Is Dylan's "Murder Most Foul" a Red Herring? - by Kees de Graaf
When we heard Dylan’s latest monumental masterpiece ‘Murder Most Foul’ for the first time, we immediately associated the song with Tempest’s closing masterpiece “Roll on John”. Now it has been seven years since we first analysed “Roll on John” on this website. Now after seven years of contemplation we have come to the conclusion that “Roll on John” is actually not at all about John Lennon and the Beatles, no matter how obvious the references to Lennon and the Beatles in the song are. We found strong arguments to assume that the words about John Lennon and the Beatles function as some sort of a lightning-conductor or a red herring and that in reality the song focusses on John the Apostle, the apostle of light who wrote the Gospel according to John and of course Dylan’s favourite book The Revelations of St. John. See for yourself if my arguments are compelling and read my analysis of “Roll on John” on my Bob Dylan song analysis page, elsewhere on this website.
The question that now intrigues is: can the same thing be said of ‘Murder Most Foul”? Is ‘Murder Most Foul’ really all about the murder of JFK and its impact on the American society or is it a red herring, is there somebody else lurking in the background to whom the poet actually refers? In some sort of a way “Murder Most Foul” reminds us of Dylan’s album “Knocked Out Loaded”(1986) on which Dylan covered a song called “They Killed Him” written by Kris Kristofferson. The refrain of the song “ My God, they killed Him” draws a bizarre and stunning conclusion to the murder of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Jesus Christ. If the murder of JFK is to be qualified as “Murder Most Foul”, then certainly the murder of holy men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King must be defined as “Murder Most Foul” but what about the murder, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ whom the song calls “The only Son of God Almighty, the holy one called Jesus Christ”, is this not “Murder Most Foul” in its most extremis? Below we will list 10 instances of possible Christ references in “Murder Most Foul” hidden underneath the surface of the song. But the list is not complete ,there are more.
1.“Tomorrow is Friday, we’ll see what it brings” Dylan says in “Early Roman Kings”. MMF hints at Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified: “A good day to be living and a good day to die”. “Good Friday” a good day to die indeed…. MMF goes on to say: “Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb”. It was John the Baptist wo in John 1:29 proclaimed Jesus to be the ”Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” and Jesus thereby fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy “he opened not his mouth, like a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7 RSV).
2.“Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am? Of course we do, we know who you are” reminds us of a man with an unclean spirit in the synagogue of Capernaum, the daemon of whom shouts out to Jesus: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24 RSV).
3.“It was a matter of timing and the timing was right” reflects Romans 5: 6 (NLT): “When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners”.
4.“You got unpaid debts and we’ve come to collect” on the one hand represents all the hatred and vengeance from the Sanhedrin which led to Jesus ‘death sentence because of blasphemy but on the other hand- and at the same time- it shows God’s providential hand so that the debts – the sins- of the whole world were laid upon Jesus and could be reconciled.
5.“We’re gon’ kill you with hatred and without any respect, we’ll mock you and shock you, we’ll grin in your face, we’ve already got someone here to take your place, the day that they blew out the brains of the king”. Although they did not blow out the brain of Jesus like they did to JFK, this scene strikingly resembles to what happened to Jesus Christ when he was crucified. We read of this in Matthew 27:28-32 (BSB): “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. And they twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on His head. They put a staff in His right hand and knelt down before Him to mock Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!”. Then they spat on Him and took the staff and struck Him on the head repeatedly. After they had mocked Him, they removed the robe and put His own clothes back on Him. Then they led Him away to crucify Him. Along the way they found a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross of Jesus”.
6. “We’ve already got someone here to take your place” represents Simon of Cyrene who was requisitioned by the Romans soldiers to take the place of Jesus and carry the cross, not as a token of compassion for Jesus but with the intention to add insult to injury to Jesus as if they said: “Look at this king, this King of the Jews, he has only one subject, one servant to carry his belongings”. It all happened the day when they blew out the life of the king of the Jews. The plot to kill Jesus was in a bizarre way “perfectly executed, skilfully done”.
7. In verse 3 we find: “But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at, for the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that. Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me, hate to tell you, Mister, but only dead men are free”. Jesus says in Matthew 10: 28 that people can only kill your body but not your soul: “Don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear only God, who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (NLT). God the Father allowed people to kill the body of Jesus but they could not touch His soul. Psalm 16:10 is fulfilled in Jesus “For you will not leave my soul among the dead or allow your holy one to rot in the grave” NLT). When it says: “Freedom, oh freedom, freedom over me, hate to tell you, Mister, but only dead men are free” this not only a general statement saying that death relieves a man of his earthly duties and bondage like in the case of JFK but when we take a look at the death and resurrection of Christ, there may be more to it. Romans 6:8-10 says: “And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus”. The message is that all those who identify with the death and resurrection of Christ are set free in the true sense of the word and death loses its grip on people.
