Masons, Mobsters, and Spooks, O My! A Field Guide to Bob Dylan’s “Murder Most Foul”

Callow Youth of America: So, why all the noise about “Murder Most Foul”?

The Wise Old Owl: Outside of it being Bob effing Dylan we’re talking about — The Big Bubba of Rebellion, High Priest of Protest, the Czar of Dissent, the Duke of Disobedience, Leader of the Freeloaders, Kaiser of Apostasy, Archbishop of Anarchy, the Big Cheese — “Murder Most Foul” is the first original song he’s released since 2012.

And at 16 minutes 56 seconds, it’s also the longest song he’s ever released.

And it’s his first-ever #1 Song on a Billboard Chart.

Plus, it’s got all sort of things in it to push Boomer buttons.

CYA: Heh, “Boomer buttons.” It’s about the Kennedy assassination back in the Sixties, right? And that’s a big deal to Boomers?

WOO: Yeah, some would say it was a pivotal point in American history — equivalent to what we’re going through now with the pandemic. It’s one of those moments in time where everything changes from what it was to something new and there’s no going back to how things were.

CYA: Really? I mean he was the President and all, but one man dying changed all of history?

WOO: It wouldn’t be the first time that one man’s death changed the course of history. With the assassination unmade, it goes something like this…

Kennedy isn’t assassinated, and we don’t get trapped in the Vietnam quagmire. No Vietnam War and there’s no Youth Movement, or at least not at the level of mass protests, Hippies and the Woodstock Generation. The core of the so-called Movement was resistance to the Draft. Once Nixon ended the draft and got us out of Vietnam — his “Peace with Honor” a decade after Kennedy died — the Movement pretty much splintered into different factions and faded.

No Youth Movement, no fracturing of America, at least not at the level that we experienced in the `60s and the `70s, and has reached its apogee in these modern times.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. And yeah, it’s looking at history with rose-colored glasses and “What If” nostalgia, but it doesn’t make the feeling any less real. Who knows? Maybe things would have been worse if Kennedy had lived. Maybe we’d be in exactly the same spot that we’re in today. The point is that there’s a feeling shared by many of the Boomer generation that things started sliding sideways in America with Kennedy’s assassination.

CYA: Gotcha. I think Stephen King did a book and movie about that. The song makes it sound like Dylan thinks some sort of conspiracy was behind Kennedy’s assassination.

WOO: Who knows what Bob Dylan thinks? I think the more important thing is that the narrator of “Murder Most Foul” thinks a conspiracy brought down Kennedy.

CYA: And that’s when the song gets a little random for me. Who does the narrator think killed Kennedy?

WOO: It’s never made clear. There’s references to the Mob and to the CIA. Maybe the Mafia and the Agency killed Kennedy together. Maybe it was anti-Castro Cuban exiles. Maybe Freemasons.

CYA: Wait, Masons? My Grand-dad is a Mason; they do charity stuff. Why would Dylan — sorry, the narrator — think Masons had anything to do with it?

WOO: Okay, take a deep breath, and fasten your seatbelt. It’s going to be a bumpy ride…

There’s several “Kennedy assassination instigated by Freemasons” theories. The one alluded to in “Murder Most Foul” seems to be based on a 1987 essay titled “King-Kill/33°: Masonic Symbolism in the Assassination of John F. Kennedy.” The author — a James Shelby Downard — was well-known in conspiracy circles for his theories that occultism was behind many 20th century historical events, including the Kennedy assassination.

CYA: Wait, King-Kill/33° is a song by Marilyn Manson!

WOO: Yeah, it looks like Bob Dylan isn’t the only musician interested in Masonic symbolism.

King-Kill/33° the essay posits that Freemasons were responsible for Kennedy’s death through an occult ritual which Downard terms the “Killing of the King,” and is related to an allegory on the certainty of death presented to candidates aspiring to the Third Degree of Freemasonry.

Downard is a bit vague on the “how and why?” of the Killing of the King ritual, but apparently Kennedy’s assassination had something to do with Freemason astronauts… on the 28th degree is also Cape Canaveral from which the moon flight was launched, Downard writes. “The 28th degree of Templarism is the ‘King of the Sun‘ degree… the placing of the Freemasons on the moon could occur only after the Killing of the King.”

Ah, yes, yes — Freemasons on the Moon. Makes perfect sense, and when the facts don’t quite fit —Downard confuses a Biblical king with a Master Mason having the same name and it’s actually the “Knight of the Sun” degree — Downard ain’t shy about tweaking those facts.

Interlude — Freemasons on the Moon

When I wrote that sarcastic line above, I didn’t realize that Freemasons had reached the Moon and brought a, ahem, thirty-third degree Scottish Rite Flag with them. In fact, Freemasonry opened a branch of the Grand Lodge of Texas on the Moon and established Masonic Territorial Jurisdiction there thanks to the efforts of astronaut and Freemason Brother Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr.

