Murder Most Foul: Musicians Respond To New Dylan Epic.

Bob Dylan’s latest song, ‘Murder Most Foul’ has given him his very first Billboard No.1 single (even though it is on the digital chart). The song is a long meditation about the assassination of JFK. Or is it?

Rhythms asked some musicians about their opinions. Compiled by Martin Jones and Brian Wise.

SCARLET RIVERA (First joined Dylan’s band for the Rolling Thunder tour. New EP: All of Me).

I love it. I mean, I love it that if you really look at the lyrics, you can say, well, it was about an event that happened a long time ago in the ’60s. But if you really look carefully at the lyrics, it brings you up to date, because it’s talking about the age of the antichrist is coming. And other lyrics talk about the progression of history.

On it being Dylan’s first No. Billboard Single.

It is amazing. When you think of ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ was like something you could dance to even. I mean, it’s so like a rocker of a song, even in spite of the lyrics being really deep and heavy. The fact is that this one is even incredibly deep and profound and it’s way longer than any single should ever be and it still made it as a top of the charts is wonderful.


His take on the Murder Most Foul. 

Oh, I like it. I think it’s great. Can we call it a new Dylan song though? I think he’s been hanging onto it for a while. But he’s still very, very powerful. He can still cut to the heart of something and his mind is very, very sharp. We did a few shows with him a couple of years ago on a tour that Willie Nelson put together and Dylan was on a few of them. And it was really good because I kind of got the sense that because Willie was there Dylan felt like he should rise to the occasion. Because I know some nights he doesn’t really feel like being on stage… at least it doesn’t look like it some nights. But at these shows he was really in rare form and you know he was trying really hard and I thought that would be because Willie’s here. You know, Willie’s his elder and there aren’t that many songwriters left that Bob Dylan would consider to be an elder. But I felt really lucky to see those shows. 

On the positive message of turning to music in time of crisis. 

And also, it reminds you of early Dylan. A lot of songwriters, and I did this, start out talking about themselves. They’re confessional for the first half of their careers and then if you’re doing it right, your own personal problems get solved and you get comfortable and you start writing about things outside your door. And that’s usually where songwriters will slip up. They start getting vague and preachy and the music’s just not that great anymore. But Dylan did it in the other order. He started out writing about society and the world around him and then eventually honed into himself and started writing about his own life. And this new song makes me think of the early Dylan who was sort of angry and indicting on one hand but also hopeful that things would get better. 


Some Thoughts on Bob Dylan’s Murder Most Foul – Shane Howard

In the late-1960’s, John Lennon cynically accused Dylan of writing songs that created ‘the appearance of meaning.’

On first listening, is Dylan’s Murder Most Foul, a brilliant arrangement of carefully curated and clipped images or a lazy assemblage of an old man’s ramblings?

It’s not the first time I, or anyone else, has been hit with the ‘shock of the new’ after hearing a new Dylan song. Whether it’s the folk Dylan going electric at Newport, or the investigative journalism and ultra-reality of ‘Hurricane’, the unexpected 1978 release of the accusatory song for the murder of Soledad Brother, ‘George Jackson’, or the eleven and a half minute epic ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’, occupying an entire side of the 1966 vinyl album, Blonde on Blonde.

Next day, hearing the song for the second time, I could no longer imagine a world where the song didn’t exist. So, it is with so much of Dylan’s songs that stand like stone, like monuments, chronicling the era that we’ve lived through.

I was one of those kids who was deeply moved to see my mother weep when news came through the radio that JFK had been assassinated in 1963.

Dylan’s an American artist and ‘Murder Most Foul’the phrase borrowed from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is an American perspective of its post WWll empire. Like the rest of the world, for better or worse, our lives have also been dominated by American culture and the hubris of its laissez faire capitalist economy.

