Eat This Documentary
Updated: Jun 23
The "Murder Most Foul" Footnotes Video
It was so easy to take Bob Dylan for granted. As we all go through this worldwide house arrest, sitting on our sofas with one eye on our smart phones and another on the TV, I can’t help but reflect on ALL the things I took for granted. Going out to dinner, meeting with friends (in person) and hugging those we love now seems like a thing from the past. Welcome to the new "new frontier". When JFK talked about the New Frontier in his acceptance speech at the 1960 Democratic convention, he talked about the opportunities AND the perils and boy did he get that right.
"We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier—the frontier of the 1960s, the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats. ... Beyond that frontier are uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered problems of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus." John F. Kennedy
So, in light of watching the daily world death count grow due to the Coronavirus (especially in NY and NJ where I live) you could forgive me for not giving much thought to Bob Dylan and many of the other seminal music figures I hold dear.
Last week, while numb from another day of constant bad and scary news, I sat on the sofa and saw a tweet from Bob Dylan come in at 12:09am. There was a picture of JFK in all of his “new frontier” glory and the words “Murder Most Foul”. I must admit, I’m ashamed to say that my initial excitement was more about the subject matter than the fact that Dylan had a new song. Shame on me for that. I clicked on the link and sat mesmerized for the next sixteen minutes and fifty four seconds, staring in silence listening to this haunting ballad which weaved the story of one of the darkest periods in our nation’s history and somehow balanced that with a long list of things that (seemingly) made Bob Dylan happy.
Now Dylan is no stranger to the long, story song. But even "Hurricane", his epic tale of Hurricane Carter’s fight against injustice, goes by in a flash at eight minutes and thirty-two seconds compared to this. I listened it several more times that night which took me into the wee hours. I staggered to bed and made a date with myself to resume the next morning with a plan to listen along with the lyrics which I knew (thank you internet) would be posted. The length and the subject matter were a lot to take in and thanks to Andy Greene’s great story the next morning in Rolling Stone titled, "Beyond JFK: 20 Historical References in Bob Dylan’s ‘Murder Most Foul" I got a nice head start. But I'm here to tell you that are a lot more than twenty historical references...this song, my friends is the Wikipedia of Rock & Roll.
Some background on me and why this song has struck such a powerful chord. I was born in 1959 so I was too young to appreciate JFK and what he stood for while he was alive and while I knew of Bob Dylan’s rightful place in music (and pop culture) it wasn't till "Tangled Up In Blue" that I caught the fever. I blame my obsession with the Beatles for not spending more time listening to Dylan. And I should have known better since I was well aware of their own musical debt to him (see “You've Got To Hide Your Love Away”).
My obsession with JFK sadly relates to his assassination in 1963 and the conspiracy around it as much as it does to what he was able to accomplish in his short lifetime and the “oh what could have been” of his life. I vividly remember my older brother (who was born in 1950) bringing home a paperback book in 1969 on the Kennedy assassination. I was only ten years old and of course I gravitated to the photo section and OMG. There were pictures of JFK’s blood-stained shirt, autopsy photos and frame grabs from the Zapruder film. I was too young to process it all, (there was a film of all this!?) but it stayed with me and over the years, I have accumulated quite a collection of JFK assassination related books, magazines and documentaries (along with the hundreds of theories that go with them.)
Another memory (which relates to this subject) and I promise to get back to the song. I got my very first radio (the Panasonic RF-546 Portable Radio) for Christmas in 1972 and spent the next two weeks listening to WABC-AM play the top ten songs of 1972 in a constant rotation, often falling asleep with the radio tucked under my pillow. That’s when I fell in love with my first “story song” and spent the next decade deciphering the lyrics to Doin McLean's "American Pie". Ironically, when there was speculation that Bob Dylan was the “jester” that McLean was referring to in the song, Dylan had this to say;
"A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like 'Masters of War', 'A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall', 'It's Alright, Ma' – some jester. I have to think he's talking about somebody else. Ask him."
