Masters of War

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"Masters of War"
Song by Bob Dylan
from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
ReleasedMay 27, 1963
RecordedApril 24, 1963
Composer(s)Traditional/Jean Ritchie
Lyricist(s)Bob Dylan

"Masters of War" is a song by Bob Dylan, written over the winter of 1962–63 and released on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in the spring of 1963.[1] The song's melody was adapted from the traditional "Nottamun Town."[2] Dylan's lyrics are a protest against the Cold War nuclear arms build-up of the early 1960s.[3]

Basis of melody[edit]

With many of his early songs, Dylan adapted or "borrowed" melodies from traditional songs. In the case of "Nottamun Town," however, the arrangement was by veteran folksinger Jean Ritchie. Unknown to Dylan, the song had been in Ritchie's family for generations, and she wanted a writing credit for her arrangement. In a legal settlement, Dylan's lawyers paid Ritchie $5,000 against any further claims.[4]

Recordings and performances[edit]

Dylan first recorded "Masters of War" in January 1963 for Broadside magazine, which published the lyrics and music on the cover of its February issue.[5][6] The song was also taped in the basement of Gerde's Folk City in February and for Dylan's music publisher, M. Witmark & Sons, in March.[7] The Witmark version was included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964 in October 2010.[8] The Freewheelin' version was recorded on April 24, 1963, by Columbia Records; in addition to that album, it has also appeared on compilation albums such as Masterpieces in 1978 and Biograph in 1985.[9][10]

During 1963, Dylan performed the song at major concerts, including his performances at New York City's Town Hall on April 12, Brandeis University's Brandeis Folk Festival on May 10, and Carnegie Hall on October 26. He also played it at an afternoon workshop at his first Newport Folk Festival appearance on July 27.[5][7] The Town Hall performance was released on The Bootleg Series Vol. 7: No Direction Home in August 2005, the Brandeis version on Live in Concert at Brandeis University 10/05/1963 in October 2010,[10] and the Carnegie Hall version on Live 1962–1966: Rare Performances From The Copyright Collections in July 2018. A live, electric version, recorded at London's Wembley Stadium in 1984, was included on Dylan's 1985 Real Live European tour album.[11][12] He performed the song during the 1991 Grammy Awards ceremony where he received a Lifetime Achievement Award. After 1963's performances, Dylan did not play an acoustic version of "Masters of War" for 30 years, until his Hiroshima concert in Japan in 1994.[13]

American folk revival musician Pete Seeger covered the song on his 1965 album Strangers And Cousins. Recorded live in Japan, the cover features Seeger playing an acoustic guitar, with each lyric followed by a spoken translation of the lyric by a Japanese translator.[14] Seeger and Dylan had a close personal and professional relationship, with Dylan citing Seeger as a source of inspiration in both musical and political spheres. Additionally, they both participated in anti-war activism during the 50s and 60s, and Seeger shared many of the pacifist values expressed by Dylan in “Masters of War".[15] The choice to cover the song in Japan links back to Seegers involvement with activism against Japanese-American internment camps. His activism led to an FBI investigation, and he was later placed on an FBI blacklist of "communist" entertainers.[16] These issues also held significance in Seegers personal life; his wife,Toshi Seeger, was the daughter of a Japanese political exile fleeing statism in Shōwa Japan.[17] 

Leon Russell's 1970 version retains Dylan's lyric but is sung to the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner."[18]

Hip hop group The Roots performed an epic 14-minute version of the song that was considered by critics to be the high point of a Dylan-tribute concert in 2007.[19]

In October 2020, Canadian rock band Billy Talent uploaded a cover of the song to YouTube, with a message from drummer, Aaron Solowoniuk, urging American viewers to vote in the 2020 United States presidential election.[20]


In the album notes to The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Nat Hentoff wrote that Dylan startled himself with this song, and quotes Dylan saying: "I've never 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 sort of striking out... a feeling of what can you do?"[3]

Critic Andy Gill described the song as "the bluntest condemnation in Dylan's songbook, a torrent of plain speaking pitched at a level that even the objects of its bile might understand it." Gill points out that when the song was published in Broadside magazine in February 1963, it was accompanied by drawings by Suze Rotolo, Dylan's girlfriend at the time, which depicted a man carving up the world with a knife and fork, while a hungry family forlornly looks on.[21]

According to Todd Harvey, in this song Dylan "allows the listener no opportunity to see the issue from the masters' eyes. 'I' and 'you' are clearly established and 'you' are clearly wrong. The repetitive text and accompaniment's droning single harmony work in tandem to drive home relentlessly the singer's perspective." Harvey notes that Dylan transforms "Nottamun Town," which has absurdly nonsensical words (a naked drummer accompanies a royal procession "with his heels in his bosom") into a confrontational political song; Dylan's writing entered a new phase—harsh, and fitting with the times.[22]

On January 17, 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his farewell address from the Oval Office. In this speech, he warned that "we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex."[23] In an interview, published in USA Today on September 10, 2001, Dylan linked his song to Eisenhower's speech, saying:

"Masters of War"… is supposed to be a pacifistic song against war. 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.[24]

Other cultural references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Sounes, Down the Highway: Life Of Bob Dylan, p. 131
  2. ^ Nottamun Town,
  3. ^ a b Hentoff 1963
  4. ^ Sounes, Down the Highway: Life Of Bob Dylan, p. 132
  5. ^ a b Bjorner, "Still on the Road", 1963
  6. ^ Broadside, Issue 20, February 1963
  7. ^ a b Heylin, Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, p. 739
  8. ^ The Bootleg Series Volume 9—The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964. October 17, 2010. Retrieved December 6, 2010.
  9. ^ "Masters of War", Bob Dylan
  10. ^ a b Masters of War, Bob Dylan. Allmusic. Retrieved December 6, 2010.
  11. ^ Bjorner, "Still on the Road", 1994
  12. ^ Shelton, No Direction Home, pp. 490 and 534
  13. ^ Bjorner, "Still on the Road", 1963–1994
  14. ^ Pete Seeger - Strangers And Cousins, retrieved 2022-11-09
  15. ^ admin (2015-08-25). "8 Things You Didn't Know About Pete Seeger". Evergreen. Retrieved 2022-11-09.
  16. ^ Corn, David. "We obtained folk legend Pete Seeger's FBI file. Here's what it reveals". Mother Jones. Retrieved 2022-11-09.
  17. ^ Reports, Rafu (2015-12-25). "Seeger Was Investigated by FBI After Opposing JA Internment". Rafu Shimpo. Retrieved 2022-11-09.
  18. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Leon Russell Masters of War". YouTube.
  19. ^ "Listen to The Roots' Epic Cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"". 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2021-04-10.
  20. ^ Archived at Ghostarchive and the Wayback Machine: "Billy Talent - Masters Of War (Bob Dylan Cover)". YouTube.
  21. ^ Gill 1999, p. 26
  22. ^ Harvey 2001, p. 71
  23. ^ "Dwight D. Eisenhower Farewell Address". USA Presidents. Archived from the original on May 13, 2008. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  24. ^ Gundersen, Edna (2001-09-10). "Dylan is positively on top of his game". USAToday. Retrieved 2011-01-27.
  25. ^ Corigliano, John. "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (Composer Note)". G. Schirmer Inc. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  26. ^ "Sage Francis: 'Hey Bobby' Lyrics". LyricsBox. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  27. ^ "Noize Suppressor: 'Master of War' Lyrics". Retrieved February 16, 2019.
  28. ^ Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (2010). "Official Resistance 3 Teaser". YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-19. Retrieved February 16, 2011.


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