“On July 20, 1969,” relates the Tranquility Lodge 2000 webpage, two American Astronauts landed on the moon of the planet Earth, in an area known as Mare Tranquillitatis , or “Sea of Tranquility”.

“One of those brave men was Brother Edwin Eugene (Buzz) Aldrin, Jr., a member of Clear Lake Lodge №1417, AF&AM, Seabrook, Texas. Brother Aldrin carried with him SPECIAL DEPUTATION of then-Grand Master J. Guy Smith, constituting and appointing Brother Aldrin as Special Deputy of the Grand Master, granting unto him full power in the premises to represent the Grand Master as such and authorize him to claim Masonic Territorial Jurisdiction for The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of Texas, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons, on The Moon, and directed that he make due return of his acts. Brother Aldrin certified that the SPECIAL DEPUTATION was carried by him to the Moon on July 20, 1969.”

Tranquility Lodge 2000 is physically based in Texas under the auspices of The Grand Lodge of Texas “until,” the Lodge’s charter relates, “such time as the Lodge may hold its meetings on the Moon.”

You can’t make this stuff up and I stand very humbly corrected. Whether Downard was aware of this, I don’t know. Probably, as the Masons made no secret that many astronauts were Masons in Space. Among others, L. Gordon Cooper, Jr.; Donn F. Eisle; Walter M. Schirra; Thomas P. Stafford; Edgar D. Mitchell, and Paul J. Weitz were all astronaut-Masons. The astronaut who died in a flash fire at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967, Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, was a Mason, too.

Nor was Aldrin’s the first Freemason flag in outer space. Gordon Cooper, during his Gemini V spaceflight in August of 1965, carried with him an official Thirty-third Degree Jewel and a Scottish Rite flag.

Why was none of this mentioned in “King-Kill/33°”? I’d speculate that — given the essay was reportedly an excerpt from a much longer, unpublished piece — that the prudent editors of “Apocalypse Culture decided to err on the side of non-libelous discretion when it came to associating names of still-living astronauts with a Gonzo theory of a plot to kill JFK in order to put Freemasonry on the Moon. Indicting George Washington, Ben Franklin, George Mason? Cool. Doing the same to Wally Schirra, Gordo Cooper, and Buzz Aldrin? Not so cool. That may also be why “King-Kill/33°was replaced in later printings of “Apocalypse Culture” by a different essay from James Shelby Downard.

Now back to the dialogue between the Callow Youth of America and the Wise Old Owl.

The Place Where Faith, Hope, and Charity Died

WOO: There’s all sorts of parallel references between “King-Kill/33°and “Murder Most Foul” outside of ritual king slaying. For example, both focus on the reoccurrence of the number three in various permutations, including the triple overpass, Trinity River and the “three bums” featured in the song.

It is a prime tenet of Masonry that its assassins come in threes,” writes Downard. “ Minutes after John Fitzgerald Kennedy was murdered three ‘hoboes’ were arrested at the rail yard behind Dealey Plaza. No records of their identities have ever been revealed nor the “identity” of the arresting officer. All that remains of those few minutes are a series of photographs which have reached legendary proportions among persons concerned with uncovering the real forces and persons behind the assassination.”

Again, not quite accurate, but correcting Downard and following the three tramps/bums/hoboes story any further will lead us down another conspiracy rabbit hole. If you’re interested, try Googling “three tramps.” I will note before our leaving the trio that none of its members were E. Howard Hunt nor Woody Harrelson’s Dad, conspiracy claims to the contrary.

“The 33rd degree is the highest in Freemasonry,” writes Downard. “And the founding lodge of the Scottish Rite in America was created in Charleston, South Carolina, exactly on the 33rd degree line.”

Zapruder’s film, I’ve seen that before. Seen it thirty-three times, maybe more,” recites the narrator of “Murder Most Foul.” Although surprisingly not mentioned by Downard, the man who shot the film, Abraham Zapruder, was allegedly a Freemason and an Inspector-General (33rd degree) of the Scottish Rite.

And the 33rd line of “Murder Most Foul” as published on could be interpreted as a reference to Freemasonry… “Stack up the bricks and pour the cement”.

Had enough? Maybe one more. “Fredericksburg [VA] is also the location of the “House of the Rising Sun,” writes Downard, “a Masonic meeting place for such notables as founding fathers George Washington and Benjamin Franklin (of Hell-Fire Club fame) and George Mason.”

“They killed him on the altar of the Rising Sun,” relates “Murder Most Foul’s” narrator.

After several hundred words of insanity, to be followed by several hundred words more, Downard interrupts himself with his most rational paragraph of King-Kill/33°.

