Bob Dylan’s Ongoing Critique of Social Injustice and Masters of War Part 2

by Taigen Dan Leighton

This is part 2 of a much-expanded version of a talk presented at the World of Bob Dylan International Symposium, May 30 to June 2, 2019, at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.

Part 1 appears here:  Bob Dylan’s Ongoing Critique of Social Injustice and Masters of War

Dylan’s War Masters through the 80s

While not his predominate mode throughout his career, Dylan’s responses to societal injustice and oppression have reappeared in a number of his songs up to the present. Dylan’s lyrics from works in the 80s continue to reference social injustice or masters of war.

In 1981 in the title song from the album “Shot of Love” he says, “I seen the kingdoms of this world and it’s making me feel afraid,”[19] warning of the dangers of empires, large or small. “License to Kill” from “Infidels” in 1983 includes the lines, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please/ And if things don’t change soon, he will. … Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused/ And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill/ All he believes are his eyes/ And his eyes, they just tell him lies.”

Dylan warns that people have been controlled to foster destruction, through war and environmental degradation. The chorus includes a neighbor’s plea to end unfettered murder, “There’s a woman on my block, Sitting there in a cold chill, She say who gonna take away his license to kill?”

The song “Clean Cut Kid” from 1985 in “Empire Burlesque” has the chorus, “He was a clean-cut kid/ But they made a killer out of him/ That’s what they did.” The song includes the lines, “They said, ‘Listen boy, you’re just a pup’/ They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up.” Here Dylan protests the lasting impacts of U.S. involvement in the disastrous, failed Vietnam War on its veterans. In 1989 “Political World” from “Oh Mercy” begins, “We live in a political world/ Love don’t have any place/ We’re living in times where men commit crimes/ And crime don’t have a face.” Dylan equates politics with hidden, faceless criminality. Later in the song is the line, “Life is in mirrors, death disappears/ Up the steps into the nearest bank.” The perpetrators of injustice and the masters of war are continuously profiteering from their cruelty and misdeeds.

Dylan’s album “Under the Red Sky” came out in 1990, seven years after U2’s album “Under a Blood Red Sky,” which included “Sunday Bloody Sunday” about British troops shooting and killing unarmed civil rights protesters in Ireland in 1972, and “New Year’s Day” about the Polish Solidarity movement.

Dylan’s “Under the Red Sky” was mostly scorned critically for simplistic lyrics supposedly unworthy of Dylan.[20] However, many of the songs in this album have the feel of nursery rhymes, often seen traditionally as harboring hidden political meaning. For example, “Baa Baa Black Sheep is about the medieval wool tax, imposed in the 13th Century by King Edward I”; “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary may be about Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and concerns the torture and murder of Protestants”; and Pop Goes The Weasel is an apparently nonsensical rhyme that, upon subsequent inspection, reveals itself to in fact be about poverty, pawnbroking, the minimum wage.”[21]

Even when not traceable to historical contexts, nursery rhymes often have dark, sinister climaxes. In the title song “Under the Red Sky,” Dylan sings that “One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie,” reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel from the Brothers Grimm, but with a bad ending.

At least a couple of the songs in “Under the Red Sky” directly echo the concerns of “Masters of War.” The song “Unbelievable” includes the following lines:

It’s undeniable what they’d have you to think
It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink
They said it was the land of milk and honey
Now they say it’s the land of money
Who ever thought they could ever make that stick
It’s unbelievable you can get this rich this quick

Following up on “Political World,” this song highlights the ubiquitous nature of the cynical, mercenary manipulations that society’s masters use to control ordinary people. The last song on “Under the Red Sky” is the highly foreboding “Cat’s in the Well” including the lines:

The cat’s in the well and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace

Endless wars have been unrelenting throughout the world since the Vietnam War, as persistent as Dylan’s never-ending tour. Dylan offers a lament, an acknowledgement of grief in the face of bloody disgrace.

The cat’s in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump
The cat’s in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump
Back alley Sally is doing the American jump

Dylan doesn’t shy away from the U.S. responsibility, citing “the American jump.” This conjures up Mustang Sally and the other kids on the American bandstand, forced to jump to the tunes of the masters of war, and perhaps also recalling parachute jumps by U.S. secret ops throughout non-privileged countries.

The cat’s in the well and the servant is at the door
The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war

The servants proceed, drunk with the promise of spoils of war.

The cat’s in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
The cat’s in the well, leaves are starting to fall
Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all

Dylan does not call for marching in the street in protest. But he grieves over the workings of the masters of war, and he pleads for Oh Mercy.

Masked and Anonymous, and Imperial Cruelty

In 2003 the fascinating film “Masked and Anonymous” was released, written by and starring Bob Dylan as Jack Fate, a rock singer just released from prison. It depicts a cruel, corrupt American empire amid widespread urban poverty and a threat of revolution, along with police brutality and martial law.

Interspersed with fine performances of Dylan songs, a fundraising concert featuring Jack Fate is being organized, supposedly to encourage peace and reconciliation. With a stellar cast, and amid family rivalries and palace intrigue, the fall and rise of empires persists. In the closing scene Jack Fate, Dylan himself with grim stoic demeanor, rides back to prison in the back of a bus.

