|"Masters of War"|
|Song by Bob Dylan|
|from the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan|
|Released||May 27, 1963|
|Recorded||April 24, 1963|
|The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan|
"Masters of War" is a song by Bob Dylan, written over the winter of 1962–63 and released on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan in the spring of 1963. The song's melody was adapted from the traditional "Nottamun Town". Dylan's lyrics are a protest against the Cold War nuclear arms build-up of the early 1960s.
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.
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.
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.
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.