Masters of War

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
"Masters of War"
Song by Bob Dylan
from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
ReleasedMay 27, 1963
RecordedApril 24, 1963
LabelColumbia Records
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]

Leon Russell's 1970 version retains Dylan's lyric but is sung to the melody of "The Star Spangled Banner".[14]

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.[15]

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.[16]


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.[17]

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.[18]

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."[19] 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.[20]

Other cultural references[edit]

  • American contemporary classical composer John Corigliano set the song's lyrics to music in his 2000 song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man. Like the other six Dylan songs in the cycle, Corigliano's version is musically unrelated to the original.[21]
  • The Sage Francis song "Hey Bobby" references "Masters of War" with the lyrics "Hey Bobby, the masters are back, and they're up to no good just like the old days. They played dead when you stood over their graves, Bobby, they played dead when you stood over their graves."[22][23]
  • The Staple Singers' 1964 version of "Masters of War" was used as the soundtrack in the promotional trailer for Sony's Resistance 3 video game in 2010.[24]

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. ^
  15. ^ "Listen to The Roots' Epic Cover of Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"". 2017-11-07. Retrieved 2021-04-10.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Gill 1999, p. 26
  18. ^ Harvey 2001, p. 71
  19. ^ "Dwight D. Eisenhower Farewell Address". USA Presidents. Archived from the original on May 13, 2008. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  20. ^ Gundersen, Edna (2001-09-10). "Dylan is positively on top of his game". USAToday. Retrieved 2011-01-27.
  21. ^ Corigliano, John. "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan (Composer Note)". G. Schirmer Inc. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  22. ^ "Sage Francis: 'Hey Bobby' Lyrics". LyricsBox. Retrieved February 16, 2011.
  23. ^ "Noize Suppressor: 'Master of War' Lyrics". Retrieved February 16, 2019.
  24. ^ Sony Computer Entertainment Inc. (2010). "Official Resistance 3 Teaser". YouTube. Retrieved February 16, 2011.


External links[edit]