Big World, Small Town
Any views or opinions expressed in “Big World, Small Town” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.
I came to my fandom of Bob Dylan relatively late in life. It wasn’t until I was in my 40’s that I became drawn to him and began to explore the music he has created during his long, illustrious and multifaceted career. But once I did, I was hooked.
Unlike most Dylan fans, what initially led me to download one on his albums was his religious music. Yes, you read that correctly. Bob Dylan did in fact write religious music, and some of it is really quite beautiful. If you don’t believe me, check out his song “Every Grain of Sand.”
While Dylan was born and raised Jewish in a small town in Minnesota, after his first divorce in the mid-70s, he underwent a conversion to Christianity and subsequently released three explicitly religious albums. Slow Train Coming, Saved, and Shot of Love make up the trilogy of albums in what fans call Dylan’s gospel phase.
But these three albums were not the only places where references to scripture can be found. Throughout his entire catalogue, Dylan makes frequent references to the Bible, both Old and New Testaments. In fact, one of his most famous songs, “All Along the Watchtower,” seems to directly reference images from the twenty-first chapter of Isaiah.
Dylan eventually moved away from religious music and even seemed to distant himself from organized religion in later interviews. His behavior left some of his fans wondering if Dylan still believed in God at all or whether his faith had been just another of his phases.
Bob Dylan has had a lot of phases in his career, and his religious phase was only one of them. Most know Dylan from the folk phase at the beginning of his career, but he also released rock albums, blues albums, a country album and most recently a number of albums of American pop standards. Each phase found Dylan exploring another aspect of himself and American popular music.
The last album of original music that Dylan released was back in 2012. That album was called Tempest. Many Dylan fans have noted that The Tempest was the last play that Shakespeare wrote on his own, and some feared that Dylan intended Tempest to be his last original work. It certainly looked like that was the case for the next seven years.
But then came 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
With all that was going on, I was having a hard time sleeping on the night of March 26th and was up in the wee hours of the morning. With nothing else to do, I scrolled through my Instagram feed only to discover a post from Dylan. Out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, he had released a new song. And at 17 minutes long, it was the longest song he’d released in his over 50-year career.
That song, called “Murder Most Foul,” released during our current crisis, chronicles a different kind of American crisis. That crisis was the biggest one from Dylan’s youth, the assassination of John F. Kennedy. With sparse instrumentation, the lugubrious song juxtaposes sometimes graphic details about the killing of the King of Camelot with references to popular songs and singers. For example, Dylan sings at one point, “I’m just a patsy like Patsy Cline.”
About 10 minutes into the song, Dylan asks “Mr. Wolfman Jack,” the iconic DJ, to play him some songs. He then begins to list song titles and artists from all genres and ages. Stevie Nicks, Stan Getz, and the Moonlight Sonata all get named checked.
“Murder Most Foul” seems to suggest that Dylan turned to music to help him cope with the terrible events of November 1963. Could he be suggesting that in our current COVID-19 crisis, we too should turn to music to help us? By releasing this song in the middle of the pandemic, is Dylan adding one more musical resource?
There is undoubtedly power in music, and it certainly has the power to heal, even in the most trying of times. But there’s also another source of healing that Dylan has more than a passing familiarity with. Along with “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan issued a short statement to the public. The statement read, “Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years. This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting. Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.”
Charles D. Thomas is a writer and psychotherapist who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at [email protected].