At the end of a week when the news agenda covered one subject alone, when conversations, social media and even our dreams were dominated by disease, there came a startling bulletin from the US: Bob Dylan had released his first original song in eight years. Suddenly, amid the wallpaper of coronavirus updates and speculation, there was a reminder of a world beyond lockdown.

That a song release can make international headlines in the midst of a global emergency is remarkable. For all Dylan fans, confined indoors like jaguars behind bars, it was the musical equivalent of a heart transplant.

People recall precisely where they were when they heard about the death of Princess Diana, or the planes flying into the Twin Towers, but I predict that in years to come, the release of Murder Most Foul will be remembered with the same certainty. Bursting on us at a time of misery and fear, the story of Kennedy’s assassination – albeit a grisly tragedy – prompted joy unconfined.

Within an hour, word was spreading all across the globe like a sizzling gunpowder fuse. An opera buff friend went so far as to press pause on a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried – he’d just reached the end of Act Two – to make sure my husband was in the loop. Needless to say, I had already heard about it, at almost as great length as the song itself, which lasts 17 minutes.

Hard as it is to confess, there was a time when Dylan meant nothing to me. Or if not nothing, then no more than all the other great male balladeers of his age: Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Solomon Burke, Kris Kristofferson, but above all, Tom Waits, whose vocal chords are so gravelly he makes Dylan sound like Julie Andrews.

I believe there are support groups for people who have not seen the light. In my case, the in-house Dylanologist stepped up, offering a tutorial that is as never-ending as Dylan’s touring schedule. For over 15 years I have been living with a man who scoffs at religious belief, is sceptical about politicians, and would insist on a second opinion if somebody told him his shirt was on fire. Yet when it comes to Dylan, it is as if the oracle has spoken. In the presence of his hero, he and fellow admirers are like Boy Scouts around a campfire, mouths agape as they listen to a mesmerising storyteller.

I didn’t understand it at first, but possibly I do now. If indoctrination is not quite the right word, I have certainly been initiated into the subtleties and profundity of America’s most extraordinary living musical legend. And while much of what I’ve learned has been a revelation, I always liked his voice.

There are those – poor misguided, tin-eared souls that they are – who think Dylan can’t sing, that he is as off-key as he can be off-hand, but for me he’s like Picasso. He could draw a perfect, realistic cockerel, and then draw it a second time in abstract style, where it was just as recognisable, but with more attitude. Sometimes it suits him to do it one way, sometimes another.

That’s Dylan’s voice: capable of sweet harmony and melody, but often fractured and rough, like the events and emotions his songs reflect. His theatrical abrasiveness is the vocal counterpart to his persona as a troubadour. Everything about him is designed for the stage, every aspect of his performance a deliberate artistic choice.

The more I’ve learned about him, the clearer it becomes that the old chestnut of “a voice for a generation” is spot on. His music has been the soundtrack to several generations now, but for listeners of his own vintage, or baby boomers born into the Cold War era, his political perspective indelibly shaped their outlook. Astonishingly, though, young singers also aspire to emulate him. I spent a memorable evening in a Greenwich Village bar in New York some years ago, when it was open mic night. One by one, youthful singers got up to perform. Some wore top hats, others had fringed leather jackets, but whether they accompanied themselves on guitar or piano, they were all trying to be Dylan.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, such as Cohen and Simon, there appears to be something of a male-female divide in Dylan’s devotees. I’ve never heard a woman enthuse for hours on end about his lyrics, or dissect each chapter of his memoir, but I know blokes who are as familiar with every line and its subterranean meaning as Shakespearean actors with his plays. The degree of fascination, analysis and obsession he inspires defies exaggeration.

There’s an elfin spirit to Dylan that is the antithesis of macho or aggressive. He has the air of a poet, of a romantic as well as a seer. Maybe his disciples find in him a welcome respite from constricting stereotypes of masculinity, the embodiment of being your own man. If anyone is a symbol of individualism, it is surely the genius from Hibbing, Minnesota. He is not so much a rebel as a free thinker. He does not churn out one tick-box hit after another, but responds in his own considered, original and unpredictable way to what’s going on around him. As he’s said of himself, “I’m an artist, I don’t look back.”

So why has he waited so long to address JFK’s killing? Someone surely has the answer. Meanwhile, reviews of Murder Most Foul are mixed. Some are wholly enthusiastic, others unconvinced about its cliched opening lines, and almost everyone delighted with its roll-call of singers and bands, who form the musical backdrop and aftermath to Kennedy’s death. I wouldn’t dream of wading into that debate. What I do know, though, is that it usually takes time to fathom what Dylan’s up to, and for his newest offering to settle in everybody’s mind.

One of the joys of a new song, of course, is that it sends you back to the old. Among the many others I listened to again last week was Blowin’ in the Wind: “Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows/ That too many people have died?/ The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/ The answer is blowin’ in the wind”. It could have been written yesterday.