Bob Dylan‘s “Murder Most Foul” has generated a lot of buzz since its release in March. The nearly 17-minute song has drawn attention for its epic length, its somber tone and its sobering subject matter—the 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.
“Murder Most Foul” also made headlines for a startling chart achievement. When it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard‘s Rock Digital Song Sales chart last month, it marked the first time Dylan had topped a Billboard songs chart as a performer.
Now the big question is whether the song will receive any Grammy recognition. Dylan has received 10 Grammys over the years. In 1991, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy. But he has never once won a Grammy for songwriting. And he’s never even been nominated for the top songwriting Grammy – song of the year. Even such prized songs as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” were passed over in that category.
How can that be? One reason is that many Grammy voters were resistant to rock in the ’60s, when Dylan was at his creative peak. They were more comfortable with film and theater songs. Six consecutive song of the year winners from 1960-65 originated in films or Broadway shows.
The Grammys didn’t have any categories dedicated exclusively to rock until 1979. And they didn’t have a best rock song category until 1991. If there had been a best rock song category in the ’60s, presumably Dylan would have had a good shot at that award, even as conservative Grammy voters of that era gave their top award to songs with which they were more comfortable.
“Murder Most Foul” could receive a songwriting nomination. It will be up to the Grammy screening committee, which meets each fall, to decide if it would fit better in best rock song or best American roots song (which includes Americana and folk songs, among other genres). Dylan’s epic also has a long-shot chance at a song of the year nomination.
Though Dylan has never been nominated in that category, he has received four songwriting nominations in genre song categories. “Dignity” was nominated for the 1995 award for best rock song. “To Make You Feel My Love,” from Dylan’s 1997 album Time Out Of Mind, was nominated in 1998 for best country song (coinciding with Garth Brooks‘ smash cover version). “Things Have Changed,” from Curtis Hanson’s Wonder Boys, was nominated for the 2000 award for best song written for a motion picture or other visual media. “Someday Baby,” from Dylan’s 2006 album Modern Times, was nominated for best rock song.
In addition, Dylan’s soundtrack for Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 film Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid was nominated in a related category — best original score written for a motion picture or a television special. The album spawned “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” which reached No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 — Dylan’s highest-charting post-1960s hit.
A couple of ironies: Though “Things Have Changed” didn’t win a songwriting Grammy (it lost to Randy Newman‘s “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2), Dylan did win an Oscar for the song.
Dylan’s lyric in “Murder Most Foul” is studded with references to details of the assassination and to pop-culture artifacts of the era, sometimes in combination, as when he juxtaposes assassin Lee Harvey Oswald’s famous comment to Dallas reporters, “I’m just a patsy,” with the name of a top singer of the era, Patsy Cline.
In its jumble of historical and pop-culture references, “Murder Most Foul” echoes Billy Joel‘s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 which received Grammy nominations for record and song of the year. Joel’s song touches on the Kennedy assassination (“JFK, blown away/what else do I have to say?). Joel’s song also mentions Dylan (just as Dylan’s song includes a reference to Joel’s hit “Only the Good Die Young”).
Several subjects, including Marilyn Monroe, Beatlemania and Woodstock, are name-checked in both songs. The main difference between the songs is tempo and tone. Joel’s song has a brisk tempo and almost chipper tone, while Dylan’s is slow and somber. For older listeners, it may well bring back the aching numbness of that long weekend.
“Murder Most Foul” is slated to appear on Dylan’s Rough and Rowdy Ways, which is due June 19. It will be Dylan’s first album of original material since 2012’s Tempest (which was passed over in Grammy voting).
For the record, Grammy voters are no longer resistant to rock in top categories. U2 has won album of the year twice, song of the year twice and record of the year once. Sting, Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Rob Thomas and Coldplay are among other rock (or pop/rock) songwriters who have won Grammys for song of the year.