Theological Reflections on Murder Most Foul

© Phil Mason, 2020

We live in a political world
Love don’t have any place
We’re living in times
When men commit crimes
And crime don’t have a face
[Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy 1989]

In ‘Murder Most Foul,’ Dylan’s first original composition in 8 years, Dylan takes us on a powerfully reflective journey through the 60’s and beyond as he weaves this 17-minute ballad around one of the most pivotal turning points in modern American history; the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  Kennedy was, unquestionably the most popular president in American history. Since his assassination he holds an almost mythic status in the chronicles of American presidential leaders. 74% of the American population considered him to be an outstanding or above average President,2with the highest approval rating (70%) of any American President in history.3 He was a visionary, a great orator and a man strongly guided by biblical values. 

Dylan, who usually never has a kind word to say about any politician, elevates Kennedy and the significance of his untimely death to a status reserved only for figures of great spiritual importance. When he did a cover of Kris Kristofferson’s song, They Killed Him in 1986, Dylan joined Kristofferson in lamenting the untimely deaths of Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., all of whom were brutally assassinated. With the death of John F. Kennedy, Dylan says ‘The age of the Antichrist has only begun…” Why does he attach such historic importance to this assassination of an American president? Is this pure hyperbole or is he seeking to make a larger theological statement? Well, like so many of Dylan’s songs from his later canon, Murder Most Foulis laced with powerful, thought-provoking theological insights and reflections. Theology is front and center in Dylan’s thought-world, as I have demonstrated in my book, A Voice from on High: The Prophetic Oracles of Bob Dylan.4 This essay is an exploration of the continuing role theology plays in Dylan’s newest offering.

When Dylan gave this song as a gift to a traumatized nation on March 27, 2020, he accompanied it with an unusual salutation to those he has previously identified as his ‘loyal and much-loved companions.’5 Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’ Modern Times 2006[/ref] He said, “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant, and may God be with you.” ‘Interesting!’ Well, that is an understatement! This new song is a Dylanologist’s dream; a 17-minute ballad with approximately 75 references to other songs and a truckload of theology and history to unpack. To set the tone in understanding the importance Dylan attaches to the assassination of Kennedy we need to start this journey with an appreciation of his significance in the political landscape of America in the early 60’s.

Kennedy the Peacemaker

There is every reason to believe that the assassination of John F. Kennedy may have fundamentally altered the course of modern history, setting the nation on a path to war that triggered one of the greatest and most far-reaching social upheavals of modern times. Many speculate that the 1960’s may have gone down an entirely different path if Kennedy was permitted to lead for two full terms and to fulfil his vision. As a next-generation prophetic voice for peace, Kennedy was effectively ‘martyred’ by the hawkish advocates of war. While he was certainly no saint, he was clearly informed and shaped by his Irish Catholic faith. The young Catholic Senator carried into his presidency the biblical values of freedom, brotherhood, reconciliation and peace. His passion for the pursuit of global peace reflected his strong Catholic upbringing.

Kennedy said, “I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.” Kennedy famously said, “We are not here to curse the darkness, but to light the candle that can guide us through that darkness to a safe and sane future.” Sanity and wisdom were his great strengths as he sought to guide the nation through the trauma of the Cold War era toward the light of peace.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Jack’s younger nephew wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. In the essay titled John F. Kennedy’s Vision of Peace, he wrote;

JFK’s greatest ambition as president was to break the militaristic ideology that has dominated our country since World War II. He told his close friend Ben Bradlee that he wanted the epitaph “He kept the peace,” and said to another friend, William Walton, “I am almost a ‘peace at any price’ president.” Hugh Sidey, a journalist and friend, wrote that the governing aspect of JFK’s leadership was “a total revulsion” of war. Nevertheless, as James W. Douglass argues in his book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, JFK’s presidency would be a continuous struggle with his own military and intelligence agencies, which engaged in incessant schemes to trap him into escalating the Cold War into a hot one.6

Kennedy chose the path of peaceful negotiations with Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union and Kennedy found Khrushchev willing to negotiate to pull the world back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. Robert Kennedy Jr., continues;

Khrushchev had already secretly proposed to his own government radical reductions in the Soviet military, including the conversion of missile plants to peaceful purposes. After JFK’s death, Kremlin war hawks viewed Khrushchev’s plan as a treasonous proposal for unilateral disarmament. Less than a year after Dallas, Khrushchev was removed from power. JFK, at the time of his death, was planning his own trip to the Soviet Union, knowing nothing would do more to end the Cold War. Forty years later, Khrushchev’s son Sergei wrote that he was “convinced that if history had allowed them another six years, they would have brought the Cold War to a close before the end of the 1960’s… But fate decreed otherwise, and the window of opportunity, barely cracked open, closed at once. In 1963, President Kennedy was killed, and a year later, in October 1964, my father was removed from power. The Cold War continued for another quarter of a century.”7

Looking back over Kennedy’s short career as the President it is evident that he saw his mission as the pursuit of peace at all costs. At Kennedy’s acceptance speech for the Democratic Party nomination in his bid to become the 35th President of the United States, Senator Jack Kennedy championed the values of “justice and freedom and brotherhood which all human life deserves.”8 Just one week earlier, speaking in Seattle, he said;

In a world of danger and trial, peace is our deepest aspiration, and when peace comes we will gladly convert not our swords into plowshares, but our bombs into peaceful reactors, and our planes into space vessels. “Pursue peace,” the Bible tells us, and we shall pursue it with every effort and every energy that we possess.9

 At a time when the tensions of the Cold War were ratchetting up this struck a nerve with the American people and Kennedy won the November 1960 election by the slimmest of margins. Upon winning the presidency, he gave his inaugural speech in early 1961;

For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath … Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.10

It was in this same inaugural address that Kennedy famously said; “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country….Knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”  Later that year in September 1961, speaking before the United Nations, President Kennedy said,

The quest for peace lies before us. Mankind must put an end to war – or war will put an end to mankind. Let us call a truce to terror. Let us invoke the blessings of peace. I come here today to look across this world of threats to a world of peace. However close we sometimes seem to that dark and final abyss, let no man of peace and freedom despair. For he does not stand alone. If we all can persevere, if we can in every land and office look beyond our own shores and ambitions, then surely the age will dawn in which the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved. Never have the nations of the world had so much to lose, or so much to gain. Together we shall save our planet, or together we shall perish in its flames. Save it we can – and save it we must – and then shall we earn the eternal thanks of mankind and, as peacemakers, the eternal blessing of God.11

Two years later, Kennedy addressed the United Nations a second and final time, in September 1963, just weeks before his assassination. In this speech his passion to eliminate the darkness of war and nuclear annihilation shone even more brightly.

