Bob Dylan’s Quizzical Quarantine Releases

John J. Thompson

Bob Dylan’s epic, 17-minute ballad “Murder Most Foul” is a strangely beautiful meditation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A surprise release on March 27, it recalls not only the death of that beloved American president, but of a generation’s sense of self. Dylan followed that song with another surprise, “I Contain Multitudes,” which boldly embraces the kinds of contradictions that Dylan has been known for since his debut over half a century ago. It may also provide several clues for making sense of “Murder Most Foul.”

Dylan has a complicated creative history brushing up against Kennedy’s assassination. He once even admitted to seeing something of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s killer. Fans booed at the time, but today his remarks seem like a conflicted reflection on our individual culpability for great tragedies. Dylan seems to have been thinking there is more to things like this for a long time. Like Walt Whitman, whose poem provides the title for “I Contain Multitudes,” he looks for contradictions and embraces them.

On “Murder Most Foul,” piano, strings, and light percussion provide a rich but shapeless backdrop. Dylan’s voice sounds warmer and more accessible than you might expect. He then launches into the grizzly details of the assassination, pulling no punches before transitioning into the emotional and even spiritual aftermath of the event. And that’s where things get really interesting.

At about the two-minute mark, Dylan invokes the famous rock-and-roll DJ Wolfman Jack and then begins a litany of pop-culture references, including song titles, artists, films, celebrities, and even hymns—all intertwined with the details of the assassination, which he goes on to describe as the moment when “faith, hope, and charity died.” The contradictions would be jarring if not for the lull of the singer’s antediluvian sound.

He begins with a line that seems to dismiss the angst of the young when he says, “Hush little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, They’re gonna hold your hand.”Alongside this, he makes allusions to the age of the antichrist. On one hand Dylan seems to be suggesting that pop songs are a trifling answer to the end of innocence. But considering the timing of this release and his sincere love of this music, that sort of dismissiveness seems unlikely.

On one level, this song reflects on the way art, and music in particular, provides community and comfort during times of tragedy and trauma. Perhaps, as I have argued in the past, this goes to the essentially spiritual nature of music. In the Bible we see music used to soothe paranoid kings, to call troops to battle, and to encourage the nascent New Testament church. It bonds with us and connects with our emotional core. When we are confronted with experiences that overwhelm our capacity for rational understanding, we look for melody. Through “Murder Most Foul” and “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan takes us on a tour of cultural touchstones—some profound and meaningful and others not so much. In the end, though, we are still left facing this murder most foul. The bullet hit its mark. We will never be the same. Something has been taken from us.

“I Contain Multitudes”—which leans more heavily into literary and poetic references like Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe, yet still makes room for The Rolling Stones, Mott the Hoople, and a film reference or two—is much more clear in its intent. “Do I contradict myself?” Whitman asks in his poem Song of Myself, “Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” Yes, there are conflicts everywhere, but that’s the way of life. We need discernment and paradox, not reductionism and oversimplification.

Like Walt Whitman, whose poem provides the title for “I Contain Multitudes,” Dylan looks for contradictions and embraces them.

And what might this all have to do with COVID-19 and all of the corresponding fear, paranoia, and insecurity? Is the coronavirus pathogen our bullet? And if so, what is it killing? On “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan, as our DJ, suggests that we play everything from “Another One Bites The Dust” to “The Old Rugged Cross,” back to back, in search of an answer. He ends his list of nearly 90 references with a zinger. “Play ‘Darkness’ and death will come when it comes / Play ‘The Blood-Stained Banner’ / play ‘Murder Most Foul.’”

Might “Darkness” refer to the 2012 Leonard Cohen song with the line, “I caught the darkness / It was drinking from your cup / I said, ‘Is this contagious?’ / You said, ‘Just drink it up.’”? “Blood Stained Banner,” a phrase that originally referred to the Confederate flag, has more recently been used as an image of spiritual surrender in several songs in both the Black and southern gospel communities. Talk about a conflicted image!

After all of this, is Dylan leaving us with a gospel song? Is the foulness of this murder that it has killed our sense of security? If that security was misplaced, might that possibly also be a blessing? Is the answer to huddle around our devices in search of escape or to find redemption in a blood-stained banner that murder can’t kill? Is the cure in the blood? Is there a more conflicted image than peace coming through an unjust killing? Isn’t that what we just celebrated at Easter?

In the fourth verse of “I Contain Multitudes,” after setting up some more juxtapositions (Anne Frank, Indiana Jones, the Rolling Stones), Dylan sneaks in a line that may be a veiled reference to Samwise Gamgee’s question of Gandalf at the end of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of The King, after the wizard returns from certain death. In his song, Dylan says, “I go right to the edge, I go right to the end / I go right where all things lost are made good again.”

For those who are looking to hone their discerning skills, sharpen their ears, and explore the truth between the tension of the human experience and the beautiful scandal of the Gospel—which is, to paraphrase Sam, that everything sad will come untrue—Dylan remains one of the most fascinating tour guides available.

(For those who want to take a deeper dive, I’ve compiled a Spotify playlist of titles and artists mentioned in both songs. Check it out here.)

Topics: Music