In these terrible days, I got to thinking about Tim Shorrock’s essay/review on Bob Dylan’s JFK opus:
At its most essential level, “Murder Most Foul” marks the collapse of the American dream, dating from that terrible day in Dallas, when a certain evil in our midst was revealed in ways not seen for a hundred years—a day that, for Dylan, myself, and others of our generation is forever seared into our collective memory.
The murder and the hidden machinations behind it, he tells us, robbed us of Kennedy’s brain, a symbol for the positive, forward-looking American spirit that he represented, and “for the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that.” And this is the outcome:
I said the soul of a nation been torn away
And it’s beginning to go into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day.
This is a a summation of our history, Shorrock
In that sense, “Murder Most Foul” may have been written for Trump’s America, but it’s also the America of the forever wars that began in the era before Trump, when militarism and empire dominated our foreign policy and killer drones became the weapons of choice for Democrats and Republicans alike. And, in Dylan’s mind, the nightmare of today dates back to November 1963 and Kennedy’s death. And that’s where my story picks up, because Dylan’s JFK story—“history told through a radio station,” as Neil Young put it—is the story of my generation as well.
I was introduced to Bob Dylan by Pete Seeger, who came to play at my American school in Tokyo during his world tour in 1964. After zipping through a repertoire of folk songs and civil rights anthems, Seeger told us of a new talent in New York City “who’s writing the most amazing songs.” He then picked up his 12-string and sang “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” Dylan’s powerful, apocalyptic song from the days of the Cuban missile crisis.
I was stunned by the soaring words; I’d never heard anything like that before, not from the Beatles, not from the Kingston Trio, not from Johnny Cash, not from anybody. That magnificent song, which Patti Smith performed so movingly at Dylan’s Nobel Prize ceremony in 2016, set the stage for everything that was to come from the gifted singer from Hibbing.
Viewed through that lens, “Murder Most Foul” is a shout-out to the great music Dylan heard as a youth on the airwaves, learned in the coffeehouses, bars, and concert halls of Minneapolis, New York City, Cambridge, and London—and then passed on to us. It’s the music that, in his eyes, defined the America where “faith, hope, and charity” were our guideposts—the music that helped us defeat fascism, create the New Deal, face down systemic racism, and build the New Frontier that Kennedy never saw. Now is the time, he seems to be saying, to bring back that faith and do everything we can to keep it