, a readily identifiable figure in Key West history — very much knows where he is , and I doubt he sees the place as a “reprieve from violence.” Key West has been associated with violence in US history ever since the battleship Maine left Key West for Havana and blew up, with 306 Maine survivors returning to the convent home — the Convent of Mary Immaculata, converted to a hospital to meet war needs. https://stmarykeywest.com/history-of-the-parish/

  11. he does consider it his duty to lighten the world through the creation of beautiful and inspiring music. Music provides a tremendous reprieve from pain; it may even change people’s way of thinking and offer them a new set of rules.
    Sure Mr saylor, I appreciate a lot. I believe that Dylan has always heard his rule, his Call, with standing in the front line and singing with his boots, which will by now be the worn ones of Spanish leather, to ease the world of living and working

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