The world has not escaped from the darkness. The long shadows of conflict and crisis envelop us still. Peace is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on. The task of building the peace lies with the leaders of every nation, large and small. Let us complete what we’ve started. For “No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back,” as the Scriptures tell us, “No man who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62) My fellow inhabitants of this planet: Let us take our stand here in this Assembly of nations. And let us see if we, in our own time, can move the world to a just and lasting peace.12

The very day Kennedy was assassinated he was scheduled to give a speech that afternoon in Dallas, the content of which, amplified the immense tragedy of his brutal murder. He never did give that final speech. The ink had hardly dried on the page, and this unspoken speech stands as a lasting testament of his unflagging commitment to global peace even in the face of the Generals in the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were loudly beating the drums of war. Fifty years after his death his nephew, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. said, “On November 22nd, 1963, my uncle, President John F. Kennedy, went to Dallas intending to condemn as “nonsense” the right-wing notion that “peace is a sign of weakness.” The closing paragraph of these unspoken words ring out and still speak from beyond the grave.

We in this country, in this generation, are – by destiny rather than choice – the watchmen on the walls of world freedom. We ask, therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” That must always be our goal – and the righteousness of our cause must always underlie our strength. For as was written long ago, “Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.” (Psalm 127:1)13

Dylan is no armchair historian. As a public figure he was a central player and an active participant in the unfolding drama of the early 60’s. He vigorously refused to embrace the title of ‘the spokesman of a generation’ but Dylan has never been able to restrain himself from singing about what he could plainly see. In November 1962, a full year before Kennedy’s tragic assassination Dylan entered the Witmark Studio in New York City and recorded the words of this song;

To preach of peace and brotherhood
Oh, what might be the cost!
A man he did it long ago
And they hung him on a cross
Long ago, far away
These things don’t happen
No more, nowadays, do they

Apparently they still did, just twelve months later!Long Ago, Far Way was recorded just weeks before the first recording of Masters of War15 in January 1963; Dylan’s now famous exposé of the economic power of the American military industrial complex. The threat of the Cold War had released waves of fear over the American populace and Dylan was envisioning a world in which a hard rain was a gonna fall. The proximity of these two recordings gives us a window into what Dylan was thinking about in the winter of 62/63. Like everyone, he was clearly haunted by the specter of nuclear war. Dylan himself was preaching peace and brotherhood. Recalling earlier 20th century wars he continued;

The war guns they bombed and blazed
the whole world bled its blood                
Men’s bodies rotted on the ground                
as their graves were made in mud                  
Long ago, far away
Those kinds of things don’t happen 
No more nowadays

With a prophetic prescience that we have become accustomed to discovering in Dylan’s writings over a period of six decades, this accidental seer, as someone once called him, described the fate of John F. Kennedy as he was campaigning against the seeming inevitability of an America being plunged headlong into the path of yet another world war. Kennedy was an inspired visionary and a true ambassador of peace but there were forces at work behind the scenes to bring to a screeching halt his reckless and idealistic vision of world peace. His enemies believed he was falling into the same error of Neville Chamberlain in appeasing the Soviets with irresponsible talk of peace. In his book To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace, economist Jeffrey Sachs examines Kennedy’s most famous oratory in defense of peace. Sachs highlights what he identifies as the oratorial high point of Kennedy’s grand vision of peace; a speech delivered on June 10, 1963 on the campus of the American University in Washington D.C. In this speech Kennedy pitched his vision for a foundation of future world peace.

So, let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.16

Tapping into this fundamental drive for human survival he advanced his vision of global peace within the framework of his parallel passion for social justice for the poor.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people…. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.17

Kennedy painted a portrait of humanity that was busy dying. It was perhaps this visionary plea of one of America’s greatest leaders to beat their swords into plowshares that later inspired Dylan to use language that echoed Kennedy’s observation that it is always the poor who are kicked to the curb by the economic agenda of the military industrial complex. In 1986 Dylan lamented that,

Hunger pays a heavy price
To the falling gods of speed and steel

Dylan and Kennedy

Dylan came to New York immediately after Kennedy’s inauguration in the dead of winter in January 1961. He identified too much with the outsider to have any patience for the agendas of American politicians. By the time he reached New York City he had already been radicalized by the cross currents of the likes of Kerouac and Woody Guthrie. He indicated that he wasn’t a voting man and he didn’t vote in the 1960 election. His suspicion of power politics has persisted throughout his six decades of public life. Consider some of his more recent comments on the ‘integrity’ of politicians;

Another politician pumping out the piss
Another ragged beggar, blowing you a kiss

Or, how about this comprehensive and sweeping dismissal of politicians?

Politician got on his running shoes
He must be running for office
Got no time to lose
He’s been sucking the blood
Out of the genius of generosity

These themes can be traced all the way back to Dylan’s experience of the political world during the presidency of John F. Kennedy. In Train a Travelin,’ written in 1962, Dylan sang;

I’m a-wonderin’ if the leaders of the nations understand
This murder-minded world that they’re leavin’ in my hands

Do the kill-crazy bandits and the haters get you down?
Does the preachin’ and the politics spin your head around?
Does the burning of the buses give your heart a pain?
Then you’ve heard my voice a-singin’ and you know my name

Many years later Dylan warned his listeners;

Democracy don’t rule the world
You better get that into your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

Perhaps Dylan’s disdain for political agendas was shaped in part by his experience of the assassination of Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Whatever the factors that inclined him to carry a lifelong suspicion of political power, Dylan is well known for songs like Political World;

We live in a political world
Love don’t have any place
We’re living in times
Where men commit crimes
And crime don’t have a face

In I Shall Be Free, a song belonging to the Kennedy era [May 1963], Dylan revealed his thorough disdain for politicians;

Now, the man on the stand, he wants my vote
He’s a-running for office on the ballot note
He’s out there preaching in front of the steeple
Telling me he loves all kinds of people

In the same song he mocks Kennedy as just another politician who is out to buy his vote;

Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, “My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?”
I said, “My friend, John, Brigitte Bardot

As part of his tour of the United States in the October lead-up to the presidential election in November 1960, Kennedy visited Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan’s old hometown. His mother described Kennedy as ‘a ray of hope’ for Hibbing and Dylan, 44 years later in his memoir, Chronicles [2004] said, “If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there.”25Somewhere along the line Dylan had changed his tune toward Kennedy.

