Masters of War


Masters of War was not included on the original pressing of the Freewheelin’ album. Dylan said that he made the last minute changes because he felt the album needed more “finger-pointing songs” because that’s where “his head was” at the time.

The song still resonates. As Paul Williams wrote, “it [Masters of War] has weathered very well – unfortunately.” The anger and outrage against the military-industrial complex that profits from war is as well-placed today as it was when the song was written. Even more so.

The song was written not long after Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation on January 17, 1961. In that address Eisenhower warned that the new reliance on for-profit corporations to support the military could have a corruptive influence.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Could Dylan have had this speech in mind when he wrote Masters? It seems unlikely that a man of his young age would. Yet, the lyric points to the same danger.

The tune is based on the old folk song Nottamun Town. Tod Harvey, author of The Formative Bob Dylan, points out that Dylan’s version is similar to Jean Ritchie’s version In fact, Ritchie sued Dylan for copyright violation. She was unsuccessful.

Nottamun Town is a nonsense song – its lyrics are meaningless. It has its roots in ancient nursery rhymes. Nursery rhymes have made frequent appearances in Dylan’s work over the years, especially on Under the Red Sky, released in 1990. Check out the lyrics of Cats in the Well.

Dylan still performs the song with regularity. He can be counted on to trot it out whenever a major global conflict erupts. He played it at the 1991 Grammy Awards during the first Gulf War. He played it during the Kosovo conflict in 1999. He played it during his 2003 tour during the Iraq War. He also played an acoustic version (for the first time since the sixties) at his concert at Hiroshima in 1994. In most recent versions he leaves out the verse that contains the line “Even Jesus would never forgive what you do”. Perhaps due to his conversion to Christianity during the late seventies?

Nice cover by The Staple Singers.

Don McLean   (writer of American Pie). The spoken introduction is from a speech by Martin Niemoller,  “First They Came….”

And now for something completely different 🙂


Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death’ll come soon
I will follow your casket
In the pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand o’er your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead

2 thoughts on “Masters of War”

  1. From a post  on Facebook group  Edlis Cafe regarding Nottamun Town.

    “A piece of folksong surrealism,” is how Jean describes “Nottamun Town,” dreamlike in its disorienting juxtapositions: “Ten thousand stood around me, and yet I’s alone….” The family could trace their knowledge of the song back to Crockett Ritchie; according to Uncle Jason, “‘hit’s might neart sure to be about Nottingham in Old England.'”

    The song was likely a product of the early mummers’ plays, in which local actors would blacken their faces and turn their clothing inside out to escape recognition. Bob Dylan was not only influenced by the song’s jumble of mixed-up, fantastical lyrics… but also melodically, as he borrowed the tune for “Masters of War”.

    Lenny Kaye, Liner Notes for “O Love Is Teasin — Anglo-American Mountain Balladry,” Elektra 9 60402-1-U, 1985


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