8. Then there is Zapruder’s 8mm film eye witness account: ”Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before, seen it thirty three times, maybe more, it’s vile and deceitful - it’s cruel and it’s mean, ugliest thing that you ever have seen”. Why does the poet say that he watched this film “thirty three times, maybe more”?. Nowadays there seems to be consensus among historians and theologians that Jesus Christ was 33 years old when he died on the Cross, but there is a margin of uncertainty, it may be a few years more. It may be the reason why it says here, “maybe more”. The poet takes one year of the life of Christ for each time he watched the film as if alluding to the 33 years of suffering of Jesus Christ and he specifically alludes to the end of Jesus’ life, which was ‘deceitful’ (Judas’s betrayal) and his trial and crucifixion which was “cruel and mean, the uglies thing that you have ever seen”.
9. They “killed him like a human sacrifice” echoes John 11:49-51 (NLT) “Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed. He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation”. To hold on to the power of the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas offered Jesus as ‘a human sacrifice’.
10. “The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son, the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” takes us back all the way to Revelation chapter 12:5-9 (NLT). After the victory of Christ, his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension into heaven, poetically summarized as “the day they killed him” Rev. 12:5 depicts the Ascension of Jesus into heaven: ”Her child (the child by which is meant Jesus) was snatched away from the dragon and was caught up to God and to his throne” . This caused the defeat of the dragon and he was forced out of heaven (Rev. 12:8) and when that happened this might be called the day when “the age of the anti-Christ had only just begun”. Peter says that the anti-Christ (the devil), in the shape of a roaring lion, is still raging on earth: “ Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT).”Stay alert” which are basically the same words Dylan used introducing MMF on his website: “Stay observant”. Paul makes it clear in his second letter to the Thessalonians Chapter 2 that as Judgement Day approaches the activity of the anti-Christ will come to a head (2 Thes.2:1-12) in a scorched earth policy.
We know that there are a lot of Dylan fans out there who will not be amused by this kind of interpretation. If so, please do not hesitate to comment on this article.
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Yes JFK be Jesus and John Lennon is the Baptist...in fact one soon comes to realize that nearly every song that Dylan writes is either about Jesus Christ or about John the Baptist.
Sure makes it easy to interpret Bob Dylan's songs.
— Larry Fyffe13-09-2021 01:10
Here's another interpretation of Murder Most Foul...
— Pamela Brown18-10-2020 17:49
It is always interesting to look for a hidden meaning in Dylan's songs, but I'll be curious to know how you explain the clear 4 first lines of that one in your interpretation:
"Twas a dark day in Dallas, November '63
A day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was a-ridin' high
Good day to be livin' and a good day to die"
It looks clearly as an introducion to what follows...
And what about the many references to Dallas in the song?
Your article is interesting, by I cannot follow you. May be sometimes Bob Dylan just means what he says...
— Michel Pomarede29-09-2020 23:39
You are right. Too much right probably. Because Dylan for a long time already uses the bible as red herring for whatever - and the other way round too of course. So "in fact" Dylan plays double red herring games all the time. At least double. If you count up to two only. You can count up to whatever - and the more red herrings in double, triple and quadruple reverse you get. The old infinite masking and unmasking game. Well. That's Dylan all along and all the way. Some people call it - ART...
— Beat Hochuli29-09-2020 23:36
Thank you for this painstaking and thought-provoking analysis. It is fascinating. And I appreciate the remarks commentators have made about Dylan's writing working on multiple levels at once, using myth and archetypes. That seems like the definition of great art, compared to something that is just a good song or poem. My reaction to your analysis of this work is to wonder whether at one level the song reflects a cyclical, repetitive pattern within human society, with JFK seen as one of many "Christ-like" figures in terms of the impact their "sacrifice" had on the culture of their times. King and Gandhi could certainly be other modern-day examples. Great people who are so revolutionary in their impact that they must be destroyed for the existing paradigm to persist.
— Andrew29-09-2020 17:22
Jesus the Christ said something like: : "as you do to the least of these, you do unto me." The JFK assassination is a signpost in American history, one we have yet to fully reckon with.