It has been noted that in Dylan’s great library of songs, “almost every reference to politics and politicians is derogatory!”26  To what extent Dylan’s profound sense of dislocation from the political world was further shaped by Kennedy’s assassination is a point of debate. He was profoundly shaken by the event, as he revealed in describing the concert he was obligated to perform on November 23, 1963 in upstate New York; the day after the assassination. Dylan had recorded The Times They are a Changin’ a couple of weeks before Kennedy’s death and he chose to open the concert with that song because it had become the focal point of all his concerts in this turbulent period, especially as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining traction. Dylan reminisced about the craziness of that moment;

I had to go on stage, I couldn’t cancel. I went to the hall and to my amazement the hall was filled. Everybody turned out for the concert. The song I was opening with was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and I thought, “Wow, how can I open with that song? I’ll get rocks thrown at me.” That song was just too much for the day after the assassination. But I had to sing it, my whole concert takes off from there. I know I had no understanding of anything. Something had just gone haywire in the country and they were applauding that song. And I couldn’t understand why they were clapping or why I wrote that song, even. I couldn’t understand anything. For me, it was just insane.27

Most controversial was Dylan’s denunciation of politicians who were dragging their feet far too slowly in relation to the overthrow of black segregation and the granting of equality to people of color. The reason Dylan was genuinely concerned that the audience would stone him was the stanza;

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Murder Most Foul

Dylan’s admiration for Kennedy and his political legacy is undoubtedly something that has evolved over the decades rather than something we might associate with his generally negative perception of politicians in the early 60’s. By 2004 perhaps Dylan regretted not voting for him back in 1960. Fast forward to the release of Murder Most Foul and Kennedy has been transformed, in Dylan’s thought-world into a ‘king.’ The sense of tragedy and loss that permeates this dirge is palpable throughout the length and breadth of the song. Kennedy has taken on a mythic status, especially in the light of much historical reflection upon his bold pursuit of peace in the Cold War era. He withstood the pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were calling for war with the Soviet Union. And he paid the highest price for the road he chose to travel. “To preach of peace and brotherhood, oh what might be the cost?”

In Murder Most Foul, Dylan invokes Shakespeare’s famous tale of Hamlet. The ghost of Hamlet the King of Denmark appears to Hamlet, his son, saying, “My hour is almost come, when I to sulphurous and tormenting flames must render up myself.” Hamlet replies, “Alas, poor ghost!” Dylan’s invocation of the great bard carries deeper significance than the mere borrowing of his words for the title of his song. The narrative of Hamlet speaks to the issue of the ghost of John F. Kennedy speaking to America from beyond the grave. In Dylan’s song Kennedy is described as the ‘king’ who, like King Hamlet, suffered the same demise but whose aggrieved voice still speaks. His is like the voice of Abel whose blood speaks from the earth. After Cain murdered his brother the Lord came to him and said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10) Returning to the narrative penned by Shakespeare, the ghost of the King then addresses his son;

Pity me not but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine:
But this eternal blazon must not be
To ears of flesh and blood. List, list, O, list!
If thou didst ever thy dear father love

Hamlet is shot through by this encounter with the voice of his slain father. “O God!” he replies as the ghostly voice implores, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” “Murder?” inquires the harrowed son, to which the ghost replies in those famous and most memorable words;

Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
but this most foul, strange and unnatural.
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abused: but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father’s life
Now wears his crown.

Hamlet cries out in shock; “O my prophetic soul! My uncle!” The revelation that his father had been murdered by his own brother pierces him like an arrow. His father replies;

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast,
With witchcraft of his wit, with traitorous gifts
O wicked wit and gifts, that have the power
So to seduce!

Professor Timothy Hampton, an authority on Renaissance Literature at UCA Berkeley, in a tremendously insightful essay titled,  “Murder Most Foul” and the Haunting of America, probes the meaning of Dylan’s newest song, arguing that, on one level, while it is a narrative of a significant turning point in American history, on “another level, it is about the haunting of America.” Just like Shakespeare’s Hamlet we are thrust into “the land of ghosts; of the death of the ‘king,’ as Dylan calls Kennedy at one point.” Kennedy’s ghost still speaks from the other side;

I’m riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
Riding in the backseat next to my wife
Heading straight on in, to the afterlife
I’m leaning to the left, got my head in her lap
Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap

Dylan is a great believer in the afterlife. Throughout the song he repeatedly presents Kennedy speaking as still from beyond the grave. This echoes some of the themes of Tempest, the title track of Dylan’s 2012 album in which Dylan narrates the sinking of the Titanic;

All the lords and ladies
Heading for their eternal home

Dylan has a clear message: Death is not the End.29  There is an afterlife! Informed by biblical revelation he is assured that all human beings will live beyond the grave, as revealed in Lenny Bruce, a song Dylan sang on tour throughout 2019.The song opens with this announcement;

Lenny Bruce is dead, but his ghost lives on and on
He’s on some other shore, he didn’t want to live anymore

Like Saint Augustine, “searching for the very souls whom already have been sold,”30 Dylan finds America still searching for the missing soul of John F. Kennedy;

They mutilated his body, and they took out his brain
What more could they do? They piled on the pain
His soul’s not there where it was supposed to be at
For the last fifty years they’ve been searchin’ for that

In this verse there appears to be a deliberate juxtaposition between the death of the ‘body’ and the enduring existence of the ‘soul,’ echoing the words of Jesus who said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Jack Kennedy is dead, but his soul lives on and on… Like Abel, his blood cries out from the ground of America. Timothy Hampton concludes his essay by noting;

