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The years roll on and still singing Bob Dylan’s Masters of War

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Anzac Day, and a nation turns its eyes upon something, anything, that gives it reason to believe in an identity that is both heroic and enduring.

A century ago, WWI was entering its last six months, after four years of catastrophic death and destruction, and a French village, Villers-Bretonneux, was reclaimed by Australian soldiers from the Germans, and tied to that identity.

At war’s end, 16 million people were dead, including 60,000 Australians. Memorials sprouted in country towns and major cities, the inscribed flowers of the dead. Then the second and larger war came and then others, and more names were added. In our remembering, for all the dead and those who served, is placed our identity – as if war is the essence of the soul, as if before and without it, we were unformed, a chrysalis waiting, for something, anything, to begin the transformation.

Its anger is righteous, and unheard of in popular/folk music. Bob Dylan wished death, hoped for death, of the people who initiated, made and profited from arms manufacturing.

How lucky then were we.

How lucky then was the world that humankind has had the ingenuity to evolve methods of mass murder. How lucky are we to have the arms manufacturers. Their labour toils under all flags. There are no frontiers. The First World War saw the emergence of an industry into a necessity. The makers became the masters of war.

Saul David, professor of War Studies at the University of Birmingham, wrote for the BBC, that by 1917, “thanks to the new munitions factories and the women that worked in them, the British Empire was supplying more than 50 million shells a year. By the end of the war, the British Army alone had fired 170 million shells.”

France increased its daily output of 75mm shells “from 4000 in October 1914 to 151,000 in June 1916, and that of 155mm shells from 235 to 17,000”. The industry was now both monster and saviour to nations. In WWII, “the Allies dropped 3.4 million tonnes of bombs across Europe and Asia. In Vietnam, an incredible seven million tonnes were dropped on Indo-China’’.

The arms trade is a colossus. Amnesty International says $US1.7 trillion was spent on the military worldwide in 2016. And now, we, too want a piece of the action. The Turnbull government aims to become a major weapons exporter in the next 10 years. We, too, want to become a master of war. But we would never say that. The men of WWI did not die or be wounded for their descendants to manufacture new versions of the weapons that killed them.

Surely not. But that was 100 years ago, and the past is another country.

Even 50 years ago seems like another country.

In what seems several lifetimes ago, and yet is just one, a songwriter, 21 years old, set not a match alight but turned a flamethrower on to those merchants of death: the arms makers.

The songwriter was Bob Dylan. The song was Masters of War. On April 23, 1963, Dylan recorded it in a New York studio, having debuted it in the room of Broadside magazine – with him was Suze Rotolo (who drew a sketch to go with it as the cover of the magazine in February, 1963, featuring the song) and then first performed it publicly at Gerde’s Folk City that month.


Masters of War was, and still is, in its simplicity of structure (acoustic guitar, solo voice) and strength of moral purpose, a masterpiece. Forget virtuosity, forget jaw-dropping technique. This is all ye need to know (to take from Keats) that beauty can speak to truth and truth becomes beauty.

In its restrained, relentless flow of scathing denunciation and scorn, it is, in its way, a creation of beauty. Its anger is righteous, and unheard of, literally, in popular/folk music. Dylan wished death, hoped for death, of the people who initiated, made and profited from arms manufacturing.

Introducing the song in 1963 (, Dylan joked, “Some people say this one is very naïve. I do actually hope the masters of war die tomorrow.”

Part of it reads:

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 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.

Dylan has played the song in concert nearly 900 times. On the liner notes to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, on which it appears, he says:  “I’ve never really written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it in this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?”

He wrote it in London in late 1962, its melody based on the surreal traditional folk song Nottamun Town. Which seems fitting. The world was being convulsed with Cold War tensions. The US and the Soviet Union were threatening to annihilate each other. It was a time of military madness.

The year before, US President Dwight Eisenhower gave his farewell address to the nation. He said in part, “A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction…

“This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual —is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognise the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society.”

And so it has come to pass. The warning of a confluence of dire consequences came to nothing, and so has Dylan’s words, a classic example of Auden’s dictum that “poetry makes nothing happen’’ from his poem on the death of W.B. Yeats:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives

In the valley of its making where executives

Would never want to tamper, flows on south

From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,

Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,

A way of happening, a mouth.

And yet. Masters of War has lived on, survived past the deaths of arms manufacturers through the decades. It may be naïve, nay it is. But it has that power no bullet can wound, the power to transcend the times, to cause the spirit to rise up and shout, this is wrong. This is not the world we want.

What a revolution it would be, if instead of jets screaming across the skies on Wednesday, Masters of War were sung on the parades while the ghosts of past battles marched past. What a victory.


3 responses to “The years roll on and still singing Bob Dylan’s Masters of War

  1. This song is not just classic, it is iconic, at least amongst aging impotent nerds like me. One of my favourite passwords derives from it, so I recall it nearly every day. I sing it to myself in the long silences of motorcycle touring. Dylan (and Eisenhower) was so right. Maybe one day, just once, art will trump politics and money. Unless we’re all dead.

  2. Thanks Warwick. Great article. The song was a favourite during the anti Vietnam War campaign. Certainly could do with more air time now.

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