November 22, 2023

Sixty Years Ago Today: Bob Dylan, JFK, and the Oswald Connection

By Stuart Mitchner

Cover art for “Murder Most Foul” by Bob Dylan. (Columbia Records)

Today is the 60th anniversary of November 22, 1963, a date Bob Dylan claimed a share of in late March 2020, bringing Shakespeare along for the ride in “Murder Most Foul,” a 16-minute whirlwind pop-culture tour of the Kennedy assassination. Dylan first heard the news with his then-partner Suze Rotolo and others in her sister Carla’s Greenwich Village apartment. According to his friend Bob Fass, Dylan’s response was “What it means is that they are trying to tell you ‘Don’t even hope to change things’.”

So it was already they for Dylan when most of us who were alive on that day were too stunned to think beyond he, him, it. And in MMF it’s they who “blew off his head while he was still in the car.” And it’s they in “Roll On John,” Dylan’s powerfully sung response to the murder of John Lennon (“They shot him in the back and down he went”) which, like “Murder Most Foul,” uses lyrics to carry the message (in this case, Lennon’s “A Day in the Life,” “Come Together,” “Instant Karma”). At the same time, Dylan’s words seem to transcend a single subject. A line like “they’ll trap you in an ambush” could just as easily refer to the slain president. And if you happen to be thinking about Dylan’s controversial identification with the accused assassin who also died violently that weekend in Dallas, Oswald seems a more likely fit for rhetoric like “They tore the heart right out and cut him to the core” and “rags on your back just like any other slave / They tied your hands and they clamped your mouth / Wasn’t no way out of that deep dark cave.”

Connecting with Oswald

Although Dylan later said that Kennedy’s death did not directly inspire any of his songs, some lines of poetry he was writing at the time (“the colors of Friday were dull / as cathedral bells were gently burnin / strikin for the gentle / strikin for the kind”) surface in the third verse of “Chimes of Freedom” as “striking for the gentle / striking for the blind.” And once you’ve made the Dylan-Oswald connection, it’s possible to imagine Oswald in lines like “Tolling for the outcast,” “refugees on the unarm’d road of flight,” and “ev’ry underdog soldier in the night.”

The Oswald subplot was revealed three Fridays after the assassination, on December 13, 1963, when a reportedly inebriated Dylan gave a rambling speech in the grand ballroom of New York’s Americana Hotel upon receiving the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee’s Tom Paine award. After saying, “I don’t see why anybody can’t go to Cuba,” perhaps recalling that Oswald attempted to go there and was turned away, Dylan stumbles off the deep end: “I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, …. I got to admit honestly that … I saw some of myself in him. … I got to stand up and say I saw things that he felt, in me — “ By now there were boos and hisses. “You can boo but booing’s got nothing to do with it. It’s a — I just a — I’ve got to tell you, man, it’s Bill of Rights … free speech.” A mixture of boos and applause followed his rushed acceptance of the award.

Whatever made Dylan the victim of his own remarks that night, which I’ve edited to fit in this space, there’s reason to believe that he was still feeling the aftereffects of Kennedy’s murder, still both stimulated and unsettled by that weekend’s astonishments; one headline above the photograph of Ruby gut shooting Oswald said “A NATION APPALLED.” The impact on Dylan the composer is evident not just in “Chimes of Freedom” but (as the title suggests) in the spirit of change running through Another Side of Bob Dylan, the first album he recorded after November 22. And the residual power of Dallas is, incredibly, still active six decades later in “Murder Most Foul.”

“life’s but an open window”

Surely one of rawest, most revealing pieces Dylan ever put on paper is the bizarre, freeform, all lower-case statement, more commentary than apology, explaining the references to Oswald that had shocked and offended the audience at the ECLC banquet. Even as he seems to be flailing in his effort to deconstruct that moment, the 22-year-old turns to Shakespeare, as he does on the verge of 80 in “Murder Most Foul,” telling Wolfman Jack to play “Stella by Starlight” for Lady Macbeth. Not only does he end his effusion with Macbeth’s “out!  out!  brief candle,” he does it with a Dylanesque flourish: “life’s but an open window” and “I must jump back thru it now,” which echoes the metaphorical “jump” the long, confused statement begins with: “so I found myself … like I found myself once in the path of a car” and I “jumped with all my bloody might just tryin to get out a the way but first screamin one last song when I spoke of Lee Oswald, I was speakin of the times I was not speakin of his deed if it was his deed. the deed speaks for itself.”


Shakespeare may have come to mind because as Dylan wraps up these devastatingly unguarded remarks (which, again, have been edited), he seems to imagine himself back in the moment at the banquet, as if onstage, ostensibly addressing the audience that booed him: “I love you all up there an the ones I dont love, it’s only because I do not know them an have not seen them … God  it’s so hard hatin. It’s so tiresome … an after hatin something to death, it’s never worth the bother an trouble.”

And so he jumps back through “life’s open window” to the albums and changes to come, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, and all the others on the long road to Rough and Rowdy Ways.

Tom Paine’s Blues

At the end, after making nice with the ECLC, Dylan goes one on one with Tom Paine, who will surface five years later in “As I Went Out One Morning,” a song from John Wesley Harding that some Dylanologists suspect is a parable relating to the fateful banquet. After one peculiarly tangled thread of apology (“I do not apologize for any statement which led some to believe ‘oh my God!  I think he’s the one that really shot the president’”), he addresses the face on the plaque, seeing “a kindness” there and “almost a sadness … his trials show thru his eyes.  I know really not much about him but somehow I would like to sing for him….  yes thru all my flounderin wildness, I am, when it comes down to it, very proud that you have given this to me. I would hang it high, and let my friends see in it what I see, but I also would give it back if you wish.”

Here Come the Beatles

One of the harshest, truest lines in “Murder Most Foul” is “Hush, little children, you’ll understand / The Beatles are comin’, they’re gonna hold your hand.” Another event that impacted Another Side and the albums that followed was the arrival of the Beatles at JFK and on America’s airwaves February 7, 1964. In a 2014 Rolling Stone interview, Dylan recalls: “We were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the top ten songs were Beatles songs … ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, all those early ones. They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.… But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were for the teeny-boppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”

So says one of those “little children” after “they blew out the brains of the king.” Just when Dylan’s reading “Don’t even hope to change things” into the murder of Kennedy, here come the Beatles.

Finally “Now and Then”

Finally I have the CD of “the last Beatles song,” the first and last, since as soon as “Now and Then” grandly concludes, the sound of John Lennon’s harmonica announces “Love Me Do.” The power and beauty of the transition didn’t hit me at first. It was the perfect touch. The Beatles had performed their magic again for all the “little children.”