Bob Dylan

Masters of War

Song Review by

This blistering, acerbic protest song against war profiteers exposed Dylan's heightened moral sensibility and established him as the most venomous folksinger around. It was a scary time: the cold war was in full swing and the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union to the verge of nuclear disaster. President Eisenhower had warned of the dangers of the military industrial complex, and desperate times called for desperate songs. Here Dylan took off the gloves to deliver a most extreme anti-militarist protest. Through a timeless modal folk melody (borrowed from the English folk song "Nottamun Town") grafted onto a minimalist acoustic guitar strum, Dylan exuded a raw primal howl of moral violation against those who "build the big bombs." The singer can "see through" their masks of propriety and moral superiority, and shows them up for the cowardly, power-mongering, money-grabbing hypocrites they are. The righteous anger is about as extreme as it can get: the masters are equated to Judas Iscariot; they make people afraid of bringing children into the world. In one verse Dylan deals with the counterarguments likely to be heard from the enemy: that he's too young and ignorant and has no right to speak out of turn. He dispels the criticisms with a swift stroke: "there's one thing I know/even Jesus would never/forgive what you do." The final verse concludes with a wicked curse, "I hope that you'll die/and your death'll come soon," and ends with the singer standing over their grave 'til he's sure that they're dead. Dylan had, even at this early stage, mastered the art of the "finger pointing" song. This was not folk music for mamby-pambies.

Dylan revisited the song on his 1984 live album Real Live, this time revved up with a full rock band treatment, and the tune continued appearing on set lists from time to time. An indication of the song's importance in the Dylan canon is that he performed it at the Grammy Awards ceremony in 1991 upon receiving a lifetime achievement award (the Persian Gulf War was in full swing at the time). Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder delivered a stirring, stripped-down cover of the song at The Bob Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration in 1993. Eleven years later, Mojo magazine selected it as the Top Protest Song of all time in a special issue.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan 1963 Columbia / Legacy 4:38
Biograph 1985 Columbia 4:32
Freewheelin' Bob Dylan/Times They Are A-Changin'/Another Side of Bob Dylan 1995 Columbia / Sony Music Distribution 4:34
Masterpieces 1998 Columbia 4:31
No Image 2001 Sony Music Distribution 4:34
Bob Dylan [Limited Edition Hybrid SACD Set] 2003 Legacy 4:38
The Collection, Vol. 2: Freewheelin' Bob Dylan/Times They Are A-Changin'/Another Side 2005 Legacy / Sony Music Distribution 4:38
Dylan 2007 Legacy 4:33
...Next Stop Is Vietnam: The War on Record 1961-2008 2010
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 4:34
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 9: The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964 2010 Columbia / Legacy / Sony Music Entertainment 4:23
The Original Mono Recordings 2010 Columbia / Sony Music 4:34
The Complete Album Collection, Vol. 1 2013 Columbia Records / Sony Music 6:35
Troubadours: Folk and the Roots of American Music, Pt. 2 2014
Various Artists
Bear Family Records 4:34
No Image Gunsmoke Records
The Legendary Broadcasts: 1985 - 1993 Bob Dylan Archive 3:48