Last week, Bob Dylan released his first newly written song since 2012, the 17-minute long JFK assassination epic “Murder Most Foul.”
The song’s winding stanzas are full of graphic descriptions of the day Kennedy was assassinated, mixed with a recitation of American popular culture of the last century. It sent Dylan fans and the music press into a tizzy.
But there was another community that jumped on the song and took it as a message from a fellow traveler: JFK conspiracy theorists.
To those who believe that Kennedy was not assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone, but by a plot composed of any number of conspirators and covered up by the government, the song is a public thumbs-up by a hugely prominent figure.
And it brings back up unanswered questions about Kennedy’s assassination, giving weight to the idea of a government conspiracy at a time when public trust in elected leaders is at its a low ebb.
People may generally not trust the government, but they trust the government’s story about JFK even less. Even coming up on 60 years since the assassination, recent polling indicates only a third of Americans believe the “official story” put forth by the Warren Commission after the assassination that Oswald acted on his own.
And belief that a conspiracy took down Kennedy cuts across party affiliations, gender, age, and race. In a country where nobody can agree on anything, a large majority of people agree that the government is lying about JFK.
Dylan himself hasn’t been interviewed about the track, releasing it on social media in the middle of the night on March 26, with a short note that called it “an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.”
But the song certainly can give the impression that Dylan is a Kennedy conspiracy theorist.
“Murder Most Foul” references some of the biggest Kennedy conspiracy touchstones, going deep into the weeds in some cases.
Dylan makes a number of references to a “they” who “killed him,” “blew off his head,” “killed him once and killed him twice” and called it the “greatest magic trick under the sun / perfectly executed, skillfully done.”
He drops multiple references to Kennedy’s brain having been removed during his autopsy, which has sparked conspiracy theories that doctors reviewed a different brain, and that the angle of the bullet through the president’s brain would reveal the fatal shot came not from above (indicating Oswald fired it) but from the side, from a potential second shooter.
He mentions a “party” on the Grassy Knoll, where a second shooter has long been alleged to have been.
Dylan also throws a bone to the conspiracy theorists who point the finger at Vice President Lyndon Johnson as the figure with the most to gain from Kennedy’s death, and the connections to have him killed, singing “we’ve already got someone here to take your place.”
Then there are references to the “three bums comin’ all dressed in rags,” almost certainly a nod to the homeless men known as the “three tramps” who were briefly taken into custody following the assassination as possible accomplices or additional shooters.
Dylan even seems to reference the conspiracy theories themselves, singing of the assassination, “The day they blew out the brains of the king / Thousands were watching, no one saw a thing, It happened so quickly, so quick, by surprise / Right there in front of everyone’s eyes.”
Maybe he’s commenting on the skill of the conspirators for killing the most world’s powerful man in broad daylight and getting away with it. Or is it a backhanded compliment toward Oswald?
Even the title of the song is a conspiracy theory reference, since it’s the same as a 1967 pamphlet called “Murder Most Foul!” written by Stanley Marks and asking 975 questions about “the conspiracy that murdered President Kennedy.”
But it’s also a Hamlet reference.
The song isn’t an attempt to “solve” the crime, and Dylan makes no mention of who “they” are and why “they” did it. It’s not even clear whether Dylan is writing about a conspiracy of killers or merely the amorphous political forces in America in 1963 that have led to decades of doubt and distrust.
Dylan has never expressed conspiratorial beliefs about Kennedy, so it’s not obvious if he’s actually commenting on the conspiracies themselves, or merely reflecting back the ones in popular culture. Dylan hasn’t said what the song means, and probably won’t. And if he does, it probably won’t be a reliable document.
All the same, almost as soon as the song dropped, conspiracy theorists on social media picked up where Dylan left off. They started tearing its lyrics apart for hidden meanings, shoutouts, references, and alternate theories. A thread on r/conspiracy took off almost at once, with nearly 400 posts from conspiracy believers. Redditors brought Dylan’s alleged links to the Occult, and, in particular, a 60 Minutes interview where Dylan joked about having sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for fame.
Another beacon for conspiracy theorists to follow was Dylan’s multiple references in the song to legendary DJ Wolfman Jack, which they thought were actually about George H.W. Bush—whose secret service codename was Timberwolf. Bush has been linked to JFK conspiracies for decades.
But many of the conspiracy references could just as easily be allusions to other works of art or historical figures, since Dylan references over 70 songs from the 1800s to the 1980s in the track. They could also just be poetic license or phrases Dylan liked.
Conspiracy believers seized on the couplet “Slide down the banister, go get your coat/Ferry ‘cross the Mersey and go for the throat” as coded references to Guy Banister and David Ferrie, two shadowy figures connected by New Orleans DA Jim Garrison to the assassination but never proven to be involved. But they could just as easily reference Mary Poppins, and the Gerry and the Pacemakers hit “Ferry Cross the Mersey” from 1965.
And while the oddly specific line about having seen the Zapruder Film, the only known recorded document of the shooting, “33 times” was singled out as a reference to the Freemasons’ highest degree of membership, it could just be a number that fit well into the rhythm of the song.
Even QAnon followers got involved in the conspiracy digging. The song is almost exactly 17 minutes long, with Q being the 17th letter of the alphabet.
QAnon is the nebulous online conspiracy that posits President Donald Trump is working behind the scenes to arrest a cabal of deep state pedophiles.
Dylan’s initial post on Twitter was swarmed by Q followers, leaving hashtags and memes in their wake, seeing the song as a more formal version of their comprehensive “research digs” into historical events. And much of QAnon’s mythology revolves around recasting Trump as a latter-day JFK—a warrior for freedom devoted to casting off the shackles of the deep state and bringing love and godliness back to the people.
Some Q followers made reference to the song being Dylan’s warning to Trump that “they” will try to do to him what “they” did to Kennedy and assassinate him. After all, they already think Trump has been the target of secret deep state kill attempts.
They even connected the “Wolfman Jack” references to an Instagram video done by Kennedy’s grandchildren singing along to the Kesha and Pitbull hit “Timber”— again linked to Bush’s “Timberwolf” code name and a hidden message that the CIA killed Kennedy. Or maybe the Secret Service. Or both.
Ultimately, because Dylan couches the lyrics in so much metaphor and symbolism, it’s hard to know what anything in “Murder Most Foul” means.
But in the end, Dylan himself sounds less conspiratorial than people want.
As he sings, “What is the truth and where it did go? / Ask Oswald and Ruby, they ougtha know.”