Bob Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" and National Memory
(For Rob Kaufman)
Nov. 20, 2021. This week marks the 58th anniversary of the assassination of JFK. Last year's anniversary went nearly unnoticed in the press. For the first time in memory (and mine goes back to before 1963), the collective trauma of the events in Dallas was neither recalled nor discussed in the major newspapers or on television. It was simply overlooked. The spectacle of Donald Trump's attempt to overturn the election was all absorbing in November 2020. For cable TV and internet journalism, the gunning of the 35th president must seem like ancient history, lost in the mists of time. Even older than Taylor Swift's latest breakup, for all anyone knew.
Only Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, seemed to remember. In her January 13 remarks, accompanying the presentation of the Articles of Impeachment, Round II, Pelosi evoked the speech that JFK had planned to give in Dallas, the day he was killed. Her linkage of Trump's insurrection and Kennedy's assassination was a brilliant piece of historical insight. She sensed that the murder of Kennedy and the outrages visited on the republic by Trump were sister events. But she was not the first to make the connection. Her comments were, in a sense, a gloss on the seventeen-minute long song released by Bob Dylan the preceding March, called "Murder Most Foul." Taken together, Dylan's song and Pelosi's comments can teach us something about memory in the wake of these terrible events.
Dylan's song is a long dirge, in which the singer chants over a tinkling piano and a bowed string bass, recounting, in solemn tones, what happened: "Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63/A day that will live on in infamy," he begins, reminding us of FDR's characterization of the attack on Pearl Harbor. And he goes on to tell the story of the assassination, which he posits as a southern plot to replace JFK with LBJ. One of the striking features of the song is that the narrative unfolds from several viewpoints at once. Dylan tells the story from the outside, following the car to the hospital and, eventually, watching as Air Force One lands back in Washington with LBJ as the new president. But at other moments Dylan ventriloquizes JFK, astonished at what is happening to him, worrying about his wife, fretting over his legacy, as he dies: "I'm never gonna make it to the New Frontier." And Dylan also speaks as the mocking killers ("brothers, what brothers? we'll get them, too!") and the governor's wife ("Don't say Dallas don't love you, Mr. President"). In and around this unfolding story, Dylan references popular culture, most specifically, popular music. He invokes the great DJ Wolfman Jack, and, in the long final section of the song, he shows the dying president asking to be serenaded. "Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack," he asks, and he offers up a long list of requests: "Play that only the good die young/Take me to the place where Tom Dooley was hung." "Play 'Please Don't Let me be Misunderstood'/Play it for the First Lady, she ain't feeling too good."
Kennedy's plea for music as he dies provides a kind of macabre radio request list to accompany recent political events. The songs he asks for trace out a portrait of American music. But it is multi-layered and complex. For example, at one point Dylan has the killers announce, "We ask no quarter, no quarter do we give/We're right down the street from the street where you live." The last phrase evokes, "On the Street Where You Live," the love theme from Lerner and Loewe's musical, My Fair Lady, which opened as a Hollywood blockbuster in the year after the assassination. "I have often walked down this street before," sings the young male lead, dreaming of beautiful Eliza Doolittle, "but the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before." It's an ironic commentary on Kennedy's disorientation, to be sure, but Dylan's quotation of it speaks directly to our current moment. It evokes the striking realization that many people came to in the Trump era: right down the street from the street where you live there are racists and killers, whether that street is in London, Satilla Shores, or Charlottesville. You thought that progress had been made in this country. You were wrong. Indeed, given the racial context, we might even hear, in this mention of the song, an echo of Frank Sinatra's WWII-era recording and film, "The House I Live In." Written by Earl Robinson, who also penned the famous labor ballad "Joe Hill" (and was later black-listed), Sinatra's song (recorded as well, later, by Paul Robeson) was released to combat anti-Semitism. Dylan pulls back the cover of Lerner and Loewe's "The Street Where You Live,"--as both composition and geographical site. If you think that either of these streets is peaceful and safe, you are wrong, Dylan seems to say.
Just as Pelosi's citation of JFK's undelivered Dallas speech reinterprets it, bringing it into new relevance for the Trump era, Dylan rereads the Great American Songbook as intertwined with violence and misery. Toward the end of "Murder Most Foul" he intones, "Play 'Tragedy,' play 'Twilight Time'/Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime." The first two songs mentioned here are smooth doo-wop classics, one by "The DeLons," the other by the "The Fleetwoods." Both depict young love, the hope for passion and the fear of loss. Less comforting is "Take Me Back to Tulsa." It's a standard of the Western Swing repertoire, recorded by Bob Wills in 1941. "Take Me Back to Tulsa," says the singer, "I'm too young to marry." He seems to be in Louisiana, where there are not only tempting women, but appalling social conditions: "Little bee sucks the blossom/Big bee gets the honey/Darkies raise the cotton/White man gets the money." You can see why Tulsa might be a better place to be. Except that Dylan's retelling--"Take me back to Tulsa, to the scene of the crime"--can only be a reference to the notorious Tulsa Race Massacre, the centenary of which we mark in 2021. In other words, a song that seems to promise deliverance from Louisiana's racism only sends you back to Oklahoma's racism. Nowhere is safe.
The point here is that even the gayest examples of American music are revealed by Dylan to be implicated in the racism of our collective history. Like an archeologist, Dylan uncovers layers of meaning in our national language, in our songs, in our musical memories. Within Dylan's own work, "Murder Most Foul" harks back to his 1965 masterpiece, "Desolation Row," which begins with the famous lines, "They're selling postcards of the hanging." The reference is to a lynching episode recounted to Dylan by his father, Abe Zimmerman, and commemorated, as lynchings often were, with postcards. "Desolation Row" takes aim at the suffocating power dynamics of mid-1960s America. It brings forth a group of characters from popular culture—Cinderella, Casanova, Einstein—to represent a world caught up in violence and corruption. The answer to that corruption, the earlier song suggests, is music. Whereas the famous closing lines mention Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, "fighting in the captain's tower" as the Titanic sinks, they also evoke "calypso singers" who laugh at a broken high culture that is sinking before our eyes. Both songs, "Desolation Row" and "Murder Most Foul," take their point of departure from a single horrifying event, and expand to include the broader culture. The difference is that "Murder Most Foul" loses the accusatory tone of the earlier song. Now Dylan is asking us to think about the layers of meaning that are sedimented in even our happiest works of art. Music is salvation, Dylan still seems to believe. It can comfort you on the way to the hospital. But don't kid yourself that it isn't as haunted as our history. Just look around you, on the street where you live.
As we think back now to the infamous days of November 22 and January 6, when violence targeted the republic from within, Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" shows us the challenge of American memory, in the Post-Trump, BLM era. Speaker Pelosi may take the laudable step of linking the two dark days together. But Dylan reminds us that even our most popular cultural artifacts have become interwoven with the political and racial violence that has shaped the country. Look around, Dylan seems to say, life may be good. Sing a happy song, if you like. But if you listen closely, you may find that the street where you live is just another version of Desolation Row.
Bob Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" and National Memory