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A brilliant take on Dylan’s bold elegy for JFK

Murder most foul, as in the best it is;      

But this most foul, strange and unnatural
Hamlet, I.v.27-28

From an old friend (since grad school in English):

Listened again to “Murder Most Foul,” realized that the line “Wolfman Jack speaking in tongues” is key. Of course, It references the popular radio d.j., but more importantly describes “Jack” Kennedy himself speaking from beyond the grave through Dylan, who invokes song titles as the “tongue”—the national idiom—to tell his elegy, which transfigures into new meaning all the titles, many of wh(are themselves idiomatic American phrases: “lonely at the top,” “lonely are the brave,” “the good die young.” But when Dylan sings these, he transforms them from their ordinary pop identities into evocations of JFK’s tragic grandeur—as if the phrases of popular culture have been always waiting to be used as messengers, ready to circulate in and through the voice of JFK/Dylan. 

In the Bible, the disciples speak in tongues unconsciously, and thereby spread the word of Jesus all over the world.

So Dylan is “speaking in tongues”—that is, as a medium,  the instrument of a higher power, demanding…. what? Justice (?), vengeance (?), recognition (?). The answer, of course, is all three; and this is confirmed when we unpack the title’s allusion: the Shakespearean “tongue” Dylan adopts—for “murder most foul” is uttered the by ghost of Hamlet’s father, as he urges his son to avenge him for this “most foul, strange & unnatural” crime. Here is the primal seed of Dylan’s dirge, as he takes upon himself the task his father demands: vengeance, justice, recognition.

And the composite ghost of Hamlet’s father/JFK—both bathed in blood—tells his son, Hamlet/Dylan, that he knows of unspeakable crimes. . . if only he was permitted to divulge them. 

This “if only” is precisely the source of the permanently elusive guesswork, speculation, possibilities, unknowability, that has been the vortex around the events of Nov. 22, 1963.

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