I hope this shed’s some light on why I have become completely obsessed with “Murder Most Foul”. The music arrangement is simple but haunting and Dylan is in fine voice (and not just "for him"). It's an excellent vocal performance and it suits the song perfectly.
So with nothing but time on my hands and a family that was all to happy that I was busy pre-occupied with Dylan and not bothering them, I set out on one of the most ambitions multimedia projects I have ever taken on…a documentary “footnotes” video that would match every single lyric to "Murder Most Foul" (there are 300 of them) with a corresponding video or image. At first, I didn’t think I was going to be that difficult to find matching videos and images because on first listen it appears that most of the song was about the JFK assassination. And as I mentioned earlier, I had amassed a huge collection of conspiracy documentaries (thank you; Nat Geo, Discovery and Smithsonian Channels) so I thought the hardest part was going to be in physically putting it all together. Boy was I wrong. Yes, the physical editing was overwhelming, and I quickly fell into a pattern of editing till 4am and waking at noon to do it all over again (isn't that what we are all doing these days?) I quickly realized that this song was so much more than the JFK assassination and researching the lyric references was a lot harder than I thought it would be. Thanks to the Bob Dylan groups in Reddit and the Steve Hoffman Forum I was able to make sense out of some things like “Rub A Dub Dub” which I didn’t even think related to anything. For all I know it doesn’t, but every reference I chose to identify passed some sort of stress test, as you’ll see in the lyric break down at the link below.
You've probably read that this song is similar in concept to Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" and the aforementioned "American Pie" and maybe on the surface yes, in all three songs give you a lot of historical information. But whereas Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" has lyrics made up of easily researchable facts and "American Pie" is full of illusions to facts, "Murder Most Foul" stands head and shoulders above both. It's weaves in JFK's assassination throughout the entire 16 minutes and manages to paint a landscape of the last hundred years of music, film, pop culture and tragedy without losing the thread.
Another thing to consider is that Bob Dylan, that rare icon from the sixties, who is not only still alive but is still creating. Think about it, from a pop culture AND historical point of you, Dylan's image is right up there with JFK, RFK, MLK, the Beatles, Elvis, Woodstock, the moon landing and every other iconic moment from the past sixty years. He is a national treasure and this song could not have come at a more needed time.
As I post this I just read that "Murder Most Foul" just became Bob Dylan's first number one song. How crazy and great is that? In closing, I just have to say, that Bob Dylan does NOT need Vinnie Favale to make a video for people to appreciate his song. I encourage you to listen to it on headphones many times without any visuals the way it was meant to be experienced. The ONLY person who needed this video was me and quite honestly, I needed the idea of the video more than the video itself. I'm glad that I put this together because it marshaled all of my interests in history, pop culture and learning new things through the many references that Dylan has made. Playlists can be made of all the songs and musicians name checked here. College courses can be taught on all of the subjects that Dylan touches on (and not just the JFK assassination). I hope I haven't taken the fun out of it for you if you were planning on doing this over the next few years. But desperate times, such as now, call for desperate measures.
This link will take you to my page with Dylan's complete "Murder Most Foul" lyric along with my footnotes used in making the video. For the JFK parts, I went with as close of a match that I could (using archival video, photos, news clippings, book and magazine covers]. But being the great poet that Dylan is, I had to come up with my own interpretations several times. For the music, historical and pop culture references, I went with specific picture sleeves, album covers, publicity photos and news clippings [many which can be found in the gallery below].
I really hope you all end up enjoying this as much as I did putting it all together. And while I put a lot into this, I'm sure I missed some stuff and maybe even got some things wrong. If you see anything along those lines or have your own opinions counter to mine, please share with me at; email@example.com and I will publish an addendum video.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have do some more work on the JFK assassination..I think I'm getting close to solving this thing!
The "Murder Most Foul" Visual Footnotes Gallery