Bob Dylan — he can see through your masks. On his first album of all-original tunes, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the young Minnesotan runaway proved himself to be a masterful writer of “protest songs.” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” and “Oxford Town” are all extremely powerful, and highly different from each other melodically and lyrically. “Masters of War” is the fourth, and perhaps the most striking protest song on Freewheelin’. It’s certainly the most succinct and direct.
From the Freewheelin’ liner notes:
Masters of War” startles Dylan himself. “I’ve never really written anything like that before,” he recalls. “I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it in this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?” The rage (which is as much anguish as it is anger) is a away of catharsis, a way of getting temporary relief from the heavy feeling of impotence that affects many who cannot understand a civilization which juggles it’s own means for oblivion and calls that performance an act toward peace.
(Kind of strange now, to read him being so direct about one of his own songs.)
Like “With God On Our Side,” Dylan’s other great anti-war song, “Masters of War” cuts down the reasons for war, and with its chilling last verse (“and I hope that you die,”) goes overboard to do it. Here, he turns the killing on the killers. However, instead of wishing actual death on people, perhaps Dylan was hoping to stand over the grave of the military-industrial complex itself.
“[It’s] supposed to be a pacifistic song against war.” he mused in an interview on September 10, 2001. “It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.”
The arrival of “Masters of War” in 1963 gained Dylan instant respect among the burgeoning youth movement, and helped paint him as a legitimate threat to the establishment in the eyes of the masses. Lyrically it’s serious as a heart attack, and ranks among Dylan’s most impassioned message songs. The starkness and immediacy of the language still comes through on the raw page:
Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
“Masters of War” takes full advantage of the power inherent in the minor chord it’s built around, in this case, E minor (John Lennon probably had this song in mind when he wrote his own Dylanesque, E minor masterpiece “Working Class Hero”). Apparently it was a chord that was relatively new to Bob’s arsenal. Introducing “The Death of Emmett Till” during a radio interview with the Broadside Show on New York City’s WBAI in May of 1962, Dylan says “This is Len Chandler’s tune. You see, the funny thing about it was, you’ve met Len, when he plays and he sings he uses a lot of chords, but he’s really good, he uses his fingers all over, but he’ good…and he’s always trying to tell me to use more chords, and sing a couple songs in minor keys. before I met him, I never sang one song in a minor key. And uh, he taught me these chords.”
For “Masters Of War,” Dylan borrowed the arrangement from friend and veteran folksinger Jean Ritchie, nicknamed “the Mother of Folk.” Her version of “Nottanum Town,” from which “Masters of War” gets its melody, had been passed down through her family for generations. “He might not have realized when he wrote the song…he might have thought he made it up,” Ritchie tells Howard Sounes in his book “Down The Highway.” “A lot of times people do that…I don’t think he was out to try to rob anybody.” After she heard heard it, Ritchie asked to be credited for the arrangement on the album. Instead, Dylan’s people paid her $5,000 to settle and agree not to make any further claims. And that’s why you don’t see her name on Bobdylan.com today.
Dylan might have declassified it as an “anti-war song”, but he’s never turned his back on its bold stance, and has played the song from here to Hiroshima. In 1991, he performed it live at the Grammy Awards, turning in a version so obscured by Dylan-isms that most didn’t recognize it. That’s the night where he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award with the following words: “My daddy once said to me, Son, it is possible for you to be so defiled in this world that your own mother and father will abandon you. If that happens, God will believe in your ability to mend your ways.” Dylan also had the balls to play it for the cadets during his West Point gig in 1990.
Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder nailed the song at the all-star MSG Bobfest celebration in 1992, striking a symbolic blow for the new generation of rockers amongst all the baby boomer legends. That same night, Sinead O’Connor waged war of a different kind, singing an impromptu version of Bob Marley’s “War” (“everywhere is war,”) the antithesis (in some ways) of this song. Soft rocker and “American Pie” writer Don McClean actually covers “Masters of War,” on the banjo, on his live 1976 Solo album. Hip hop band the Roots completely rewired it for a new generation (and a new war) at a New York Dylan tribute in 2006, working in snatches of Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” and “The Star Spangled Banner.” They blew the crowd away.
In 2004, Secret Service agents investigated a high school band in Boulder, Colorado after people called talk radio shows and complained about the band’s intention to perform “Masters of War” at a school talent show, claiming the lyrics called for the assassination of President Bush. Now that’s a powerful song.