By Mollie Campbell.
When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think I would be in for a treat this big…a brand new Bob Dylan song. And after one listen through, it is, in my opinion, one of his greatest works since he burst onto the folk scene in the 60’s.
As a lifelong fan of both Bob Dylan and John F. Kennedy, I was never going to dislike this song. The moment those keys start, a Moonlight Sonata-style within itself, you can already feel the depth of the song in your gut. The stripped back beauty of the keys, that iconic singing, the sheer conviction in his voice is a tale within itself, and the haunting beauty of that solitary violin, a continuum of sound, abruptly drawing emotions from deep within your soul.
The fact that he released this song during a time of such chaos, uncertainty, conflict and the most human solitude we have encountered as inhabitants on this earth possibly since World War II, is certainly telling. This song was written a few years back, but choosing this time to release it, it is clear that the situation we are currently in, has taken Dylan back to the same set of emotions or perspective he felt during those solemn days in November of ’63. It reflects upon those raw emotions that are still very current in terms of the Kennedy assassination, the nation’s grief and a loss of America’s innocence that has never truly been healed. Not only does it show how prominent and shocking the Kennedy assassination was, it also acts as a short movie, a glimpse into the whole of Dylan’s life, and every trend in popular society since the 1950’s. It is almost a love letter to Bob Dylan, by the man himself…a nod to all of the previous issues he has ever written about, social change, political movements, human injustice, crime, pain, suffering, love etc. Dylan himself has never gone into too much detail about JFK, in his memoir ‘The Bob Dylan Chronicles’ (One of my favourite books), he mentions that President Kennedy visited his hometown in Minnesota when Dylan was in his late teens, he said he wished he’d have been there to see him, but he has never gone into too much detail in terms of emotion.
In this song, he delves right in. He doesn’t sing in an overly affectionate way, and he doesn’t sappily portray Kennedy as some huge hero, instead he talks of the injustice of his killing, how it was essentially prophetic from the first day he was elected into the White house and the sheer horror of the whole situation, ‘a murder most foul’. He also starts namedropping tons of pop culture references, song lyrics, famous names, places, everything that was an after-effect of the JFK assassination ripple. In my opinion, he is speaking directly to Kennedy, telling him not to worry, his life’s work was carried out vicariously through millions of people, carrying his legacy forward, retaining this peaceful mantra filled with equality and human strength. He mentions The Beatles, Woodstock, the Altamont Free Concert, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Gone with the Wind, Wake up Little Susie, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, Patsy Cline, Etta James, Don Henley & Glenn Frey, Karl Wirsum, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Lindsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks, even Shakespeare. He also mentions a lot of places within the Dallas area and the state of Texas, alluding to the idea that the Kennedy assassination was always meant to happen, as if it were somehow set in stone, just down from the crossroads and the Trinity river, as if it was a prophetic blues tale from Robert Johnson, or a folk-lore song from Woody Guthrie.
The fact that Dylan is still producing such masterful, poetic and truly spine-tingling songs like these is astonishing, he manages to write with the same infectious pulsing rhythm, chillingly relevant lyrics and haunting truthful vocals, as if we were right back in ’63 listening to him sing ‘The Times they are a changing’, recorded merely a month before Kennedy’s assassination. And for his first original release in 8 years, it is pretty overwhelming. It delivers that same sense of shocking honesty we’d expect from ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’. It ends with ‘Play the “Blood-stained Banner”, play “Murder Most Foul”. This is most likely a reference to either the ‘Third Flag (e.g. the Blood-stained Banner)’ which was an unpopular new flag designed to represent less of the ‘Yankee Blue’ and more of the confederate states (introduced in 1865). Or it could be the African-American hymn ‘We are soldiers in the Army’ also dating back to the American Civil War, with the lyrics:
‘We are soldiers in the army, we have to fight although we have to cry, we’ve got to hold up the bloodstained banner, we’ve got to hold it up until we die!’
This would be alluding to African-American slavery, and the fight for justice and equality leading all the way up to Kennedy’s run for president, and his famous backing of African-American communities… he fought mercilessly for Civil Rights, essentially holding up the bloodstained banner as a symbol of what came before and what mustn’t happen again, the ‘sacrificial lamb’ mentioned early in the song. Slain due to his beliefs, yet Dylan is assuring him and his ‘lost soul’ that his work was carried on, things did get better (somewhat at least), leaving the listener with a tiny shred of hope. The hope we all need to hold onto during these strange times we find ourselves in at the start of our generation’s 1920’s, the potential lead-up to our own great depression, and the pained yet magical blues songs that came out of it. Deep within those songs, resides hope.