As the song ends it names itself in the last line, [Murder Most Foul] taking its place in the canon but also welding Shakespeare’s famous line onto an event in our own history, both personal and political. Hamlet speaks again.  And by making it speak, the song reminds us that a great crime is still alive.  The king could have died yesterday. Music both recalls the event and soothes our spirits.  And henceforth, JFK’s ghost lives on in all of these songs.  To sing them is to be reminded of his soul (in all senses of that term), but also to be confronted with the fact that, in every song we sing, our country is scarred by his murder, by murder most foul.31

There is a line in Oliver Stone’s JFK movie where Jim Garrison, (played by Kevin Costner) the New Orleans DA who led the prosecution in the Trial of Clay Shaw [1969] says in his final testimony;

We’ve all become Hamlets in our country, children of a slain father leader whose killer still possesses the throne. The ghost of John F. Kennedy confronts us with the secret murder at the heart of the American dream.32

Dylan doesn’t buy the conclusions of the Warren Commission, the official government investigation into the assassination of Kennedy. The Warren Commission, established immediately after Kennedy’s death, concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the sole assassin who acted alone and that Jack Ruby, Oswald’s murderer, also acted alone. Does Dylan buy the official account? Or does he lean toward the prevailing conspiracy theory that Kennedy was murdered in what amounted to a secret political coup to overthrow the king and replace him with Lyndon B. Johnson, Kennedy’s hawkish Vice President. There is no doubt that Dylan identifies with the views of Jim Garrison as reflected in Oliver Stone’s controversial film. The suggestion that Kennedy was “led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb,” is followed by Kennedy saying to his murderers;

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

The question posed to the ‘boys,’ (plural), suggests a company of conspirators. Kennedy fictionally asks, ‘do you know who I am?’ [implying, the President]. They knew exactly who he was and just what ‘they’ were doing, indicating that there was more than one assailant. This gang of co-conspirators then say;

We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect
We’ll mock you and shock you and we’ll put it in your face
We’ve already got someone here to take your place

Kennedy was searching for every possible way to reduce America’s involvement in a worsening situation in Vietnam. Johnson was sworn in as president just two hours after the death of Kennedy and then he immediately proceeded to put his foot on the accelerator in advancing America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, right on the heels of Kennedy angling to reduce the number of US military personnel immediately before his assassination. Robert F. Kennedy recalls;

Six weeks before his death, on October 11th, 1963, JFK bypassed his own National Security Council… making official policy the withdrawal from Vietnam of the bulk of U.S. military personnel by the end of 1965, beginning with “1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.” On November 14th, 1963, a week before Dallas, he announced at a press conference that he was ordering up a plan for “how we can bring Americans out of there.” The morning of November 21st, as he prepared to leave for Texas, he reviewed a casualty list for Vietnam indicating that more than 100 Americans to date had died there. Shaken and angry, JFK told his assistant press secretary Malcolm Kilduff, “It’s time for us to get out. The Vietnamese aren’t fighting for themselves. We’re the ones doing the fighting. After I come back from Texas, that’s going to change. There’s no reason for us to lose another man over there. Vietnam is not worth another American life.”33

Oliver Stone remembers well the moment Kennedy was assassinated. He recalls, “It was sold to us that Johnson was fulfilling Kennedy’s mandates and there was no discontinuity. That’s absolutely not true considering what I’ve learned since then.”34 Robert F. Kennedy confirms that there was a massive and sudden change of government policy under LBJ;

On November 24th, 1963, two days after JFK died, Lyndon Johnson met with South Vietnam Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, whom JFK had been on the verge of firing. LBJ told Lodge, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went.” Over the next decade, nearly 3 million Americans, including many of my friends, would enter the paddies of Vietnam, and 58,000 would never return.35

Upon Stone’s exposure to a mountain of compelling evidence through the course of making his film, JFK, he became overwhelmingly convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was a major cover up and the truth was being withheld. What was the real truth behind the assassination of the king and his instant replacement with his political brother? Dylan asks;

What is the truth, and where did it go?
Ask Oswald and Ruby, they oughta know
‘Shut your mouth,’ said the wise old owl
Business is business, and it’s a murder most foul

Those who asked too many questions were told that the wisest course of action was to ‘shut your mouth!’ Turn a blind eye and don’t ask too many questions! But ever since this mystery began, the smoking gun has pointed toward an inside job to remove the President who was swept up in a seemingly vain pursuit of peace. But Dylan has never felt comfortable with the truth being obscured or covered up with lies. He has always been in trouble for asking too many questions and in Murder Most Foul he is up to his old tricks; shining a light into the dark corners of a political world ruled by violence. Dylan’s innate instinct to never trust politicians finds him reopening an old can of worms. The powers that be insist that everybody simply shut their mouths and close their eyes. But Dylan knows that “the naked truth is still taboo wherever it can be seen!”36 So, on the matter of the assassination of the king he inquires, “What is the truth, and where did it go?” He points to conspiracy when he argues that Oswald and Ruby would surely know. Dylan joins the prophet Isaiah in decrying the absence of justice and truth and what it means “to live in a land where justice is a game!”37

Truth stumbles in the public square, and honesty is not allowed to enter. There is no truth-telling anymore, and anyone who tries to do right finds he is the next target. It’s true. The Eternal One saw it all and was understandably perturbed at the absence of justice. God looked long and hard, but there wasn’t a single person who tried to put a stop to the injustice and lies. (Isaiah 59:14-16 TVB)

With 80% of American convinced there has been some kind of cover-up, the theory of a conspiracy to kill the president just won’t go away. Another verse suggests even deeper moral and theological concerns for Dylan;

Dealey Plaza; make a left-hand turn
I’m going down to the crossroads, gonna flag a ride
The place where faith, hope, and charity died

Dealey Plaza was the location of Kennedy’s assassination. Dylan’s unconcealed delight in constructing clever word plays shines through in the proximity of these two expressions; ‘deal’ [Dealey] and ‘going down to the crossroads.’ The latter phrase, of course, recalls the famous ‘deal with the devil’ that Robert Johnson (the famous Delta bluesman) allegedly made at the ‘crossroads.’ Is Dylan suggesting that the assassins made a Faustian bargain to remove a sitting president for the sake of their selfish political and militaristic gain? Dylan seems to suggest that it was at this spiritual ‘crossroads’ in American history where “faith, hope and charity died!” This is deliberate large language! We are not dealing here with mere trivialities but with a monumental decline in American morality and the capacity of the American people to have full confidence in their political system. The language is clearly designed to amplify the enormity of the crime. It was St. Paul who said, “There are three things that will endure – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT) These transcendent biblical values were thrown out the window the day Kennedy died, and they point to an epic shift in the tectonic plates of modern American politics. This is Shakespearean tragedy at its best.

