Bob Dylan “Masters of War” (Singer-Songwriter) [Music/Track]

Year: 1963
Genre: Singer-Songwriter/Rock
From: The album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan

I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

Few protest songs have made such an impact on me when it comes to protest songs that doesn’t deal with racism such as Bob Dylans “Masters of War” from 1963. He takes a real stab at the military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned about in his famous speech in 1961. He doesn’t hold any punches, and I love his harsh tone, especially in the last verse:

And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And 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

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Recordings and performances

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. 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. The Witmark version was included on The Bootleg Series Vol. 9 – The Witmark Demos: 1962–1964 in October 2010. 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.

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. 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, 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. 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.

Early Live Recording

This is possibly the earliest live recording of “Maters Of War” in existence, most likely taped on February 8, 1963; it was recorded for his second LP on April 24. This is from a vinyl bootleg made by Trademark Of Quality titled “Burn Some More.” The original source of this track is what collectors refer to as “The Banjo Tape.” No one knows exactly where this recording took place, but one can assume it was in New York City.


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?”

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.

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.

President Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex in 1961

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.”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.

One of the most popular cover versions of the song

Basis of melody

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.

“Masters of War”

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the 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 all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the 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
That 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 will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And 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