“Something died in the American people on November 22,1963 — call it idealism, innocence or the quest for moral excellence — it is this transformation of human beings which is the authentic reason and motive for the Kennedy murder and until so-called conspiracy theorists can accept this very real element, they will be reduced to so many eccentrics amusing a tiny remnant of dilettantes and hobbyists.”

“… call it idealism, innocence or the quest for moral excellence.” ~ King-Kill/33°

or call it…

“… the place where Faith, Hope and Charity died.” ~ “Murder Most Foul”

CYA: Wow. Just, wow. This is very weird.

WOO: No kidding. Dylan seems to have a bent towards Freemasonry and Masonic symbology. He mentioned Masons more than once on his “Theme Time Radio Hour” radio show…

“Charlie [Walker] was a Freemason, and you can tell. Here are some other great Freemasons that come out of the Grand Ol’ Opry: Roy Acuff, Eddie Arnold, Grandpa Jones, Pee-Wee King, Little Jimmy Jenkins, Roy Clark, Charlie Louvin, and Grand Ol’ Opry band member Joel Edwards. They’ve all committed themselves to the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man by becoming Master Masons. Preach on my brothers!” ~Bob Dylan, Theme Time Radio Hour, “Drinking

… and there’s been speculation among fans that the stage backdrop that he occasionally uses in concert is based on Masonic imagery (others claim it more resembles the Egyptian “Eye of Horus”). And to add to the weirdness, for a time Dylan was closing some of his concerts by making a strange gesture that looked a lot like the Mason’s “Grand Hailing Sign of Distress.”

CYA: Okay, mind officially blown. But can we get back to the song without talking about Masons?

WOO: Sure. Sorry for the digression. Where do you want to go?

CYA: Why all the Boomer songs? More buttons being pushed?

WOO: Sure, there’s a bit of that going on. But there’s a lot of songs alluded to in “Murder Most Foul” that are way before and way after Boomer times. Charlie Poole’s “White House Blues” — another song about a presidential assassination — was recorded in 1926, for instance. Eminem’s “Darkness” was released January of 2020.

CYA: Dylan likes Eminem?

WOO: Maybe. Lots of speculation about that one in the Dylan fan community. If you buy into the idea that Dylan is referring to Eminem’s “Darkness” in the third to last line of “Murder Most Foul” —”Play Darkness and death will come when it comes” then that means Dylan recorded the song sometime after January of this year, an idea some fans have difficulty with for various reasons. Eminem’s “Darkness” fits for a lot of Dylanesque reasons — it’s from an album called “Music to be Murdered By” and is about the Las Vegas sniper killings of 2017 — but other possible candidates range from Leonard Cohen’s “Darkness” to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence”

It’s one of the great things about “Murder Most Foul.” It could be referencing any of those songs, or some other song I don’t even know about. Or it could be referencing all those songs. You don’t have to pick one to the exclusion of all others.

CYA: Any other cool song references?

WOO: There’s a ton — too many to list here. I did a Spotify playlist of song / musician references in “Murder Most Foul” and ended up with 90+ songs, although a few of my choices are a stretch. Some of the references are obvious wordplays on Kennedy or the assassination — “New Frontier,” “Only the Good Die Young,” “Another One Bites the Dust” — others seem to be there because Dylan likes the song or the artist — Warren Zevon’s “Desperados Under The Eaves,” Julie London’s “Cry Me A River,” Isaac Bitton’s (aka Raya Mehmena) ”In G-D We Trust”. It’s like a “Theme Time Radio Hour” playlist, although several of Dylan’s choices are downright weird.

CYA: I bet my “weird” isn’t your “weird.”

WOO: I wouldn’t take that bet. I mean, what the hell are two songs from “Tommy” doing in “Murder Most Foul”? The Who’s bombastic “rock opera” is like the antithesis of everything Dylan was doing in 1969. Are they supposed to be references to being deaf, blind and dumb? To Woodstock? To LSD? To CIA mind-control?

CYA: Okay, Boomer, calm down. LSD and CIA mind-control?

WOO: Yeah, go Google MKULTRA. And, there’s a common thread in JFK assassination conspiracy theories that Oswald was being telepathically mind-controlled by some entity — the CIA being the most popular suspect. Downard brings up the theory in King-Kill/33°.

CYA: No more Masons!

WOO: Sorry. CIA mind-control might explain two of “Murder Most Foul’s” more opaque non sequiturs. One where the narrator calls in a request to Wolfman Jack for Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” dedicating it to “the man with the telepathic mind” — that man being Lee Oswald.

On the other hand, the line might not have anything to do with mind control and could be a reference to the Amazing Criswell, who reputedly predicted that JFK would not run for re-election “because something would happen to him in November 1963.”