King Hamlet was murdered by his brother in order to ascend the throne. Indeed, there was “something rotten in the state of Denmark.” Dylan suggests that the death of Kennedy represented a far greater ‘death’ in the heart of the nation. He leads us to the conclusion that something was extremely rotten in the state of the Union. Three American presidents had previously been assassinated while in office; Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley but this was different. Dylan, along with 80% of the American populace believe that something was being covered up. “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is! Do you Mr. Jones?”38 This murder most foul represented a significant acceleration of moral decay leading to a whole new level of rottenness in the heart of the nation. Dylan, the grieved narrator, sings;

I said the soul of a nation’s been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s 36 hours past Judgment Day

The invocation of ‘Judgment Day’ imagery flags a sense of impending divine wrath for this diabolical sin. Such judgment is now well and truly overdue! This recalls the incendiary language of Tempest. In Pay in Blood, the Voice from on High warns of justice. There’s only way to escape the coming wrath; “Show me your moral virtue first!”39  In the same song Dylan addresses the rottenness in the heart of his nation;

Our nation must be saved and freed
You’ve been accused of murder!
How do you plead?

At the heart of this slow national decay was the inference that Kennedy’s ‘brothers’ would come to his rescue;

Don’t worry, Mr. President
Help’s on the way
Your brothers are coming, there’ll be hell to pay!
Brothers? What brothers? What’s this about hell?
Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming,
We’ll get them as well

It is hard to imagine that Dylan is referring here to Jack’s three natural brothers; Joe, Bobby or Ted Kennedy, even though his brother Robert F. Kennedy was controversially appointed Attorney General in Jack’s administration in January 1961. The promise of ‘help’ and support sounds hollow even as the words are spoken because there was no one who was able to get Jack out of the mess he found himself in. Kennedy was on his own on a mission to establish peace and he was surrounded by enemies who wanted war. Dylan has Kennedy replying, “Brothers? What brothers?” His vision for peace in the early 60’s left him stranded without political support even from within his own party. Johnson was his Democratic running mate and vice president, in theory; a political ‘brother’ and a political ally.  But, in early 1964 Jaqueline Kennedy revealed that “President John F. Kennedy was so ‘worried for the country’ about the prospect that Vice President Lyndon Johnson might succeed him as president that he’d begun having private conversations about who should become the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in 1968.” Johnson was under the spell of the Generals and the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were calling for a war against the Soviet Union while America still had the tactical nuclear advantage. In the 1964 interview Jaqueline revealed that Jack had said, “Oh, God, can you ever imagine what would happen to the country if Lyndon was president?”40 This interview was never made public until 2011.

Dylan creates the proposition that, “there’ll be hell to pay!” Of course, there wasn’t! Jack fictitiously asks, “What’s this about hell?” Now this is where, from my perspective, the song gets really interesting. Dylan certainly did promise that his fans would find the song “interesting.” The subject of ‘hell’ in Dylan’s lexicon always has dark and sinister undertones. I explored this in detail in my book, ‘A Voice from on High: The Prophetic Oracles of Bob Dylan.’41 It is Dylan who raises the topic of hell in this song, not as a colloquialism but as a real “place reserved for the devil and for all those that love evil.”42  Knowing the seriousness with which Dylan treats the biblical subject of hell, I cannot help but speculate about the identity of the speaker in the next two lines;

Tell them, “We’re waiting, keep coming
We’ll get them as well

The Apostle john revealed that hell has opened its jaws for “murderers, sex peddlers and sorcerers, idolaters and all liars…” (Revelation 21:8 MSG) Hell waits for those who love evil and who conspire to murder their brother. The ghost of Kennedy cries out from the ground, “Hold on, I’ve been led into some kind of a trap!” The Apostle John warned, “Whoever hates his brother is a murderer.” (1 John 3:15) “He who hates his brother is in darkness and walks in darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.”  (1 John 2:11) Could this be the voice of the devil himself who is waiting and who will “get them as well?” In one of his songs on Tempest, Dylan creates a scene in which a murderous and enraged husband says to his adulterous wife, “The devil can have you, I’ll see to that!”43 Dylan can almost smell the sulphurous flames awaiting the souls who concocted this evil plan to kill the king.

I can smell something cooking
I can tell there’s going to be a feast

Such is the potency of Dylan’s ironic call to the ‘brothers’ to come and exact revenge on Kennedy’s enemies. Kennedy had run out of ‘brothers’ even in his own party. He was condemned for allegedly being ‘soft on communism.’ Just as Hamlet, the King of Denmark, was brutally murdered by his blood brother Claudius, so Kennedy the king, was brutally murdered by his brothers. He was truly “led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb.”

They killed him once and they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice! 

The echoes of the ghost of King Hamlet’s accusation of a ‘murder most foul’ finds an unusual resonance in this modern tale of intrigue and conspiracy within the halls of American power. Kennedy was in a war with the CIA. There were numerous figures within Kennedy’s administration who wanted him removed from office, all of whom were left holding the smoking gun. In a startling revelation it came to light fifty years after Jack’s murder that he was a ‘wanted man.’ At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in late 1962 there were already moves afoot within the Pentagon to have him removed. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. revealed that, “In a secret meeting with [Russian] Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, my father [RFK] told him, “If the situation continues much longer, the president is not sure that the military will not overthrow him and seize power.”45  Robert Kennedy continues;

My father was not exaggerating to Dobrynin the fragility of White House control over the military. During the 13 days, the president’s hold on power became increasingly tenuous as spooks and generals, apoplectic at JFK’s reluctance to attack Cuba, engaged in dozens of acts of insubordination designed to trigger a nuclear exchange. CIA spymaster William Harvey screamed at the president and my father during a White House meeting: “We wouldn’t be in such trouble now if you guys had some balls in the Bay of Pigs.” Defense analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who years later leaked the Pentagon Papers, reported, “There was virtually a coup atmosphere in Pentagon circles.” Incensed brass were in a state of disbelief at what they considered bald treason by the president.46

