Song of the Day #4,713: ‘Masters of War (Live)’ – Bob Dylan

Here’s a live version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War,’ recorded in 1963 at Town Hall in New York City. This song appears in Martin Scorsese’s 2005 documentary No Direction Home and later on the Bootleg Series release of that film’s soundtrack.

Those who read my criticism of Jackson Browne’s overtly political songs might wonder why I’m not similarly dismissive of this track. And it’s a fair question.

The easiest answer is that ‘Masters of War’ is just a better song. Dylan was particularly adept at these simple but profound protest songs, and it’s tough to stack anybody against him in that regard.

There’s also the question of simplicity, which I raised during the Jackson Browne weeks. ‘Masters of War’ (in both its studio recording and this live one) features just Dylan’s vocals and guitar, focusing attention on the words and the seething anger behind them. When you add synths, processed drums, jazzy electric guitar and background singers to a political song, you lose a little of that anger with each additional layer. It starts to feel less like a protest and more like a product.

Finally, I would not count ‘Masters of War,’ or any of Dylan’s overtly political songs, among my favorites of his. I might give him more of a pass on this front, but this isn’t the music of his I treasure. Give me the more personal, poetic songs from Blood on the Tracks, Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, or Love and Theft any day over the protest songs.

[Verse 1]
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

[Verse 2]
You that never done nothing
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

[Verse 3]
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

[Verse 4]
You fasten all the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
While 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

[Verse 5]
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

[Verse 6]
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

[Verse 7]
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

[Verse 8]
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I will 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

7 thoughts on “Song of the Day #4,713: ‘Masters of War (Live)’ – Bob Dylan

  1. Dana Gallup says:

    Yes, it is a fair question indeed! And suggesting “it’s a better song” as the “easiest” answer is rather rationalized, subjective and lame.

    When you were lambasting Browne’s political songs, you called out and specifically highlighted the overtly “on the nose” lyrics. Hard to get more overt and on the nose than “Masters of War!”

    And, frankly, if it is the lyrical content that so irritates you, one would think accompanying those lyrics with less simple, more interesting and more instrument driven better produced music would sufficiently distract from the lyrics.

    Let me offer an alternative easy answer: You have built up a pet peeve against Browne for decades as to his political songs that you can’t seem to shake, while you have such love for Dylan that you will be soft in your criticism no matter what he produces – even monotone covers of friggin’ Christmas music and standards! – though at least you will concede that these are not your “favorite” of Dylan’s work.

    “Masters of War” is indeed a great song, but so is “Lives in the Balance” by Browne — and the music, instruments and production of the latter make it all the better in my opinion.

    • Amy says:

      I agree with Clay about the simple arrangement and production being a more apt arrangement for songs like these, forcing the listener to engage in the ideas and not get lost in a synth groove. I find the only overtly political songs I love tend to be satiric, and nobody does that better than Randy Newman.

    • Clay says:

      I certainly have a soft spot for Dylan, but I had no preconceived notion about Jackson Browne. I honestly had never heard any of his political songs before the deep dive. My only exposure to him was through I’m Alive, Running On Empty, and the hits.

  2. Peg says:

    Perfect choice for Memorial Day weekend.

    • Clay says:

      Great point, Peg, and one I didn’t even realize when writing this post in advance of the long weekend!

  3. Amy says:

    How do you feel about Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin ‘bout a Revolution,” which I’d count as one of my favorite of the overtly political variety of songs. The type I’m more partial to are narrative songs, such as Don Henley’s “A Month of Sunday’s,” which often make the political far more compelling by leaning into the personal.

    • Clay says:

      I love ‘Talkin’ About a Revolution.’ I think it comes back to the simple production and the authenticity of Chapman’s voice and perspective.

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