It’s taken a lifetime for Dylan to put all the pieces together, but ‘Murder Most Foul’, in rhyming couplets, chronicles his own life as well as the end of the American era, the American empire. The song bookends an era that began with the murder of a President who promised an America of vision and hope, civil rights and the space age and draws a line straight through to the modern-day buffoonery that the office of President and the USA have become. It’s a lament for the lost soul and possibilities of America and consequently, our world.

“Business is business and it’s murder most foul.”

“Where is the truth? Where did it go?”, laments the old man Dylan mournfully but dispassionately staring coldly at mortality. “Darkness and death will come when it comes.” 

Dylan is one of the greatest artists of our era, a modern-day Isaiah, prophetically casting a critical eye over the American empire that he was born and raised in.  “I was born here, and I’ll die here, against my will”, (‘Not Dark Yet’)

Dylan celebrates the great art and soul of America but paints an abstract portrait of a nation in decline, placing the beginning of that decline squarely at the murder of JFK. “I said the soul of a nation’s been torn away / And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay”.

His songs chronicle our era in history in a way no other single artist has. His songs have always cast a critical eye over the political life of the USA. The fact that he applies the magnifying glass to these matters, at this time, is significant.

There is irony in the fact that a seventeen-minute long song-poem should also find itself as Dylan’s first number one song on the US Billboard charts. 

It is, in many ways, his ultimate protest song and maybe, his swan song. 


My take on it is that it’s baffling and beautiful.

A riddle and a paean.

And I can’t get a minute into listening to it without crying

And when it finishes I keep crying. And then I feel a little better, and feel like helping someone.

Which is a holy purpose of music in times of crisis.

Untangling the skeins of raging synapses and making some peaceful thought possible.


I listened to it once and I loved the ambition of it. And I loved the courage in it. It would have been even more maybe incredible to be released a couple of decades ago. But it’s still so great to hear and I’m glad that he put it out. 

On the positive message of turning to music in a time of crisis. 

Yeah, it’s an interesting time to put that song out where people are…. struggling. My point of view lately is to try to put something out into the world that people can lean on right now. Instead of something to, um bring more abrasion into the world when there’s enough frustration right now in the newspaper. 


Oh my God, 17 minutes! It was just kind of amazing really. I thought it was brilliant. I know he wrote it a few years ago but it just felt so kind of what we needed to hear in some ways. So, there’s a lot in there. It’s a lot to unpack and that’s alright.

His observations on the song

I guess he did it for the Tempest album. But I just think when this whole COVID thing happened, I think a lot of artists were, “What can I put out there to help people get through it.” I think that I was his way of doing that.

I listened to it three or four times and it was just something else and it did feel kind of apocalyptic in a way. The feeling of when it all went wrong or something. They always say that, I guess, about the Kennedy assassination, the whole innocence lost and all that. But really when you dig deeper into that story it just feels there’s a lot of layers to it and a lot of darkness behind the scenes that we may never know the whole story. He seemed to be opening up that whole thing. But it just felt very timely. It felt like what we’re living through now in the age of Trump and all that too – it just feels kind of cyclical.


His take on Murder Most Foul. 

I love it! Are you kidding? It brought be to tears the other day. It brought me actually to tears. I love all that he name-checked and there’s something about the fact that many people won’t even know what the fuck he’s talking about is a pretty sad thing. And just that lack of coddling and American history… the lack of teaching it, the lack of speaking about it, all the cultural touchstones of the 20th century that will be just completely forgotten about… 

On the positive message of turning to music in time of crisis. 

Yeah. I mean it’s such a cool song. I gotta find out where he did it. He does a lot of stuff in Santa Monica but that’s something that I’m trying to find out. I know he plays with the road band, the same guys he’s had for a long time, so it’s probably those dudes. But then there’s weird strings in there I don’t know who that is… 


I was warned that Bob’s new song ran for around 17 minutes, so sat and listened, ready to go on a trip. I listened twice with a short break in between, and these things jumped out:

The first two minutes or so deal with the assassination of JFK in a narrative way, telling the facts of the story we know. The character/s behind the killing may be telling us: allusions are made to the fact that despite hundreds of thousands of people watching the motorcade, not one saw the killer. 

