Masters Of War

Album: The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963)
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  • Dylan wrote this song in criticism of American leaders and officials. It was meant as a realization of the times, what war was coming to and why war became a pointless act, rather than a means of defense. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Eric - Melbourne, FL
  • In the liner notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Dylan says of "Masters Of War": "I've never really written anything like that before. I don't sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn't help it with this one. The song is a soft of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?" >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Derek - Sarnia, Canada
  • Dylan would be labelled a conspiracy theorist if he released this song today. In it, he bitterly points the finger at hidden "masters" who manufacture wars for profit and gain.

    You play with my world
    Like it's your little toy

    You put a gun in my hand
    And you hide from my eyes

    The song condemns these masters of war, but Dylan doesn't consider it an "anti-war" song. He's speaking more specifically to the world's power brokers and the way (according to him and many others) they manufacture international conflict.

    In 2001, he told USA Today that it "is not an antiwar 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 event Dylan referred to in that quote occurred on January 17, 1961, a little under two years before Dylan released the song. On that day, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 34th president of the United States, gave his farewell speech from the Oval Office. It was his final Address to the Nation. In the speech, he discussed the Cold War and warned, "We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military–industrial complex."

    The statement had a powerful impact on the counterculture opposing the Vietnam War, and remained a fixture among those antiwar advocates in the US. Whether or not a person views Eisenhower's statement as valid or a "conspiracy theory" often depends largely on how the political affiliation of the sitting president complies or conflicts with the affiliation of the person viewing it.
  • Dylan was no stranger to protest songs at this point in his career, but this one stood out because of its unrestrained vitriol, especially in the last verse, in which Dylan viciously calls for the death of the "men behind desks" who feed the global war machine.

    Though he's needled folks with his songs plenty of times through his career, Dylan never before or since sang words so openly violent.

    And I hope you die, and your death will come soon
    I'll follow your casket in the pale afternoon
    And I will watch as you lay in your deathbed
    And I'll stay over your tomb till I'm sure that you're dead
  • Dylan recorded the song on April 23, 1963, at Studio A of Columbia Recording Studios. He did six takes of the song; the third one is the one on the album.
  • Dylan performed the song at the Grammy Awards on February 20, 1991, during the first Gulf War when the Unites States invaded Iraq. He picked up a Lifetime Achievement Award at the ceremony.
  • Judy Collins recorded the song in 1963 and played it throughout her career. Leon Russell and Ed Sheeran also covered it, and Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready performed it at the Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992.
  • Dylan performed this song at the United States Military Academy in 1990, but didn't sing the last verse.