— Ed McEowen29-09-2020 16:46
Excellent insights! Lots of Bible in Dylan. How do you feel about Satan as the speaker in "False Prophet"? Personally, I think it works well.
— Peter29-09-2020 13:45
Roll on John: "Compelling in the mind of the analyst only"
Sure there are quite a number of Dylan songs with Christian themes .....but let's not get silly in regard to ROJ.
— Larry Fyffe29-09-2020 12:47
And though your writing is thorough in finding these allusions, they are there to give more significance to the death of JFK, that indeed says a lot about us right now. On Slow Train and Saved Dylan was ready to talk about Jesus only, and on second thought he also painted a picture of the dark times when we entered the age of the neo-liberals and fundamentalists. After that he never looked back and moved on as the song and dance man who had something on his sleeve. Like Shakespeare, he may be likened to the diamond of truth that has a myriad of facets, dark and light.
— hans altena29-09-2020 10:05
This one-dimensional approach is what has turned me off since I was a little child in church. Everything pointing to Christ, whereas Jesus has always had his views on life. Dylan is a great poet because he says more than just Jesus saves. There is a lot more going on, is it not mr Jones?
— hans alten29-09-2020 09:41
greetings from Germany.
Since the song is out people tell me they listened to like in a trance or like to fall fresh in love, not coming out of the bed for days and then of cause after a an close intensitivity with the new love the mind is starting to work and case for us as Dylan-admirers we try to fix our thoughts about the new song(s).
Then comes the time where all over the world these different analyses pop up and show us where their plane touched down on lovefield.
You come along with the already known approach of Dylan Songs, Phil Mason wrote something out of his Higher Voice view, Aubrey Glazer surrounded the song with his gnostic glasses, Heinrich Detering with his "one voice out of thousand tongues and paralells of a Shakespeare-universe, etc., sorry for just name a few of prominent voices of the Dylan-Universe.
I just want to add the Lyrics of Long Ago, Far away (go and translate it again in all the different languages... in German the song "Weit weg, lange her" starts with
Da gab es doch mal einen der sprach von Liebe oder wie das heißt
Da haben sie ihn umgebracht gekreuzigt soweit ich weiß......Weit weg, lange her,
so was passiert doch heute nirgends mehr.....
As we should know yet, every single human has to find its way through life, even with an own version of faith, but what remains for me with this new song and album is the plea for an interreligiousity that might lead to more tolerance and if also a little bit more peaceful vibes here on earth.
Play "The Creator has a Masterplan" and take care that your needle does not stuck again.
— Marco Demel29-09-2020 08:52
In an increasingly murky world Mr Kees interpretations of Dylan songs point us in the direction of Biblical truth. decide to have a little faith and I'm sure God will do the rest, for all of us.
thanks you Mr Kees
— phil rigby29-09-2020 08:34
He had a lovely wife and two children seldom seen
But they shot him in the backseat of a Lincoln limousine
(Jerry Lee Lewis: Limousine)
I'm riding in a long, black Lincoln limosine
Riding in the backseat with my wife
(Bob Dylan: Murder Most Foul)
— Larry Fyffe25-09-2020 20:52
Sometimes I feel you over-reach. However, it's definitely a parallel worth making.
Here is another vaguely possible Biblical allusion:
"Pick up the pieces"--as in gather your pieces of silver.
It's a grim pun if we add in the anatomical sense of what happened to the victim's bodily parts.
— Paul17-04-2020 00:06
Een ondersteuning van de gedachte dat MMF (op z'n minst mede) over (Dylans geloof in) God gaat komt uit onverwachte hoek, Kees. Op expectingrain.com van vandaag staat, naast een verwijzing naar jouw bericht, ook een verwijzing naar een mooi artikel uit NRC Handelsblad (een tamelijk atheïstische krant) waarin de recensent nota bene eindigt met de vaststelling dat MMF toch ook moet duiden op Dylans geloof in en heenwijzing naar de Heiland. Als zelfs een ongelovige dit uit MMF kan destilleren, dan lijkt het me duidelijk dat Dylan dit ook zo heeft bedoeld.
Een hartelijke groet!
— Silvester van der Pol16-04-2020 21:49
Great interpretation as usual, Kees. I would have to find common cause with those who assert that Dylan is operating on several levels simultaneously, but your Christic interpretation would be the primary one for me. Of course, the song can be taken at face value as being about the JFK assassination and I found the song bringing me to think of President Kennedy as a human being rather than a famous politician. I also find agreement with John, both in his interpretation of Dylan as a non-liberal (blatant since My Back Pages, at the latest) and in his parallels with Trump vs the Deep State and the echoes of this within the song.