Theme Time Radio and Subversive Songs in Hiding

From May 2006 to April 2009 Bob Dylan served as Disc Jockey and commentator for the excellent weekly Theme Time Radio Hour show, with selections of songs fitting into a wide range of colorful themes.[22]

Dylan proves his great expertise as a musicologist of the history of American popular music. He had also done so with his many albums of cover songs, from his debut “Bob Dylan” in 1962 with all of its masterful versions of blues songs, through the highly under-appreciated “Self Portrait” in 1970, to “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong” in 1992 and 1993, to the recent “Shadows in the Night”, “Fallen Angels”, and “Triplicate” in 2015, 2016, and 2017, with standards previously covered by Frank Sinatra. In his Theme Time Radio Hour commentaries Dylan also disarmingly expressed aspects of his own personality, with wise-cracks, anecdotes about musicians he had encountered, bad puns, and occasional personal foibles.

In his Theme Time Radio Hour show, season 1, episode 45, the Trains episode, broadcast around 2007, Dylan reveals his later approach to exposing injustices. Dylan includes in the episode an Anti-Vietnam War song. I was active myself in the movement against the ruinous Vietnam War, including being arrested in the week-long Columbia University building occupations as a student in 1968. I thought I knew all the Vietnam protest songs, but Dylan mentions one I did not know about. Dylan introduces the song with the striking declaration, “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.” In other words, the best protest songs are the ones that are not explicit, like most of Dylan’s recent subversive songs. Of course, in his early 60s folk songs he was not trying to obscure his protest perspective.

Dylan continues on the Theme Time Trains episode, “Here’s a song that became number One in 1966. According to the authors they wrote it as a protest to the Vietnam War. They had to disguise that fact to get it recorded and on the radio, but they say it’s about a guy that gets drafted and goes to fight in the war. The train is taking him to an army base, and he knows he may die in Vietnam. At the end of the song he sings ‘And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.’” Then Dylan introduces the familiar Monkees song, “Last Train to Clarksville.”

How many people ever knew that the Monkees did an anti-war song?[23] How many people realize how much of Dylan’s original songwriting of the past twenty years are subversive social critiques?

Dylan’s Recent Protest Songs and the Roman Empire

A couple of Dylan’s recent protest or subversive songs are continuations of the message of “Masters of War,” specifically, “Workingman’s Blues #2” from “Modern Times” in 2006, and “Early Roman Kings” from “Tempest” in 2012. The latter song exemplifies Dylan’s use of the Classical realm to portray indirectly modern inequities.

Dylan’s longtime connection to the Roman world goes¯ back to Robert Zimmerman in the Hibbing High School Latin Club. His early interest in Rome and classic culture proceeded through Dylan’s early 60s visits to Rome, to the 1971 song “When I Paint My Masterpiece” that opens on the streets of Rome, and Dylan noted this interest in his book Chronicles. Dylan speaks in Chronicles of the maturing and decay of classic societies, of appreciating Thucydides, of reading about Alexander’s conquests, and he compares Virginia slave plantations and Cuban sugar plantations to elite rule in the Roman Republic.[24] Dylan has even said that if he had to do it all over again he would “probably teach Roman history or theology.”[25] ¯

Richard Thomas delineates various occasional references to Rome and Roman poets throughout Dylan’s career, then masterfully details the special importance of classical references in Dylan’s brilliant series of works starting with “Time Out of Mind” in 1997, continuing through “Love and Theft,” “Modern Times,” “Together Through Life,” and “Tempest.”

This includes specific lines and themes Dylan takes from Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. Thomas explicates how Dylan’s references to Roman history depict the current American empire as echoing the period under Augustus Caesar when Rome morphed into an empire with the power of Augustus absolute, despite retaining the pretense of a republic.[26]

Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues” from “Love and Theft” in 2001 includes references from Virgil that correlate Roman civil wars with the Vietnam War. Via lines from a novel about a yakuza gangster the song also references Japanese imperial soldiers from World War II, and via references from Mark Twain the American Civil War as well. In an interview about “Love and Theft” Dylan said that, “the album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation. … [ideals] across the ages.”

Dylan has long had a particular interest and affinity for the American Civil War, and nineteenth century America in general. In “Honest with Me,” also from “Love and Theft” Dylan sings sardonically, speaking as one of the warmongers, “I’m here to create the new imperial empire/ I’m going to do whatever circumstances require.”[27] Throughout these lyrics and images, Dylan traces and explores much of the long history and dynamics of imperialism and militarism, the background of the masters of war in his own time.

A lot is happening in the songs from this period. Some of them continue the concerns of “Masters of War” and Dylan’s other related songs of social criticism. As in numbers of his earlier songs, in recent albums especially Dylan speaks alternately in first person or third person from differing point of view, both as oppressed victim and gangster brutalizer. This is part of how the subversive aspects of these songs may not be apparent for those not fully paying attention.


[19]  See also:

[20]  See:; and

[21]  Clemency Burton-Hill, “Goosey Goosey Gander may be about religious persecution, while Lucy Locket is about 18th Century prostitutes”

[22]  See:

[23]  For the Theme Time Radio Hour Trains episode, see: “Last Train to Clarksville” was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.

[24]  Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 35, 36, 37, 85, 89.

[25]  Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, p. 52.

[26]  Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 4, 56-57.

[27]  All the foregoing on “Love and Theft” are from Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 195-203.

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