Comments: 19

  • Al from Houston, TxI love all kinds of music and with the advent of internet radio, then Pandora and Spotify, etc. I was able to listen to music I always wished had $ to buy albums/cassettes/CDs way back when (am 50+ now). One day I ran across a Rolling Stone mag top 100 albums list so decided to queue these up one at time on spotify. I had not really listened to much Dylan over the years, although I knew and appreciated the standards. So The Free Wheelin' Bob Dylan was like number 98 on this list. It's hard to put into words how blown away I was listening to this album, especially this song. How could a guy this young put together words and and music like this? The simple, melodic, almost hypnotic background fits perfectly with the powerful words that come out of that man's mouth with such ease, seemingly. The entire album is such a joy to listen too and can see why the Beatles were such huge fans. It's my favorite album now and listen to it regularly, but it was this song that really grabbed my attention and never let it go.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn January 21st 1963, Bob Dylan performs "Masters of War" at Gerde's Folk City in NYC's Greenwich Village...
    Exactly five years later on January 21st, 1968 at the Olympic Studios in London, England Jimi Hendrix would record "All Along the Watchtower", the Stone's Brian Jones and Traffic's Dave Mason played on the recording. Jimi's version would be his biggest hit in the U.S.A., it peaked at #20 {for 2 weeks} on October 13th, 1968...
    And on January 21st, 1974 Bob Dylan was a guest of Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter at a party at the Governor's Mansion in Atlanta, GA.
  • Edward from Birmingham, AlOh, yes, and I agree with Michael. Best line in the song: "Even Jesus would never forgive what you've done".
  • Edward from Birmingham, AlOne of my favorites. The best version is the Maria Maldaur version. Download it and you'll see. And yes, it is clearly about both the politicians and the military-industrial complex. These days, in many cases,
    you really cannot even separate them.
  • Timothy from Latham, Ny“Masters of War”: An Analysis
    The early 1960’s were a very scary time for Americans. America was deeply involved in the Cold War, which made many American citizens frightened and fed up with their nation because many believed there was no reason to be involved in such a conflict as the one that was currently at large. It was obvious someone should step-up and do something to show some rebellion against the country. That is where Bob Dylan’s song, “Masters of War” took the stage. It shook the nation with its fierce and angry tone against the “military industrial complex,” saying that it was out of control by declaring a useless war and then not owning up to the problems it was causing. “Masters of War” is a powerful protest song against the government and the military.
    Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” is one of the most significant protest songs of all time. The song was released on the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963 along with other great songs. He was only in his early twenties when he wrote this striking song-which is a pretty immature age to have written such a powerful song as “Masters of War.” Dylan was very knowledgeable about the conflicting time period he was living in, and wrote an amazing song to prove it. The time period was a terrifying one: the Cold War was in full effect and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and the USSR to the verge of nuclear disaster. (Esch 1).
    President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military industrial complex in a farewell address in February, 1961. This remark is one of the sparks that ignited Dylan’s rage and the release of the song. Decades after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and “Masters of War,” Dylan said, “It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military industrial complex.” (Lynskey 56). Dylan also wrote this song to criticize American leaders and the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned of. “It was meant as a realization of the times, what war was coming to and why war became a pointless act, rather than a means of defense.” (Masters… 1). As you can see, Bob Dylan was very young when this remarkable song was written and released. His senses were heightened with the alarming, warring times of 1960’s and he had an emotional climax with the conflicts that were taking place around him. The lyrics of song prove just how disgusted he really was with the “war profiteers.”
    Bob Dylan’s outrage with American officials is obvious in the lyrics of the song “Masters of War.” Dylan’s anger is directed toward the politicians and war profiteers of the 1960s. In one of his lines he declares, “You fasten all the triggers for the others to fire, then you set back and watch when the death count gets higher.” (Bob…1). When I hear this verse, I picture two people playing chess, and using the pawns as sacrifices for greater moves. They use the pieces at their own disposal because they are replaceable, just like Dylan believes the “Masters of War” are doing to American citizens. I also believe that because the politicians and high ranking military officials have the power to authorize war, and when and how it will occur, this is who the comments are directed at. Bob Dylan is so enraged with anger and hatred that he refers “them” to Jesus, saying that “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do.” (Bob…2). “The rage is a way of catharsis, a way of getting temporary relief from the heavy feeling of impotence that affects many who cannot understand a civilization which juggles its own means for oblivion and calls that performance an act toward peace.” (Hammond 2). In one verse of the song, Dylan exclaims “I hope that you die, and your death’ll come soon. I’ll watch while you’re lowered down to your deathbed, and I’ll stand over your grave ‘til I’m sure that you’re dead.” (Bob…2). In response to this part of the song, Dylan said, “I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one.” (Masters…1). Bob Dylan’s annoyance with the military industrial complex and American officials really shines through in “Masters of War.” Although this song was directed towards the rapidly increasing conflicts of the 1960s, it is still applauded because of its importance and activism to this day.
    Dylan’s “Masters of War” is a musical masterpiece. People’s jaws still drop when they listen to the song today, an extensive fifty years after it was released. Greil Marcus, a music journalist and American author says it best, “It’s the elegance of the melody and the extremism of the words that attract people-the way the song does go too far, to the limits of free speech….[it] gives people permission to go that far.” (Lynskey 57). The outrage in this song is almost acceptable, although it wishes someone to their death. “Dylan took off the gloves to deliver a most extreme anti-militarist protest.” (Esch 1). Although, stated by Bob Dylan himself, it wasn’t a protest song. Dylan declared, “This here ain’t a protest song or anything like that, ‘cause I don’t write protest songs…I’m just writing it as something to be said, for somebody, by somebody.” (Lynskey 55). Dylan still receives praise for this song to this day. In 1991, after receiving a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys, he performed “Masters of War,” this was when the United States was in the middle of the Persian Gulf War. That is the beauty of this song. Because you can still relate this song to previous wars and conflicts, and the war going on right now, not just the Cold War. This is why the song is so powerful. Because of the limits of freedom of speech used in the song, and the hateful words carefully put throughout it.
    Dylan’s “Masters of War” shook the nation with its aggressive and brutal attitude toward American politicians and the military industrial complex. It was a song that was simply “a reaction to the last straw, a soft of striking out, a feeling of what can you do?” as said by Dylan himself in the linear notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. (Masters…1). The 1960s were a tough time for Americans, with the Soviet Union and the United States deep in conflict, many Americans were angry with their nation for the conflict that the U.S. was involved in. The song was a reaction to what the current events were at the time, and who was causing them.
  • Ken from Philadelphia, PaWith due respect, this song is most definitely aimed at the military industrial complex... the people who make the bombs and guns and bullets and, then, buy off politicians to ensure enormous defense budgets and, yes, wars. It is the military industrial complex who wants to convince everybody that a "world war can be won" because otherwise, there is no need to buy more bullets, tanks and guns. We would just need to keep the missles fueled and end the world whenever the Russians started something. Obviously, when this song was written the military industrial complex was already pushing to increase U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and they won out to our great and lasting regret.