Kennedy’s was a lone voice crying in the wilderness, fighting for peace and doing everything within his power to take a step back from the brink of nuclear annihilation. The stakes had never been higher than this crisis that brought the United States to the brink of a nuclear war. Dylan’s deliberate parallels between John F. Kennedy and Jesus are unmistakable. In this song we have a ‘King’ who was a loud advocate for peace being treated like a ‘sacrificial lamb’ and a ‘human sacrifice.’ “He was led as a lamb to the slaughter.” (Isaiah 53:7) A ‘trap’ had been set to put his head on a platter. As the dirge unfolds Dylan sings;

Play ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ and ‘In God We Trust.’

The Old Rugged Cross recalls the crucifixion of Jesus;

On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross
The emblem of suffering and shame
And I love that old Cross where the Dearest and Best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.47

Kennedy was gunned down for taking the high moral ground of peace. He had made a vow to God when he was sworn in as president as an expression of the maxim emblazoned on the American currency; ‘In God We Trust.’ At his inaugural speech he said,

For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three-quarters ago. The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support – to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective – to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak – and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run. Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah – to “undo the heavy burdens . . . (and) let the oppressed go free.” (Isaiah 58:6) The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it – and the glow from that fire can truly light the world. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.48

All of this brings us to the key theological insight of Murder Most Foul;

The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun

This is sweeping language designed to emphasize the enormity of the crime of murdering a man who had made a solemn vow to be about the business of bringing peace on earth. It was the Apostle John who exposed the “spirit of Antichrist.” He wrote, “Little children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come, by which we know that it is the last hour.” (1 John 2:18) “He is antichrist who denies the Father and the Son.” (1 John 2:22) The spirit of Antichrist is the spirit that exalts itself and opposes all that Christ stood for. He was the ‘Prince of Peace’ who came to bring peace on earth. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10 NIV) Kennedy was God’s man for the hour with a steely resolve to avert the destruction of global nuclear annihilation. His resolve to fight for peace set him on a collision course with the dogs of war. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recalls;

About six months into his administration, JFK went to Vienna to meet Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev with high hopes of beginning a process of détente and mutual nuclear disarmament. Khrushchev met his proposals with bombast and truculent indifference. The Joint Chiefs and the CIA, which had fulminated about JFK’s notion of negotiating with the Soviets, were relieved by the summit’s failure. Six weeks later, military and intelligence leaders responded by unveiling their proposal for a pre-emptive thermonuclear attack on the Soviet Union, to be launched sometime in late 1963. JFK stormed away from the meeting in disgust, remarking scathingly to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race.”49

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. revealed that the Pentagon, the Generals, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the CIA were all in cahoots to promote a war with the Soviet Union.  “JFK was realizing that the CIA posed a monumental threat to American democracy. He told Arthur Schlesinger that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it to the winds.”50  The CIA were also plotting to escalate the United States’ involvement in Vietnam. Robert Kennedy continues his recollections;

The Joint Chiefs, already in open revolt against JFK for failing to unleash the dogs of war in Cuba and Laos, were unanimous in urging a massive influx of ground troops and were incensed with talk of withdrawal. The mood in Langley was even uglier. Journalist Richard Starnes, filing from Vietnam, gave a stark assessment in The Washington Daily News of the CIA’s unrestrained thirst for power in Vietnam. Starnes quoted high-level U.S. officials horrified by the CIA’s role in escalating the conflict. They described an insubordinate, out-of-control agency, which one top official called a “malignancy.” He doubted that “even the White House could control it any longer.” Another warned, “If the United States ever experiences a [coup], it will come from the CIA and not from the Pentagon.” Added another, “[Members of the CIA] represent tremendous power and total unaccountability to anyone.”51

Kennedy’s agenda to avert full scale nuclear war and a deepening engagement within Vietnam placed him on a collision course with forces within his own administration that were, to quote Dylan, “hell bent for destruction.” Kennedy saw his assignment to make the work of God his very own. Jesus was a peacemaker and peacemakers invest themselves in addressing and seeking to remove man’s license to kill. Dylan was still wrestling with this same issue in 1983, while the Cold War was still raging and the doctrine of MAD, or, Mutually Assured Destruction was in effect between the two superpowers. In License to Kill, Dylan lamented that “man has invented his doom!” He opens the song with words;

Man thinks ‘coz he rules the earth
He can do with it as he please
And if things don’t change soon, he will!

Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused
And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill
Now, all he believes are his eyes
And his eyes, they just tell him lies
But there’s a woman on my block
Sitting there in a cold chill
She say who gonna take away his license to kill

In his first epistle, the Apostle John built the case that the spirit of Antichrist is embodied in all those who hate and murder their brothers. “This is the spirit of the Antichrist, which you have heard was coming, and is now already in the world.” (1 John 4:3) Jesus confronted this murderous spirit of Antichrist in the very men who sought to murder Him;

You are determined to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. You are doing the things your own father does. If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on My own; but He sent Me. Why is My language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:40-44 NIV)

The conflict between John F. Kennedy and those within his own administration who were hell-bent on destruction is elevated in Murder Most Foul to a cosmic spiritual battle between good and evil, hence the invocation of apocalyptic language in suggesting that the age of the Antichrist began the day Kennedy was killed. It was everything that Kennedy represented that was killed that day, in the same way it was everything that Jesus represented that was killed the day He was crucified on that old rugged cross. Across the decades, Dylan has consistently been outspoken in decrying the various abuses of American political power.  Blind Willie McTell carries the mood of a lamentation as Dylan sang;

Well God is in His heaven
And we all want what’s His
But power and greed and corruptible seed
Seem to be all that there is

The same sentiments were echoed in 2006 in Thunder on the Mountain as he sang;

Shame on your greed,
Shame on your wicked schemes

It’s been the same message throughout Dylan’s entire catalog of songs all the way back to the early 60’s. As I reflect on the release of Murder Most Foul, I am reminded of particular verses that stand out from this vast back catalog that seem to capture and anticipate the mood of Murder Most Foul. One such verse comes from Union Sundown [1983];

Democracy don’t rule the world
You better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that’s better left unsaid

It goes without saying that the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was an overwhelming subversion of the democratic process through violent means.

