“Masters of War”; the meaning of the music and the lyrics

Masters of War is always officially cited as being written by Dylan, but although the lyrics are totally original, as indeed is the accompaniment, the melody is not.

If one was starting from scratch in investigating this song the clue to it not being a Dylan tune comes from the fact that it is not in a major or minor key, as is (I think) every original Dylan melody, but is in the Dorian Mode.

Now what follows is the technical music stuff – if you are not into the issue of how music actually works, you might want to skip these next few paragraphs.

But to explain, in case you are interested – western music from the 16th century onwards has for the most part (at least until the avant garde of the 20th century) been written in either major or minor keys.   Even if you are not a musician you can probably recognise a piece in a minor key because to us it always sounds sad. If you want to get the feel of a major key against a minor key play C, E and G together on the piano.   Then to hear the feel of a minor key play C, E flat and G together.

Prior to the 16th century there were not just two types of scale (major and minor)  but seven, with each having its own secondary variation (which I won’t bore you with).  Two of these seven became our major and minor keys.  The rest have faded away, but one of these seven is still occasionally used: the Dorian Mode.

If you want to hear what it sounds like (apart from listening to Masters of War, or its original versions,) you can go to a piano and play the white notes from D up to the next D:

D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D

A tune created around those notes, and only those notes, is in the Dorian Mode.  Masters of War is one such tune, although what I think Dylan did on the original recording is put a capo on the guitar, so it is actually sounding three semi-tones higher.  But that doesn’t change the relationship between the notes.

OK, that’s all the technical stuff.

The song – the melody in the Dorian Mode –  is “Nottamun Town,” an ancient traditional English song, which was collected and then arranged by Jean Ritchie.  Ms Ritchie subsequently protested about Dylan’s use of the song, and appears to have reached a settlement with Dylan, which presumably means or meant she received royalties from it.

As for the lyrics of Nottamun Town, it is surreal.   What most people who have an interest in English folksong know best is the opening

As I rode out in Nottamun Town
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
Not a soul would look up, not a soul would look down
To show me the way to fair Nottamun Town

But that opening verse only gives a hint of the bizarre surrealism of the song

When I got there no one did I see
They all stood around me just looking at me
I called for a cup to drive gladness away
And stifle the dust for it rained the whole day

It carries on later

Sat down on a hard hot cold frozen stone
Ten thousand stood round me yet I was alone
I took off my hat to keep my head warm
Ten thousand was drowned that never was born

That last line sounds so Dylan that it is self-evident that he knew this song.  Indeed it spread from the English East Midlands (where I live) and where it can still be heard in folk clubs, and indeed where all the regulars know it and will join in if it is performed, across to north America.  It comes from a tradition of surreal confused words and meanings within English literature that stretches back 1000 years.

Dylan transmutes the chaotic nature of the original, perhaps launching from the “ten thousand” line into a piece about the arms industry – and about the fact that war is the game old men play with young men’s lives.

After a lifetime of knowing Masters of War, and including many years of never hearing it (but still being able to recite it line by line, even though today I can’t successfully learn the lines to the songs I write) it is as powerful as ever.  I guess for a long time in my life I just knew it too well, and with a growing family of my own it was not what I wanted to listen to.

However today, listening to it again, strangely the same single couplet comes back to haunt as it did when I first heard it.

For even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

If you’ve read my earlier commentaries you will know I am not a Christian, but I have always found that a remarkable line.  I’ve rambled on enough recently about my religious feelings, so I won’t do it again but will just say, I find that such a remarkable couplet that I have thought about many times over the years.

It is of course not the only Christian reference – there’s Judas, and “All the money you made, Will never buy back your soul,”

Of course as I have grown from a teenager and seen my own children grow and develop and have their own families nothing has changed.  The military industry is still out there.  Communism has mostly gone but Russia threatens the EU – the union members bound by the vision that an attack on one of them Ukraine, is an attack on them all.  And as the Islamic State rises (as I write this) still nothing has changed in terms of war.

And so, borrowed tune though it is, this is surely one of the most haunting songs ever written.

I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

Oh yes.

Index to songs


  1. Tony, your analysis is so thorough, It leaves me bereft of comment. “Masters of War” is not plagiarism to me. Were it not for Dylan, the melody would be unknown (to the outside world).

  2. I like your analysis. Dylan certainly listened and learned a lot of songs and styles from other folk players of the day.

  3. This song that is being analyzed is about Eisenhower preparing for what we now know as the Vietnam war. Outrage is putting it mildly. As a man who served in the military in the late sixties one cannot express in words the emotions we felt during that era.
    Unfortunately not much has changed in the 21st century. When will they ever learn?

  4. I believe it is a commentary on the military industrial complex that Eisenhower warned against during the cold war. Though, it certainly applies to Vietnam, and many subsequent wars.

  5. I have had this ong in my head for all te years since I bought “Freewheelin'” It has come to be a quite honest and clear picture of what I sense when I think of the guys who put us into uniforms, give us guns, tell us how bad the enemy is, bereaves the enemy of any human quality and sends us to go extermine him and her. And their children and parents. They are now so good at it that the song that mixes hate with agony would do well with an even higher dose of aggravation. Our “enemy” is now reduced to some target in a computer game and we can cheer everytime we have “taken out” a “target”. Well I keep getting back this song into my head when I read the news regardless of who fights whom – we send “our” best young men to extinguish lives of the enemies who are “their” best young men. Thus bereaving the world of wonderful family people, scientists, artists, innovators… The song gives the whole situation so adequately that I shiver when I close my eyes and recall the bullet holes I have seen in riddled villages, the sadness of survivors and the meaningless cheer of the braves who survived this time. So if there was a bit of change to make it would have been to add some more chillies in the soup. Thanks to Bob for having worded a clear opinion about war mongers and those who perpetuate conflict in order to make their living. When will we ever learn?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *