“Murder Most Foul” are not only the words Prince Hamlet hears in his conversation with that mysterious “ghost” in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 5)—these words most recently incarnate the death and rebirth of the American Dream in Bob Dylan’s Gnostic Americana songbook. If indeed it was the assassination of President JFK that has caused “the soul of a nation been torn away” leading to the death of the American Dream, then Dylan’s lyrical forensics investigate the long shadow cast “thirty-six hours past judgment day”. The recent release of this seven-teen minute epic, “Murder Most Foul” is the ghost no one can escape as our lives as individuals and as part of the collective myth known as America seem to be devolving at an accelerated pace— indeed, “the times they are a changin’” like never before. In counting down ten consecutive POTUS from JFK to Trump, Bob Dylan sets to music the devolution of the American Dream from light to darkness, mirroring the ten characters in the Passover rhyme Chad Gadya. One tale leads to darkness, the other tale culminates with light. Building upon my previous reflections in God Knows Everything is Broken (2019), I will carry forward the argument that Dylan’s recent epic song “Murder Most Foul” masterfully embodies a Gnostic re-reading of Chad Gadya translated into the Americana Songbook. To wit, Dylan’s recent lyric is concerned with the Gnostic tension of darkness and light at the heart of American Religion, its inescapable and volatile mixture with the politics of End Times theology that becomes more pronounced in the hour of this global pandemic. What sets Dylan’s End Times theology apart from its current theological iteration at the White House by the New Apostolic Reformation – a thoroughly American band of Pentecostals and Charismatics, speaking in tongues, scouring for clues to biblical prophecies, faith healing, and preaching prosperity gospel – is that this lyrical critique constructs an alternate myth of the death and rebirth of the American Dream. Finally, it is no coincidence that its release date of March 27, 2020, preceding the celebration of Passover and Easter, a time imbued with themes of sacrifice, resurrection and redemption all echoing through the folk song, Chad Gadya.
“Murder Most Foul” –these words of the ghost and its role more generally in Shakespeare continue to mystify early dramatic adaptations of Hamlet, uncertain of whether ghost exists for real or a consequence of Hamlet’s madness. The most practical way to resolve this impasse, as Pierre Kapitaniak has argued, is for other characters on stage to ignore the ghost, acting as if the ghost was not even on stage. But the link between ghosts and demonology constituting what Stephen Greenblatt called “fictions of the mind” can never be escaped in Elizabethan theater. In the eye of the storm of this current pandemic “all the world is a stage” and Dylan is unwilling to evade the ghost of JFK as one of its key players, creatively revising the death of the Prince of Denmark to symbolize the death of the American Dream. While Dylan has remained silent in song over this assassination that caused “the soul of a nation [to be] torn away” leading to the death of the American Dream, Dylan’s musical forensics investigates the long shadow cast “thirty-six hours past judgment day”. Whereas the period of Elizabethan theatre already doubted and embodied a decline in the certainty of the presence of ghosts as pure souls, Dylan’s America is nothing if not re-enchanted with the ghost of one little POTUS of light—JFK. Why would an artist as great as Shakespeare then continue to marshal the dramatic symbol of hesitation, uncertainty and doubt if soon enough the fantastic would emerge? Even the fantastic needs hesitation to work and as Todorov observes, even within the uncanny, hesitation remains long after the story can be understood. That hesitation abides in these endless “thirty-six hours past judgment day” where “[t]here’s twelve million souls that are listening in” — could the advent of this End Times bring about the destruction of another six million souls lost after the Shoah? The tragicomedy of this hour is that no one seems to notice the countdown to Armageddon that began with one little POTUS of light culminating in one little POTUS of darkness eliciting this lyrical response in Dylan’s Gnostic songbook at this hour.
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Leaders of light and leaders of darkness have never escaped the Dylan songbook. This need for hope in leaders of light is already alluded to in Chronicles, when Dylan shares a telling anecdote of his mother seeing JFK in Hibbing in October 1960, watching JFK give a “heroic speech” only to then write her son that this POTUS symbolized a real ray of light bringing people a lot of hope, to which the avowedly apolitical Dylan responds: “If I had been a voting man, I would have voted for Kennedy just for coming there.” The same one who would have voted for one little POTUS of light, also saw part of himself in one little POTUS of Darkness, Lee Harvey Oswald. Dylan reveals early on this Gnostic embrace of the dark side, as evinced in his intoxicated speech at The Emergency Civil Liberties Union “Bill of Rights” dinner: “…that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald…I got to admit honestly that I too — I saw some of myself in him.” As the song and dance man never ready to give up the ghost, Dylan now sings through the mask of Oswald:
“That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head
I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline
I never shot anyone from in front or behind
Got blood in my eyes, got blood in my ear
I’m never gonna make it to the New Frontier”
While it cannot be denied that this epic song, released March 27, 2020, decades after the JFK assassination, draws generously on the conspiracy theory pamphlet called, “Murder Most Foul” a self-printed in 1967 by Stanley J. Marks, there is something grander afoot. This is yet another Americana moment, where both conspiracy theorists like Marks and Shakespeare merge in the mind of the Nobel laureate, where “a dark day in Dallas” meets Prince Hamlet. The musical forensics that Dylan carries out here is not to necessarily resolve that American murder most foul, but to pick up the midnight conversation with the ghost to ascertain where the soul of that leader of light has gone to: “But his soul was not there where it was supposed to be at/For the last fifty years they’ve been searching for that.” Dylan sees the 36th POTUS, “Johnson sworn in at 2:38” as the beginning of the age of the anti-Christ, culminating with the presidency of the 45th POTUS, Donald Trump whose dark machinations are responsible for “the soul of a nation being torn away, it’s beginning to go into a slow decay”. The assassination of JFK is really just the first step in the dance of “play me tragedy” where Dylan travels through the netherworld of conspiracies into the British Invasion; the Beatles arrival in America; and the birth and death of the American Dream, and all the lost hope of the 1960s. What is being masterfully mythologized here is the death of the American dream by our favorite, original vagabond, song and dance man, who performs his original End Times theology as an Americana adaptation of Chad Gadya.
I am arguing here that Dylan is ingeniously recasting the embarrassing of Chad Gadya in an Americana key. It is a nursery rhyme that Jews claim is borrowed from the Gentiles, and where Gentiles claim it is borrowed from the Jews. It is the story no one seems to want to own where one little goat is bough for two zuzim and goes through a series of unfortunate events leading straight to the Angel of Death. In that penultimate verse, God seems to be nowhere nearby to smite the anti-Christ. Each stanza introduces another nation lead by a leader of darkness who is eventually overtaken by the next leader of darkness until eventually the Angel of Death is seen as the puppeteer behind it all.
Hearing the simultaneous pride of place and utter embarrassment of End Times theology being sung around the seder table with Chad Gadya is something American Jews, like Dylan, can never escape. While Chad Gadya has distinct echoes of the German rhyme Lambertuslied, the French chansons ‘Ah! Tu sortiras, Biquett’ and ‘La petite fourmi qui allait à Jérusalem’, as well as Ladino, Yiddish and Arabic versions, but Chad Gadya, is performing something different. It dares to transform this innocent enough nursery rhyme, written in Aramaic into a soundtrack for End Times theology and that is why it serves as Dylan’s palette here in “Murder Most Foul”. Just as there are ten consecutive POTUS from JFK to Trump, so too in Chad Gadya is song as a cumulative song of ten characters, beginning with a kid bought by the father, which in the next verse is eaten by the cat, which is bitten by the dog and so forth. While Chad Gadya was incorporated to the Passover Haggadah no later than the end of the fifteenth century, this song continues to sing itself precisely because it works as any good folk song should, emblazoning its sounds and imagery in our hearts. It already seeps into early medieval Provençal and Central-European Jewish communities, until all later versions carry forward the surprise theosophical ending. It is this later appearance of the deity who smites the Angel of Death that likely assures it as a feature of the Haggadah and is salient to the death and rebirth of the American Dream for Dylan. It is this theosophical ending of Chad Gadya that then invites allegorical interpretations of an unusually apocalyptic nature that embarrassed early rabbinic Judaism with the rise of End Times theology that came to define nascent Christianity. This Jewish allegorical recovery interprets the kid as the Chosen People, and the other characters to nations who conquered Israel, ending with God coming and liberating the Jewish people from its persecutors. So what sounds like a nursery rhyme is actually a radical re-embrace of the Four Exiles into which the Jewish people were dispersed, from the Babylonian Exile (the burnt stick) to the Persian and Median exiles (water extinguishing the fire) to the Greek Exile (the ox that drank the water), and while the Hasmonean dynasty slaughtered the Greeks (the ritual slaughterer that killed the ox), Rome is both the final exile and progenitor of the current state of exile as the Angel of Death (that slaughtered the ritual slaughterer). Amidst this hour of the slaughter, Dylan is singing an Americana Chad Gadya:
‘Twas a dark day in Dallas – November ‘63
The day that will live on in infamy
President Kennedy was riding high
A good day to be living and a good day to die
Being led to the slaughter like a sacrificial lamb
Say wait a minute boys, do you know who I am?”
“The day that they killed him, someone said to me, “Son,
The age of the anti-Christ has just only begun.”
This brings us to the most intriguing motif in “Murder Most Foul”—the anti-Christ and the question of parallels with the Jewish Angel of Death. Given the paucity of page dedicated in scripture to the anti-Christ, appearing in just three passages of the New Testament letters known as I and IIJohn, it is hard to grasp why this archetype has taken hold so strongly in the volatile mixture of American Religion and politics. As evidence of the abiding influence of Gnosticism over Christianity and Western Civilization, the anti-Christ is central to the apocalyptic world view that sees human history as a struggle between the forces of light and darkness, between God and Satan for the fate and future of humankind. American Christian prophesies of the End Time see the anti-Christ will act as Satan’s emissary on earth during this intermediate period—a doppelgänger, sort of evil twin of Jesus. This anti-Christ will forge a one-world government and economic hegemony through promises of peace, as Dylan sang in “Man of Peace” (1983):
“He got a sweet gift of gab, he got a harmonious tongue
He knows every song of love that ever has been sung
Good intentions can be evil
Both hands can be full of grease
You know that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace”
But when Jesus returns, he will expose the anti-Christ as an impostor, defeat him in the battle of Armageddon. It is only in exposing the ultimate parody of Christ that redemption is still possible, and Dylan plays on the parody lyrically with his classic Americana twist:
“Somewhere Mama’s weeping for her blue-eyed boy
She’s holding them little white shoes and that little broken toy
And he’s following a star
The same one them three men followed from the East
I hear that sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace”
The age of the anti-Christ in America feels episodic, with many moments, many faces, always just beginning again, like a broken record. Each time a different face of the Angel of Death emerges when we are least expecting it: “Well, he catch you when you’re hoping for a glimpse of the sun/Catch you when your troubles feel like they weigh a ton”. Further episodic episodes are always emerging in the midnight hours of the after-party. When fighting the flames of the “birther” movement demanding his birth certificate, questioning his religious identity and the legality of President Obama’s presidency, could he ever have seen how quickly the tables were turning on him that fateful night of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 30, 2011? The dinner was a turning point for Donald Trump, as Obama’s mockery fired Trump’s journey from flamboyant businessman and reality TV star, to the Republican presidential nomination and eventually POTUS. By turning back the clocks to JFK’s assassination, Dylan is challenging listeners to consider just when the age of the anti-Christ really began. After all, if the money, muscle and influence of organized crime helped JFK win that closely contested 1960 election, then the ghost of the Angel of Death at the after-party could already be heard in wee-hours of his presidency. Were there flaws in the JFK’s character what undermined his administration and warped his stewardship of the nation? Or was he just another dreamer living the American Dream? When the Mafia leaders willing to aid Kennedy’s candidacy with their belief the Kennedys would reduce FBI pressure on their activities, they fell prey to betrayal as head of the Justice Department, Robert Kennedy made fighting organized crime a priority. The anti-Christ, like the Wolfman Jack Show, is always broadcasting. The Ghost being broadcast is suggesting that murder is always horrible, but this one was especially horrible, weird and unnatural—why?
What is there left to do? Where can hope be found? Turn on the radio for the final sections of “Murder Most Foul” and allow the soothing sounds of Americana songbook bring some solace. In Dylan’s rendition of the Americana netherworld there is a unique psychopomp in Wolfman Jack—his radio show is still on the air, every night, somewhere in the world! Afterlife in this digital age allows for the ghost to keep the record spinning all night long. So, thirty six hours later, we turn to our trusty psychopomp, just as Dante turned to Virgil, Dylan turns to Wolfman Jack:
“And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day
Wolfman Jack, he’s speaking in tongues
He’s going on and on at the top of his lungs
Play me a song, Mr. Wolfman Jack”
Before we can understand this turn to the DJ of Americana music who spent time sending signals from his pirate radio station in Mexico, we need to see the role of the psychopomp in its fullness as that shaman of the tribe meant to guide us.