Shot down like a dog in broad daylight
Was a matter of timing and the timing was right,
You gotta pay debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect

All violence destroys peace. In Political World [1989] Dylan could have been describing Kennedy’s assassination;

We live in a political world
Where peace is not welcome at all
It’s turned away from the door
To wander some more
Or put up against the wall

The last half of Murder Most Foul is dominated largely by the playlist to end all playlists. I don’t think anyone, in the scope of just a single song has ever referenced so many other songs from the American songbook. What is Dylan’s point? Well, each song invokes a mood, a certain feeling, if you will. Some of the references may be purely to create a sense of rhyme with another phrase or song reference, others have a greater sense of purpose, perhaps even pointing to a veiled message. The tradition of playing a song for someone can be traced back to the famous saying, “Play it again Sam!” from the movie Casablanca. However, there is no such line in the movie. Rather, the character Rick, says to Sam; “Play it!  You played it for her, you can play it for me. If she can stand it, I can!” The word ‘play’ is repeated 60 times in Murder Most Foul. Dylan opens Mr. Tamborine Man singing;

Hey Mr. Tamborine man, play a song for me

In Scarlet Town on Tempest, Dylan writes;

Set ‘em up Joe, play ‘Walkin’ the Floor,’
Play it for my flat chested junkie whore

It’s a common technique designed to highlight a particular theme or a message. It’s first occurrence in Murder Most Foulis the ghost of Kennedy again speaking;

Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack
Play it for me in my long Cadillac
Play me that “Only the Good Die Young”
Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung

The significance of the reference to “Only the Good Die Young” is immediately apparent. Kennedy was a ‘good’ man who fought for peace against a political establishment committed to war. He died in his mid-forties. The reference to Tom Dooley recalls a folk song made famous by The Kingston Trio. Everyone would be familiar with the oft-repeated refrain;

Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you’re bound to die

What is perhaps less known is the legend behind this famous folk song. Tom Dula (his real name), was an innocent man who took the rap for the murder of Laura Foster. The story grabbed national headlines. Dula’s former lover, Ann Foster had murdered her sister Laura in a fit of rage when she discovered that she had fallen pregnant to Tom. Dula stepped forward and claimed to be the murderer in order to secure the acquittal of his former lover, Ann.55  The ghost of Kennedy singing, “Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung” suggests an identification with the death of an innocent man. Amongst all the requests to play a particular song or to show a particular film there are some references that raise some interesting theological themes. For example;

Play “It Happened One Night” and “One Night of Sin,”
There’s 12 Million souls that are listening in

Dylan loves a good murder ballad56 and with this song we are in familiar territory, dealing once again with the egregious sin of murder. In One Night of Sin, a song once covered by Elvis Presley we stumble upon these lyrics;

One night of sin, yeah
Is what I’m now paying for
The things I did and I saw
Would make the earth stand still

First degree murder is the preoccupation of Murder Most Foul, therefore the link between the theme of ‘one night of sin’ and the assassination of Kennedy is brought into even sharper focus. This sounds like the voice of the assassins, whose singular act of cold-blooded evil delivered unimaginable ramifications, changing the course of modern American history! “The things I did would make the earth stand still!” Then, Dylan delivers this comment that there were “twelve million souls listening in,” in spite of the fact that the conspirators thought their plot was executed in the utmost secrecy. The Apostle Paul reminds us that, “It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret.” (Ephesians 5:12 NLT) First of all, God is watching everything. “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13 NIV) Dylan acknowledges the all-seeing eyes of the Lord in God Knows;

God knows it’s terrifying
God sees it all unfold
There’s a million reasons for you to be crying
You been so bold and so cold.

Jesus said, “Nothing is covered up that won’t be discovered; nothing is hidden that won’t be exposed. Whatever a person says in the dark will be published in the light of day, and whatever a person whispers in private rooms will be broadcast from the housetops.” (Luke 12:3 TVB)

Who are these twelve million eavesdroppers to whom seemingly nothing was hidden? This was the foulest kind of murder because it was conceived behind closed doors by a company of co-conspirators who were committed to overthrowing the king, a scandalous theme worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy. The ‘twelve million souls’ could well be that great company identified in the book of Hebrews as “the great cloud of witnesses.” (Hebrews 12:1) Another translation says, “We stand surrounded by all those who have gone before, an enormous cloud of witnesses!” (TVB) These ‘witnesses’ peer into our time-bound world from another world. Perhaps they are “the angelic watchers,” (Daniel 4:17 NASB) who observe human affairs from on high. Either way, they number in the millions like a grand audience who look on in horror as plans are devised in secret. Straight after this line describing these invisible watchers, Dylan sings;

Play “Merchant of Venice,”
Play “Merchants of Death

With these invocations we are thrust back into Shakespearean literature once again. In the Merchant of Venice, the greedy lender, Shylock, lends money to Antonio, who falls upon hard times and cannot repay Shylock. Vengefully, Shylock demands repayment in the form of a ‘pound of flesh.’ In like manner, Kennedy’s enemies came to collect their pound of flesh.

You gotta pay debts, we’ve come to collect
We’re gonna kill you with hatred, without any respect

When someone demands their pound of flesh it means they are insisting upon getting something to which they believe they are entitled, no matter how severe and unmerciful it is upon the debtor. Merchants of Death, appears to be a reference to a 2002 heavy metal anti-war song by a band called Manilla Road with lyrics that invoke the flames of hell upon all those who promote war;

We don’t want your holy war
Don’t need this bloodshed anymore
Power hunger spawned out of greed
Still the fires of hell burn on
Senselessly the war machine marches on…58

These lyrics seem to fit the context of Kennedy’s assassination. Those who tried to create the next world war were unquestionably the ‘merchants of death.’ In one of the closing lines of Murder Most Foul Dylan sings;

Play “darkness and death will come when it comes!”

