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An "Utterly Extraordinary Song"

Just when the world appears heading down the highway to hell, Bob Dylan has released not only his first original recording in many years but a song so good it may be seen as one of his finest compositions.

In a sudden announcement on March 27 - instantly flooring music critics - Dylan shared a link on twitter: "Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across 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. Bob Dylan."

The song is titled "Murder Most Foul." It is almost 17 minutes long and recounts the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

There was instant praise from the critics. Rolling Stone led the charge with this headline: " Hear Bob Dylan's Absolutely Mind-Blowing New Song 'Murder Most Foul.'"

Writer Brian Hiatt was effusive:

"This dizzying, utterly extraordinary song - as allusive as it is elusive - starts off seeming like it might be a straightforward recounting of the assassination of John F Kennedy, but expands into an impressionistic, elegiac, increasingly apocalyptic journey through what feels like the entire Sixties (complete with references to the Who's Tommy, Woodstock, and Altamont) and perhaps all of 20th-century America, especially its music."

The song is Dylan's first original release for eight years, following the much-acclaimed Tempest album in 2012. Interestingly, "Murder Most Foul" has a marked resemblance, in both tempo and substance, to two of his most popular songs from that album - "Roll on John" and the title-track "Tempest."

It is not known when "Murder Most Foul" was recorded. The best clue is Dylan's reference to "an unreleased song we recorded a while back." But his delivery is somewhat similar in style to what the 78-year-old has been doing during numerous live performances over the past few years.

Rolling Stone's Hiatt again best summed up the musical framework:

"The song's structural freedom and mesmerizing arrangement - a dusting of piano, a lilting violin, distant percussion - feel like fresh territory for Dylan, occasionally evoking Van Morrison at his most mystical. Its themes of doom - and possible redemption - feel alarmingly in tune with our current moment, which may have prompted Dylan to choose it for release."

Given the historical significance of the song, Dylan fans were quick to provide early transcripts of the lyrics on various social media platforms.

Chris Willman from Variety:

"The lyrics of the monumental track will fascinate Dylanologists who've waited years for something fresh to dissect, since there's literally half an album's worth of lyrical material just in one track here.

In verses that proceed freely enough that it's not always easy to break them down into separate stanzas, the lyrics often speak extremely literally of the Kennedy assassination, with a bent toward conspiratorial takes on the event. But as the song goes along it breaks more freely into a pop-culture fantasia."

Dylan begins the song on that fateful Dallas day:

T'was a dark day in Dallas, November '63

The day would live on in infamy

President Kennedy was a-ridin' high

Good day to be livin' and a good day to die

Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb

He say wait a minute boys you know who I am

Of course we do, we know who you are

They then blew off his head while he was still in the car

The "pop-culture fantasia" Willman refers to sees Dylan invoke a name-dropping list of musicians from Stevie Nicks to John Lee Hooker, Oscar Peterson to Don Henley, Dickey Betts to Guitar Slim. And even Patsy Cline:

You got me dizzy ms Lizzy you fill me with lead

That magic bullet of yours is going on ahead

I 'm just a patsy like Patsy Cline

Never shot anyone from in front or behind

Got blood in my eye, got blood in my car

I'm never going to make it to the new frontier

His reference to the ground-braking 60's pop culture comes early in the narration and is beautifully descriptive:

Hush little children you'll understand

The Beatles are comin', they're gonna hold your hand

Slide down the bannister, go get your coat

Ferry across the Mersey and go for the throat

There's three bums coming all dressed in rags

Pick up the pieces and lower the flags

I'm going to Woodstock, it's the Aquarian age

Then I'll go to Altamont and sit near the stage

Put your head out the window, let the good times roll

There's a party goin' on behind the grassy knoll

It soon extends to the next decade and the whole gambit of late 20th-Century musical culture:

Play please don't let me be misunderstood

Play it for the first lady she ain't feelin' too good

Play Don Henley, play Glenn Fry

Take it to the limit and lettin' it go by

Play it for Carl Wilson too

Looking far far away at down Gower Avenue

Play tragedy, play twilight time

Take me back to Tulsa to the scene of the crime

Play another one and another one bites the dust

Play the old rugged cross and in God we trust

Meander as it does, the song is essentially linked to the assassination, and in chilling detail:

Tommy can you hear me on the acid queen?

I'm ridin' in a long black Lincoln limousine

Riding in the backseat next to my wife

Headin' straight to the afterlife

I'm leanin' to the left, got my head in her lap

Oh Lord I'v been led into some kind of a trap

And there is nothing more specific than:

Air Force One comin' in through the gate

Johnson sworn in at 2.38

But perhaps the darkest, most provocative line comes when Dylan assumes the mind of the assailant(s) in this stark stanza:

Don't worry Mr President, help's on the way

Your brothers are comin', there'll be hell to pay

Brothers, what brothers?

What's this about hell?

Tell 'em we're waiting, keep coming, we'll get them as well

Much has been written over the years about Dylan's infatuation with the Kennedy assassination. In the biography Bob Dylan: No Direction Home, writer Robert Shelton details an event early in 1964 when Dylan and members of his touring party arrived in Dallas and "took the station wagon along Kennedy's path" as they speculated on Harvey Oswald's motives.

While there have been numerous references to Kennedy and the assassination in popular music through the years, there have been relatively few songs specifically about the assassination, or indeed, JFK, by Americana artists. Perhaps the most recent, and one of the best, has been Tom Russell's "Rise Again, Handsome Johnny" off his excellent Folk Hotel album. Russell chose 2017, the centennial year of Jack Kennedy's birth, to release his moving and personal tribute.

It is unclear why Dylan chose to release "Murder Most Foul" at this particular time. Critics like Hiatt were quick to speculate he could have been motivated by such troubled events. Others have suggested it could be connected to a long-awaited album of original material. There have been rumours of such a project. However, a Dylan representative said there would be no further details than already released on and social media.

Dylan has won 11 Grammy Awards. In 2008 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for "his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power." And in 2016, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature for "having created new poetic expressions with the great American song tradition."

On this majestic composition alone, he is worth every accolade. Or, as Lynne Margolis nicely reflected in American Songwriter:

"This much, we do know. In times of adversity especially, we rely on our poets and painters, our singers and songwriters, to reflect our mood and often, guide us where we need to go. And 60-some years after Dylan released "Blowin' in the Wind" and "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall" on The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (six months before Kennedy's assassination), he's still that folk singer, telling us what we oughta know - and need to hear."


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