The psychopomp would carry the souls of the dead into the next dimension. Just as the shaman psychopomp appears in the mythology of just about every ancient civilization, Dylan wants us to listen to this most recent musical psychopomp. We may have heard of a literary psychopomp like Virgil, who conducts Dante through the nine circles of hell in his Inferno in the epic called the Divine Comedy. Dylan understands that when art works it can traverse the political and the spiritual, especially in the Americana landscape that at once so deeply marked by a Christological lens with Hell in the place of the Underworld where the Ancestors live, while uncertain of its veracity for modern rationalists. Dylan is lamenting the lack of knowledge that permeates the Americana landscape regarding the death journey, apart from those who return from having a Near Death Experience (NDE). So, this Americana Chad Gadya is its own kind of NDE, with its own story of death and rebirth, with the abiding hesitation as to whether the soul of a nation will ever be reborn with the rising Sun at dawn.
So how does Wolfman Jack aka Robert Weston Smith, known as (January 21, 1938 – July 1, 1995), serve as the psychopomp of the Americana landscape thirty-six hours after its apocalypse has already begun? Growing up in pre-war Brooklyn, after relocating to Shreveport, Louisiana spinning at a country music station, KCIJ, by 1963, the Wolfman Jack Show was created and aired on the powerful Mexican radio station, XERF, with a massive signal that reached all of North America. The Big X, ironically based in Mexico, was another outlet of the American Dream, playing great music by day and at night, catering to U.S. based preachers who preached and sold religion. For both Dylan and the Wolfman, music is their religion. Wolfman Jack on XERF awakened listeners to the Americana landscape through a strange brew of rowdy rock, verbal antics and raw rhythm & blues. This was the soundtrack of the psychopomp who guided a generation through the birth and death of the American Dream. By 1966, Wolfman Jack becomes an American icon, inspiring the Americana songbook with lyrics by Todd Rundgren, Leon Russell, Freddie King and the Guess Who. Then his own American Dream dies while living in Beverly Hills, when without warning, the Mexican Government took both XERF and XERB back and suddenly Wolfman Jack was off-the-air, and jobless. The Wolfman may have been immortalized when George Lucas cast him in his classic film “American Graffiti” (1973). but true to Dylan’s Americana mythos, Wolfman Jack died of a heart attack at his home in Belvidere, North Carolina in July 1, 1995— still his ghost lives on. It took more than a decade after his death for listeners to realize this DJ was a white boy from Brooklyn. The end of his autobiography, Have Mercy spins another tale Dylan took to heart:
“Life is a great party, going on all around you and you’re invited. …You’ve got something special to offer the party. Let everyone know that you believe it too. Because time is just too precious to spend any other way.”
The party ends and then the after-party continues with the waning sounds of this Americana Chad Gadya. Close friends by your side and the records continue to spin. But the mood shifts. In the wee hours of the after-party is when the ghosts appear. That after-party has been going on for century, when the Passover symposium ends, the ghosts sing on with the rhyme of Americana Chad Gadya that plays on longer than “Desolation Row” (1965) as another broken record. But how many more broken records must we listen to, with one more little POTUS of darkness who cannot distinguish between the New and Old Testaments, while continuing to open the White House to host purveyors of End Times known as the New Apostolic Reformation, a thoroughly American band of Pentecostals and Charismatics, speaking in tongues, scouring for clues to biblical prophecies, faith healing, and preaching prosperity gospel. How American to hold onto that faith that God will make reward the rich if you follow these apostles, then you will embrace “dominionist” theology imploring Christians to take over of all levels of government, media, and education as a way of preparing for the End Times and return of Christ. But Dylan was already sounding the alarm at this hour of the apocalypse, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” (1965):
“While preachers preach of evil fates
…Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked”
There may still remain those who are disappointed by the perception that Dylan’s lyrics at times appear to validate the worldview of capitalist cynicism about the possibility of change. But what I have argued here is that the cynicism of Dylan’s Americana songbook remains as hopelessly hopeful as a gnostic waiting in god could be in these dark hours before the dawn of redemption. As Americans still await the resurrection of Christ every Easter Monday and the belated advent of Elijah, harbinger of messianic times, still hungover from Passover having already passed us by, alas, Dylan remains our trusted Americana harbinger of End Times as:
“…the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day”