UT Austin professor Tom Palaima is a fixture in the university’s classics department, where he serves as the Robert M. Armstrong Centennial Professor and director of the Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory. But he has another, perhaps more unexpected, scholarly interest: Dylanology, or the academic study of Bob Dylan and his music. And during the height of the pandemic years, that academic interest became even more immersive as Palaima began to collaborate with singer/songwriter Joe Goodkin to perform some of Dylan’s songs, including “Murder Most Foul,” his 16-minute epic on the assassination of JFK and its context in American history.
Between spring 2020 and 2023, Palaima and Goodkin performed “Murder Most Foul” three different times via Zoom for Palaima’s “Bob Dylan History Imagination” undergraduate course. Then, last month, they met up in person to record the song in the studio — with a few changes and updates. Perhaps the most notable is an update to the song’s chronology: “For the last 60 years,” Palaima sings, “they’ve been searching for that.”
To mark the 60th anniversary of the JFK Assassination, here’s the video of Palaima’s and Goodkin’s “Murder Most Foul.”
In an essay originally published on Palaima’s website and republished below, he writes about the song’s context and his own memories of November 22, 1963.
The Powerful Message of “Murder Most Foul”
Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul” is a deeply disconcerting hymn of associative and dissociative memory and memorialization. It is grounded in Dylan’s own intense experiences of personal loss and menacing social hatred during 1963, the year he celebrated his twenty-second birthday.
That April, during his famous Town Hall Concert, Dylan recited his seven-minute poem “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” a capella. Guthrie, age 50, was then about a decade into hospitalization with the extremely debilitating neural disorder Huntington’s chorea.
Then, on June 12, Medgar Evers, a black World War II veteran, lawyer, and NAACP field secretary for Mississippi was shot dead in his driveway coming home late at night to his wife and three children. Soon afterwards, Dylan wrote his penetratingly honest assessment of the incident, “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” and performed it on July 6 at a black voter registration rally in nearby Greenwood, Mississippi, in the presence of Pete Seeger and Theodore Bikel. Bikel recollects the event, here.
Less than three months later — and 60 years ago today — Dylan sat riveted to coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and its aftermath.
Finally, on December 13, three weeks after Kennedy was killed, Dylan accepted the Tom Paine Award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union at the Bill of Rights Dinner. In his speech, having first spoken in favor of pro-Castro activists, Dylan segued to the Kennedy assassination. He bravely and honestly said:
I’ll stand up and to get uncompromisable about it, which I have to be to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, I don’t know exactly where —what he thought he was doing, but I got to admit honestly that I too – I saw some of myself in him. I don’t think it would have gone – I don’t think it could go that far. But I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me – not to go that far and shoot.
The reference in “Murder Most Foul” to searching for Kennedy’s soul for “the last fifty years” gives us an indication that Dylan was thinking, as would only be natural, about the killing of JFK around the time of its fiftieth anniversary in 2013. The song distills the essence and long-term impact of this shockingly brutal public murder upon American culture and the “soul of the nation.”
As I wrote in an essay for the Athenaeum Review, not long after the release of “Murder Most Foul” in late March 2020:
For close to seventeen minutes Dylan, with piano, cello and light percussion accompaniment, hypnotically meditates upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He takes us through the events of those late November days in 1963 when “the soul of a nation has been torn away” and “the age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.” The subdued meditative mood of the song matches the gray mood of COVID times.
Dylan’s song is Nobel Prize-worthy. I would say he makes us relive the miserable killings, the grief of the Kennedy family, the quick changing of the political guard and what it all meant for us and our country, but in truth MMF makes us take these things deep into our minds and souls and really live them for the first time.
I lived through the assassination of JFK. I was twelve years old and sitting on the front steps of my neighbor friend Robbie’s house in the early afternoon on Sunday November 24, 1963, when his divorced mother came out the front door looking shaken and distracted. Because there were no adults around for her to talk to, she said, not really to us, “They just shot President Kennedy’s —.” I forget what she called Lee Harvey Oswald. Neither my friend Robbie nor I felt very much. We did not talk about the president or his presumed killer being shot. We were more interested in the Cleveland Browns football game that afternoon. By weird fate the Browns were playing against the Dallas Cowboys. I saw my Catholic parents grieving during this period, my mother crying during iconic televised and photographed moments like John John’s final salute to his father.
Dylan in his sung words and [with his] sea-like musical accompaniment takes us “Deep in a Dream,” into the kind of reverie where “junk” or heroin takes the jazz musicians he calls out. He re-creates what it was like for Kennedy himself to realize that he was being “led into some kind of a trap” and “gunned down like a dog in broad daylight” while “ridin’ in the back seat next to my wife / heading straight on into the afterlife.” Dylan conveys the meaning of this “vile, cruel and mean” act to Americans then and to us now, as it was captured forever on the famous Zapruder film.
Dylan never uses the clinical and emotion-obliterating word ‘assassination’. He makes us feel the horrific moment as a murder most foul (a phrase from Shakespeare’s Hamlet that he uses to conclude all four main stanzas, and to end the song itself), a killing “with hatred, without any respect.” And we do feel what it was like when “they killed him once and they killed him twice / killed him like a human sacrifice.”
Dylan takes us away into our distracted American lives filled with Beatles music, Hollywood movies, Woodstock, Altamont, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Don Henley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Hoagey Carmichael, Shakespeare, the Who, Wolfman Jack and “the great Bud Powell.” He jars us [back] out of our American dreams by alluding to other brutal murders of innocents and not-so-innocents in our country’s history: Sherman’s march to the sea (1864), the Tulsa race massacre (1921), the sordid hanging for murder of Civil War veteran Tom Dula (1868), the violent killings of notorious gangsters Charles Floyd (1934) and Benjamin Siegel (1947). He then leaves us with a “blood-stained banner” and a final “murder most foul.”