    Having said that, nobody can express anger in a song better than Bob Dylan, and never was he angrier than in singing this song... and with good reason.
  • Dusty from St. Louis, Momountains cover of this song with ozzy osbourne is pretty kick ass. i saw the masters of war tour with joe satriani and i loved it. This and Hurricane are my two favorite dylan songs
  • Jon from Avon, CtRoger Taylor version is much better
  • Nady from Adelaide, AustraliaThis song gives me the chilly willys, especially the last line. Gotta love it!
  • Joey from Melbourne, AustraliaThe chilling vocals to this song never cease to amaze me, i agree that it may not be directly solely at political leaders, the era was during the cold war and post world war 1 and 2 thus the globe, namely the US, had a seemlingly ludacris approach to warfare, as if it was inevitable, that is to say that the process of humans killing other humans in combat was talked about in such a manner it make one sick. Thus, Bob Dylan, i feel, wrote this song in protest to that approach, and condeming anyone who does not dismiss to concept of warfare as inhumane.
  • Michael from Pittsburgh, PaGreat version of this song on the 30 Year celebration album by Eddie Vedder and Mike Macready. Unplugged and angry in the great Dylan tradition.

    Of course the song is about the "military industrial complex" and not simply the political leaders of the times.

    My favorite line is "Even Jesus would never forgive what you've done".
  • Andy from Boston, MaAdrian, how can you not think that this song is not directed at "political" leaders thats all it mentions is you you you, who are they then if not goverment?
  • Nick from Smyrna, TnI thought Mr. Tambourine Man was Thompsons favorite song. Thats the one he wanted played at his funeral.
  • Matthew from Milford, MaThis song was part of my "Voices of Vietnam" project during my sophomore year of high school, along with "War" by Edwin Starr" and "Born in the U.S.A" by Bruce Springsteen.
  • The Last Dj from Hell.a., CaDylan once said that some of the biggest criminals in the world were those that stood by and did nothing when a great injust was being done. On a more random note, this was Hunter S. Thompson's favorite Dylan song. Dylan once gave Hunter a harmonica or as I like to call it "harmoni-kye."
  • Oren from Toronto, CanadaIgnoring any faux symbolism listeners can extract from this song, it is a steady beat, whose lyrics do justice to Dylan's work and the time period.
  • Izzy from Perth, Australiai think its aimed at chicken and its effects on the human race
  • Jimi from Detroit , MiI think it is aimed at those who would make war.

    "Like Judas of old
    You lie and deceive
    A world war can be won"

    During the Regean era consevatives pushed the notion that a nucluer war was winnable. Some people now say Regean wanted the USSR to think he was mad.
    But the also say the U.S. spending bankrupted the USSR, but how do you bankrupt a communist? Workers were paid a token about of rubles (which were worthless not even valid outside the USSR) It you got a nice house or more meat it was because you had connections, you didn't buy it.
  • Adrian from Wellington, New Zealand I don't think the song is directed at "political" leaders necessarily, moreso at the military-industrial complex; defense contractors, and those who profit directly from war as an activity in and of itself. The government is still encumbered with moral and political considerations in terms of having a reason to go to war, their motivations have to be enunciated in broader moral and defensive terms, whereas defense contractors etc are parasitic; war is their business, they don't need to be concerned with the basis of war itself.
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