“ A magic trick,” “murder most foul’, and the language stretches out to ensnare us with snatches of poetry, song lyric, references to art and artists from the whole of the 20th century. The scope is enormous but esoteric at the same time. 

The tale and its rhythms and rhymes are delivered in a semi-serious hokum vocal, with black inflections liberally sprinkled throughout. Half-sung and half-spoken, it’s mesmerising, even though two listens left me still unable to decipher the odd phrase. Bob changes point of view: sometimes he’s JFK, sometimes a detached reporter, sometimes the slyly boastful killer. As the dead man, his most memorable couplet, “Riding in the back seat, sitting next to my wife/heading straight on into the afterlife,” is just the saddest thing and evokes the horror of the way he died. The major players are all slipped in, Oswald, Ruby, Marilyn Monroe, his brothers, the grassy knoll etc. and “Airforce One coming through the gate/Johnson sworn in at 2.38” devastates us with wit and surgical accuracy.

The elegy is played on bowed bass, orchestral strings and percussion and decorative piano. To me this is the most beautiful and powerful recording Bob Dylan has made in a long time. 

Music In A Time Of Crisis

Which leads me to this simple observation. Musicians must continue to produce work, regardless of the prospect or absence of immediate financial reward, because for us, it’s the only way to remain mentally well and connected. For everyone else, what we make can help to interpret and process the changes and loss and worry, and remind us all of the complexity and beauty of the world. It is a direct way to give to others which empowers all involved.


I was totally blown away by this song when I first heard it. In usual circumstances I might have struggled to sit with a 17-minute song without distraction or interruption but in this current phase of what I’m calling ‘Orwellian’ uncertainty I relished this new Dylan experience and savoured every word as I currently have more time to do so.

I’m somewhat detached from the cultural trauma of Kennedy’s murder but Bob makes it very personal. His lyrics may often be inscrutable but when his words are as open and comprehendable as this, it hits you, particularly at a time like now when some of us are more vulnerable.

I made a solo pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza in September 2017 whilst on tour in the U.S. with Paul Kelly and the band to get a bit of perspective on the geography of Dallas and see the stretch of road and the grassy knoll and ponder it all like any other visitor.

This song is now a retrospective soundtrack to the time I spent there thinking about it all and what the world was like before and after Kennedy was shot dead in broad daylight.

It seems Bob takes solace in referencing all the music and people he mentions in the song to remind himself that music can heal and soothe in a time of crisis and we all need healing and soothing right now.

On the positive message of turning to music in time of crisis. 

It’s hard to imagine what the last few weeks would have been like if not for music. I’ve been sharing music related messages with friends locally and sending guitar parts via email to friends here and overseas. Music has been an incredibly positive force for me recently. It always has been but it’s importance has been magnified recently and it’s not only a light at the end of the tunnel….it’s a light guiding me through the tunnel……..I feel a song coming on.


 I got an email from a producer friend of mine in the UK. It simply read, 

‘Have you heard this ? Find somewhere quiet and take 17 minutes and listen to this: I was in tears and its everything my/our life has been and become….  I’m overcome…..”

One elder talking about another, I clicked the link to listen. I was thinking about Hamlet, I was thinking about Margaret Rutherford. Found myself looking at John F. Kennedy.

What I heard was intelligence, experience, the sweep of history and music in a tale told by the greatest of storytellers. Didn’t want it to end but knew it had to. That’s what it’s about. Just like ”Desolation Row’, ‘Sad-Eyed Lady’, ‘Jokerman’, ‘Brownsville Girl’, ‘Tempest’.

How lucky to be born in this era, too young in ’64 but feeling the tailwind in the ’70s and beyond. How lucky to hear this one sunny isolated Saturday morning, a hemisphere away.

