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Beyond JFK: 20 Historical References in Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul’

The 17-minute epic touches upon obscure Civil War ballads, classic movies, and even songs by the Who, the Animals, and Billy Joel

Andy Greene Apr 12, 2020

Bob Dylan. Photo: Dave J Hogan/Getty Images

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Bob Dylan fans woke up this morning to the stunning news that the songwriter had released a 17-minute epic titled “Murder Most Foul.” “Greetings to my fans and followers, with gratitude for all your support and loyalty over the years,” Dylan wrote. “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.”

It’s his first original song since 2012’s Tempest, though he has released three albums of cover songs associated with Frank Sinatra since then. The closest analogue to “Murder Most Foul” in Dylan’s vast catalog is Tempest’s title track, a 14-minute song about the Titanic.

“Murder Most Foul” centers around another historic tragedy: the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s packed with references only JFK buffs will likely recognize, like the “triple underpass” near Dealey Plaza, the removal of his brain during the autopsy, and the “three bums comin’ all dressed in rags” captured on the Zapruder film that conspiracy theorists have been obsessing over for decades. Clearly, Dylan has spent a lot of time reading books and watching documentaries about this.

As the song goes on, however, it veers away from JFK and touches upon several other historic events of the era. It’s sort of like Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” mashed up with the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Dylan fans will be picking this one apart for years, but here are 20 non-JFK references in the song.

1. “Living in a nightmare on Elm Street”
Elm Street is the actual road in Dallas where Kennedy was assassinated. Fifteen years later, Wes Craven’s horror classic Nightmare on Elm Street, about a deranged psychopath who slaughters children in their dreams, hit movie theaters. The connection to JFK’s death is most likely not a complete coincidence, though Craven never commented on the matter.

2. “Frankly, Miss Scarlett, I don’t give a damn”
This comes straight from the mouth of Clark Gable’s character of Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind. In the original Margaret Mitchell book, Butler says, “My dear, I don’t give a damn.” This was changed to, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” in the movie. In “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan puts yet another tiny spin on it.

3. “Tommy, can you hear me? I’m the Acid Queen”
These are two lines from the Who’s 1969 rock opera, Tommy, about a deaf, dumb, and blind pinball wizard. The Acid Queen is a woman hired by his family who tries to restore his senses, either by dosing him with LSD or having sex with him. The song isn’t quite clear.

4. “Wake up, little Susie; let’s go for a drive”
“Wake Up Little Susie” is a 1957 hit by the Everly Brothers, written by Felice Bryant and Boudleaux Bryant. After the assassination of Kennedy, it seemed like a relic from a distant, innocent past.

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5. “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline”
Lee Harvey Oswald told the press he was “just a patsy” after he was apprehended. Patsy Cline is a country legend who also died tragically young in 1963.

6. “What’s new, pussycat? What’d I say?”
“What’s New Pussycat” is a 1965 Tom Jones hit written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. “What’d I Say” is a 1959 Ray Charles R&B classic. Their only real connection is that their titles both pose a question.

7. “Wolfman Jack, speaking in tongues”
Wolfman Jack was a raspy-voiced radio DJ whose popularity peaked in the early Sixties. In 1973, he portrayed himself in the George Lucas film American Graffiti as the cultural embodiment of the era in which the film took place.

8. “Take me to the place Tom Dooley was hung”
Tom Dula was a Confederate war veteran who was convicted of murdering a woman named Laura Foster. He was hanged in 1868, but questions linger to this day about his guilt. He was the inspiration for the folk song “Tom Dooley,” which was covered by the Kingston Trio in 1958. Dylan’s rise in the early Sixties made groups like them seem hopelessly passé.

9. “Play ‘Please, Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ “
“Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” is a 1964 Nina Simone song that the Animals turned into a rock hit the following year. Animals keyboardist Alan Price left the group shortly after it was recorded. He appears alongside Bob Dylan throughout the documentary Don’t Look Back.

10. “Play Don Henley, play Glenn Frey/Take it to the limit and let it go by”
Don Henley and Glenn Frey are the main songwriting team in the Eagles, and sang most of their hits. “Take It to the Limit,” however, features Eagles bassist Randy Meisner on lead vocals. He left the band in 1977, and the only time he’s performed with them since then was at their 1998 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

11. “Play it for Carl Wilson, too/Looking far, far away down Gower Avenue”
Carl Wilson was one of the founding members of the Beach Boys. In 1976, he sang background vocals on the Warren Zevon song “Desperados Under the Eaves,” which contains the line, “Look away down Gower Avenue, look away.” Dylan is a longtime fan of Zevon. In 2002, shortly before Zevon’s death, he played many of his songs in concert.

12. “Play Etta James, too. Play ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ “
Blues singer Etta James had a big hit with “I’d Rather Go Blind” in 1968, which she wrote with Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster.

13. “Play ‘Blue Sky’; play Dickey Betts”
“Blue Sky” is a 1972 Allman Brothers Band song from their album Eat a Peach. It’s one of the last songs that Duane Allman worked on before his death. But as Dylan notes, it was written by Dickey Betts.

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14. “Play something for the Birdman of Alcatraz”
The Birdman of Alcatraz is a 1962 Burt Lancaster film about a real-life convicted murderer, Robert Stroud, who became fixated on birds after his arrest. Dylan may reference him in the song because he died one day before JFK. C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley died on the same day as Kennedy, though their deaths receive almost no attention.

15. “Play ‘Down In The Boondocks’ for Terry Malloy”
Terry Malloy is the dockworker who Marlon Brando portrayed in the 1954 classic On the Waterfront. “Down in the Boondocks” is a 1965 Billie Joe Royal song written by Joe South, who plays guitar on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.

16. “Play ‘Anything Goes’ and ‘Memphis in June’ “
“Anything Goes” is the title song from a 1934 Broadway musical, with lyrics by Cole Porter. “Memphis in June” is a 1945 Hoagy Carmichael song. Dylan previously referenced it in his 1985 track “Tight Connection to My Heart.’”

17. Play ‘Lonely at the Top’ and ‘Lonely Are the Brave’”
“Lonely at the Top” has been used as a title for songs by Randy Newman, Bon Jovi, Mick Jagger, and even Chamillionaire. The Randy Newman title is, by far, the most famous, and probably the one Dylan is referencing here. Lonely Are the Brave is a 1962 Kirk Douglas Western based on Edward Abbey’s novel The Brave Cowboy.

18. “Play ‘Love Me or Leave Me’ by the great Bud Powell”
Bud Powell was a wildly innovative jazz pianist of the Fifties and Sixties who died of tuberculosis in 1966, when he was just 41. “Love Me or Leave Me” is a 1928 Walter Davidson/Gus Kahn song from the Broadway play Whoopee! It was covered by everyone from Ruth Etting to Nina Simone to Ella Fitzgerald. It’s unclear, however, if there’s a version by Bud Powell. He certainly didn’t write it.

19 . “Play ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and ‘Dumbarton’s Drums’ “
“Marching Through Georgia” is a Civil War-era song about William Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea, a brutal and destructive military campaign that crippled the Confederacy near the end of the war. “Dumbarton’s Drums” is a Scottish song dating back to the 18th century.

20. “Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner,’ play ‘Murder Most Foul’ “
“The Blood-Stained Banner” is a nickname given to the third and final official flag of the Confederacy. It was unveiled just weeks before Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, ending the Civil War. “Murder Most Foul” is the title of this new Dylan song that is so long and epic, it wraps up with a reference to itself.

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