CYA: That one seems a stretch.

WOO: I don’t disagree, and just throw the idea out there because Dylan mentioned Criswell on an episode of “Theme Time Radio Hour,” in the same breath as Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society and Edgar Cayce, the spiritual healer.

Dylan is reportedly a reader and fan of both Cayce and Blavatsky, and in fact uses the latter’s writings as a source multiple times in Chronicles, according to researcher Scott Warmuth. I suspect that if someone did a close comparison between Cayce’s writings and Dylan’s memoir, the same would hold true for the former. I’ll concede the Amazing Criswell is a dubious addition, but I’d like to think that the old, outrageous fakir holds a special place in Dylan’s heart, given his liking for performers who make a living from duping their audience while entertaining at the same time.

Anyway, the other mind-control reference is the line noting that “it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day.”

CYA: What’s that one got to do with mind control?

WOO: It’s so specific. Why “thirty-six hours”?

Bob Dylan is a film fanatic. He’s made references to specific movies in his songs throughout his career. “Murder Most Foul” is no exception —”Gone with the Wind,” “What’s New Pussycat?” “Nightmare on Elm Street,” a film noir called “Ride the Pink Horse,” “All That Jazz,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “It Happened One Night,” “One Night of Sin,” “Play Misty for Me” — and maybe an obscure film from 1965 about Nazi mind control that has the tag line, “Give me any American for 36 hours and I’ll give you back a traitor.”

CYA: Hmm. I gotta go soon. I know you’re not big on interpreting what Dylan is trying to say, but what do you think “Murder Most Foul” is about?

WOO: I keep changing my mind, and will probably change it again, maybe before I even finish this article.

Any honest interpretation of “Murder Most Foul” is a worthwhile interpretation. There’s a very good article arguing that the song is a polemic; Dylan’s attack on the Boomer generation for being lulled into submission by drugs, sex and wild, wild music during the ‘60s, rather than fighting the forces that killed Kennedy and were / are controlling them. I don’t buy it — I don’t think Bob Dylan gives a damn about Boomers — but as I said, it’s a worthy interpretation and worth reading.

Me, I think his intent might — let me emphasize “might” — be traced back to the two documents which seem to be Dylan’s primary sources for “Murder Most Foul” — “King-Kill/33°and a pamphlet that shares the song’s title, Stanley J. Marks’ “Murder Most Foul! The conspiracy that murdered President Kennedy; 975 questions & answers.” As Dylan took several conspiracy theories from King-Kill/33°,it appears he also borrowed both ideas and lines from Marks’ pamphlet, including Kennedy being “shot down like a dog.”

I haven’t read Mark’s 1967 pamphlet, although I’ve read others of his many works. Marks seems to have had a fertile career, writing other pieces on the Kennedy assassination as well as on the “downfall of Christianity,” and conspiracies fostered by the Reagan / Bush administrations until he and his “Bureau of International Affairs” publishing house fell silent in the ’90s. For a conspiracy theorist, Marks often seems downright rational, although, like most conspiracy theorists, he’ll ignore facts that don’t fit into his theories.

James Shelby Downard, on the other hand, is a full-tilt bull goose loonie, happily careening from idea to idea, conspiracy to conspiracy, in “King-Kill/33°like a pinball soaked in meth.

Here’s where I wander into trouble, trying to interpret what Bob Dylan is thinking: but as much as he seemed intrigued by the idea that Kennedy was a victim of a conspiracy in the 1960s, as much as he reportedly dabbled in occultism in the ’70s, I find it hard to believe that the Bob Dylan of 2020 could think of either Marks’ “Murder Most Foul!” or Downard’s “King-Kill/33°as anything but trash — maybe entertaining trash, but still trash.

Decade after decade, every Kennedy conspiracy theory has been shot down as forensics improved. No magic bullet, no series of shots recorded by a police motorcyclist. No nothing but a punk who wanted the world to know who he was, and got lucky with one shot.

Man is a creature programmed by Nature to recognize patterns. It’s what saved our asses when we first came down from the trees. The downside of hard-wired pattern recognition is that Man sees patterns everywhere, whether they’re real or not.

It’s why we see clouds that look like dragons, find Jesus in a piece of toast, believe in conspiracy theories.

Maybe what Dylan is trying to get across is exactly the opposite of what the narrator of “Murder Most Foul” is telling us. Sometimes there are no patterns, sometimes there are no conspiracies, and in an era of Fake News and politicians lying through their teeth, maybe it’s just the random world and Death will come when it comes. Maybe it’s better to observe the world and decide the truth for yourself.


Callow Youth of America: Okay, wow. One last thing: isn’t a “wise old owl” not supposed to speak much?

Wise Old Owl: Shut your mouth.

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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