As for the poster pointing out about Dylan's reduced using of the name 'Jesus', this certainly would bring into more prominence the Old Testament. Why not, Christians believe, or should, the OT and it might also represent keeping a connection with the Jewish people-surely quite understandable for Dylan. Also, there are many Christians, myself included, that are reticent about referring to their Saviour by His first name. Dylan might simply have taken on this viewpoint later on.
— Mick Leahy16-04-2020 21:30
The reason why a writer would hide the message of his words is that many of us are not open to hearing certain messages. To get through the radar in even a few cases, the message needs to be coded. Otherwise, it would be rejected on first hearing.
For about two years, every song that Dylan wrote had the word "Jesus" in it. If he had stuck with that approach, no one would be talking about his work today. This way, a small number are hearing the message. Perhaps Dylan believes that God put him on this earth to reach this small number with this particular message.
— Rob Bennett16-04-2020 14:29
* and the song uses...
— Larry Fyffe16-04-2020 10:34
Certainly don't include me in the 'we' that is supposed to believe Roll On John is about the Baptist. Of course, an analogy can be made thereto, but that's about it. Mercury- inhaled Vulcan madness is required to enable one to pound every Dylan song into a Bible story. Likewise with Murder Most Foul such an analogy can be made but to make it the essence of the song is beyond reason. Bullets in the days of Jesus? The title is a quote from Hamlet, and is the song uses the paricular murder of a President as a jumping off point to comment on such killings in general, including that of Jesus if one so chooses. But come on, did Jesus have earphones on and was listening to Afro-American blues singers, and drive in a Lincoln limo at the time of the crucifixion. Get real. There is no doubt, however, that Dylan deliberately leaves lots of room to make such an analogy. But hey, it's actually about the shooting of John Lennon (lol)!
— Larry Fyffe16-04-2020 10:27
Hi Kees. I really enjoyed reading your analysis and I can certainly see why you might be tempted to interpret the song as an allegory of Christ. Of course, Dylan has used such imagery throughout his career and I feel that he likes his songs to potentially operate on a few possible levels. I think it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that 'Murder Most Foul' is *about* the crucifixion rather than the killing of JFK but why can't it be *about* both? The murder of Jesus Christ, whatever one believes of the truth of it, is definitely one of the central myths (not to say it didn't happen) of human history. Hence, every 'martyrdom' is analogous to that primary one.
One should also consider that Bob is a 'poet' who probably enjoys giving his work an extra 'charge' with the added magic of the Biblical, the mythical and the Shakespearean. Sometimes this works and sometimes is just 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. Perhaps that's for us to decide. He's a magician, a craftsman and wonderful weaver of words but I suspect he can also be a joker and a master of the sleight of hand. Personally, I feel all this talk of 'Murder Most Foul' being a 'masterpiece' is verging on hyperbole; perhaps time will tell. It's most definitely fascinating and the old fellow has got us talking again.
— Jeremy Stone16-04-2020 09:42
The beauty of Dylan's song writing is that it is multi layered leaving it open to whatever interpretation you go into looking for. This is the reason he will never explain them himself. To do so would be to destroy the magic. Your personal magic.
— Martin16-04-2020 08:56
true or not true or half-true : this aproach puts the songwriter in a position where he knows what he wants to write about and then starts to fiind ways to hide his motives. Why would anybody do that ? These 10 " explanations " paint a picture of a songwriter who is afraid of telling directly what
it's all about.
Can you give me 1 reason why the writer would do that ??
— bert wels16-04-2020 08:03
Thank you for this analysis, Kees. I might add to this the significance of the next to last line in the song that says “play the Blood Stained Banner.” This may have a double meaning as well since this is a term that refers to the confederate flag, but also, in southern gospel music, as the cross of Christ.
— Gary Gnidovic16-04-2020 07:48
Wow, this is fun. Good work, good research! I think it's fair to say that you'll find ancient textual Judeo-Christian references throughout Dylan's work. And like many of his songs, Murder Most Foul surely operates on several levels, simultaneously, one of which is Biblical and apocalyptic. Yes, the crucifixion (the many, in fact), the 60s assassinations, the death of hope and ideals in America, the rebirth through music and, if you see it there - why not - the resurrection. Very nice thoughts, Mr Kees.
— Richard16-04-2020 07:09