On the positive message of turning to music in time of crisis. 

I grew up in Belfast during the Troubles. During the unofficial curfew you’d listen to the daily slow drip of death and condemnation on the radio. Mum always encouraged me in trying to make something beautiful out of the chaos. 

Staying up late listening to Dad’s record collection on the Black Box, later I heard punk on John Peel. Reading and music gave me a voice. Isolation is where it’s at. Then, now and forever. Listen to music and you’ll make it through.

Playing that song again. There’ll always be something I missed last time. 


His take on Murder Most Foul. 

Ummmm… I am very shy of new Dylan material. I’ve been burnt so many times that I approached it with trepidation, but yeah what a richness! I was so satisfied by the length of it, purely that alone. The piano is just a long, long jam… beautiful. You could take Dylan’s voice off it and put it on a Headland record! 

On the positive message of turning to music in time of crisis. 

He or someone close to him has still got their finger on the Zeitgeist. 


My take on Murder Most Foul

I understand this song to be in two Acts like a play or the movie Gone with the Wind (which he references). Act 1 is mostly focused on the Kennedy assassination, seen from multiple perspectives, and 1960s culture and history – British Invasion, Festivals etc. we know this history, right? This is familiar territory, particularly for the Baby Boomer generation.

Then we have the lyrics which call out to DJ Wolfman Jack, which leads us into the second act. Act 2 is mostly a list of ‘requested songs’ for Wolfman to play. If I think about Murder Most Foul in a filmic way, then I regard this list of songs to be like the ‘soundtrack’ to the ‘film’. I’ll get back to this, shortly.

So, Nixon and Bobby Kennedy show up in the middle of Act 2. But then it’s back to the song list – songs of different eras, different genres, like free association. Naturally, it’s an impressive list of songs and artists. He references Billy Joel ‘Only The Good Die Young’, but I was thinking about ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, because that too is a big list of iconic things that seem to be in a random order.

So, if Murder Most Foul were a film:

DJ Wolfman Jack plays these ‘requested songs’ as we see images of the 1960, the Kennedys and other mentioned narrative elements from Act 1 and parts of Act 2. If it were a film it would be non-linear, DJ Wolfman would be the character that binds the story together through playing music – like the Jarmusch film Mystery Train where the desk clerks (Howlin’ Wolf being one) are the common characters that connects multiple narratives, but the clerks are commentators not protagonists.

Dylan names some of the greatest songs ever written over fairly unremarkable instrumentation that sounds like it was improvised after the fact. Maybe some of the string lines echo the iconic sound of Scarlet Rivera on ‘Hurricane’. However, I mostly find it highly nostalgic with its piano flourishes, at times tedious in its progression, yet it is cinematic! So it fits the way I’m choosing to listen. BUT, imagine if he recorded it with a band like that on Highway 61 Revisited, or if he was singing over a psychedelic groove. Can someone do a remix? LOL. That could be amazing! 

Dylan is Dylan, he is always a great artist to discuss. Awesome, bring it on… I’m sure with the USA elections coming up, this is a timely release. 

The Positive message of turning to music in a time of crisis:

I am enjoying seeing music discussions and challenges like this on social media and online. I feel like we have come back to listening and dissecting music as a community to help connect us – I hope we are again seeing the importance of music  as a shared experience after a time of extreme self-choice and self-determination. Sharing live videos, DJ sets, acoustic sets, podcasts, etc seems to be reminiscent of old fashion broadcasts on a wireless where families would sit around and enjoy the common experience. 

Before lockdown I had many chats with people who only listened to their own playlists, they ‘liked what they liked’, didn’t see live music, just listened on their headphones and didn’t realise that they were missing a community spirit in sharing music. 

In a time of isolation, music brings us together. Listening collectively brings us together. I loved doing this challenge for this reason, people are discussing this, all listening and having opinions.  So, listen in, get involved, have an open mind and let’s enjoy the connections that music brings.