This echoes the opening lines of the song;

T’was a dark day in Dallas, November 63
A day that will live on in infamy

Like two bookends, we are faced with a darkness that deepens over the world when the likes of Kennedy are killed. God’s world slides deeper and deeper into gross darkness with every death and every calculated murder.

Play it for the Reverend
Play it for the Pastor
Play it for the dog that got no master

The people of God mourn the tragedy of a world gone wrong. This seems to be the meaning of this lamentation of the clergy who witness the slow and progressive fall of Babylon.

Play “Cry Me A River” for the “Lord of the gods!”

Cry Me a River was a song sung by Ella Fitzgerald in 1961. The ‘Lord of the gods’ is an Old Testament title for Yahweh, the Creator of the heavens and the earth. He is called, “The Lord God of gods.” (Joshua 22:22) “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.”  (Deuteronomy 10:17) The lyrics of Cry Me a River could almost be the voice of the Lord Himself lamenting a world that has rejected His overtures of love;

Now you say you love me
Well, just to prove you do
Come on and cry me a river, cry me a river
Coz I cry a river over you!59

To my mind, the association between Cry Me a River and the ‘Lord of the gods’ seems too uncanny to be a simple coincidence. This reminds me of one of Dylan’s great prophetic oracles, Cry Awhile, where the punchline is;

Well I cried for you, now it’s your turn; you can cry awhile60

The tragic story narrated in Murder Most Foul is a modern lamentation about the destructive power of sin and the attempts to cover it up. The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept!” (John 11:35) but it is also one of the most powerful. Jesus weeps for a fallen, unbelieving world where “peace is not welcome at all.”61  There are two kinds of prophets; angry prophets and weeping prophets. Dylan is a weeping prophet. He writes;

I’m on the fringes of the night, fighting back tears that I can’t control
Some people they ain’t human, they ain’t got no heart or soul
Well, I’m crying to the Lord, I’m tryin’ to be meek and mild
Yes, I cried for you, now it’s your turn; you can cry awhile

Murder Most Foul takes us deep into the pathos of this historic event almost six decades ago, in a way that only Dylan can. As both a witness and a participant in this drama of the early 60’s, Dylan finds himself uniquely placed to capture the intensity of the emotions that swept America on that dark and fateful day in Dallas. He also manages to capture and express the enormous pain that continues to surround the national wound of this great unsolved mystery. People hate feeling like they have been lied to. This song uniquely taps into that widespread national angst surrounding the cover-up and it deliberately reopens the wound to expose something that is still in the heart of America.  It’s the same feeling Oliver Stone’s film leaves you with. The exhaustive play list cited by Dylan carries an almost epigenetic memory of the pain of the 60’s with the scars of war, fear, riots and revolution in the air. Dylan lived through all of it with his eyes open to the anguish of soul in the heart of the nation. In so many ways he is drawn inexorably, almost magnetically into that inescapable mantle of the ‘voice of a generation,’ albeit with as much reluctance as ever. He’s still alive and he refuses to forget the pain of the early 60’s.

Well, I’m all worn down by weeping
My eyes are filled with tears
My lips are dry

Dylan cannot escape the anguish of the weeping prophet who has walked through this particular journey of dark heat, haunted by tales of Yankee power and living with the deep unspoken fear of an impending Armageddon. And so, as the song draws to a close, he says;

Darkness and death will come when it comes





[1] Bob Dylan: Political World, Oh Mercy 1989



[4] Dylan said that if he hadn’t become a musician, he would have chosen a very different career.  He said, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d be a school-teacher.” When asked what he would have taught, he replied, “Probably Roman history or theology!”

[5] Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’ Modern Times 2006


[7] ibid

[8] September 14, 1960

[9] John F. Kennedy: “Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Civic Auditorium, Seattle, WA,” September 6, 1960. 


[11] President John F. Kennedy; New York City September 25, 1961



[14] Bob Dylan: Long Ago, Far Away; The Bootleg Series, Vol 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 (2010)

[15] Masters of War was first recorded in January 1963.


[17] ibid

[18] Bob Dylan: Dark Eyes, Empire Burlesque 1986

[19] Pay in Blood: Tempest 2012

[20] Bob Dylan: Summer Days, Love and Theft 2001

[21] Bob Dylan: Train a Travelin’ The New York Sessions 1962

[22] Bob Dylan: Sundown on the Union, Infidels 1083

[23] Bob Dylan: Political World, Oh Mercy 1989

[24] Bob Dylan: I Shall Be Free, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan May 1963

[25] Bob Dylan: Chronicles 2004

[26] David Boucher, Gary Browning: The Political Art of Bob Dylan.

[27] My friend Bob: Daniel Karlin on Dylan’s relation to JFK.

[28] Bob Dylan: The Times They are a Changin’ 1963

[29] Bob Dylan: Death is Not the End, Down in the Groove 1987

[30] Bob Dylan: I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine 1967


[32] Elizabeth Abele; Home Front Heroes: The Rise of a New Hollywood Archetype, 1988-1999 p. 186



[35] ibid

[36] Bob Dylan: Dirge; Planet Waves 1974

[37] Bob Dylan: Hurricane, Desire 1976

[38] Bob Dylan: Ballad of a Thin Man, Highway 61 Revisited, 11965

[39] Bob Dylan: Pay in Blood, Tempest 2012


[41] Phil Mason: A Voice from on High. See p.163ff

[42] Bob Dylan: Ain’t Gonna go to Hell for Anybody 1980

[43] Bob Dylan: Tin Angel, Tempest 2012

[44] Bob Dylan: Man of Peace, Infidels 1983


[46] ibid




[50] ibid

[51] ibid

[52] Bob Dylan: License to Kill, Infidels 1983

[53] Bob Dylan: Blind Willie McTell, Infidels outtake 1983

[54] Bob Dylan: Thunder on the Mountain, Modern Times 2006


[56] Dylan created a first-rate original murder ballad called Tin Angel on the Tempest album.

[57] Bob Dylan: God Knows, Under a Red Sky, 1991

[58] Manilla Road; Merchants of Death from the album Spiral Castle 2002


[60] Bob Dylan: Cry Awhile, Love and Theft, 2001

[61] Bob Dylan: Political World, Oh Mercy 1989

[62] Bob Dylan: Ain’t Talkin’ Modern Times 2006