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music friday: bob dylan, "masters of war"

In his farewell speech on leaving the presidency in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower uttered these now-famous words: “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.”

When Eisenhower spoke, Bob Dylan was 19 years old, having just arrived in New York City from Minnesota. By 1962, he had recorded his first album. In early 1963, he recorded “Masters of War” for the first time (it appeared in the folk magazine Broadside). Later in 1963, the song turned up on Dylan’s second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. Dylan has said that the song was directed at the military-industrial complex described by Eisenhower.

During the Cold War, the lyrics were clear:

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

The closing verse was even more on target:

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

Many protest songs become quickly dated, mostly because the specificity of the issues loses power over time. “Masters of War”, sadly, is still relevant today.

Many artists have covered “Masters of War” over the year. Eddie Vedder’s version gets a lot of attention, and the Roots do some interesting things with it. Meanwhile, Dylan himself may have made the final statement on the song when he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1991 Grammys: