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

by Taigen Dan Leighton

This is 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.

Bob Dylan’s period of writing protest songs has been relegated conventionally to the early 1960s before he went electric. But actually, Dylan has continued to invoke ongoing concern and moral indignation against oppression throughout his career. He has movingly engaged a remarkably wide variety of themes and genres in his music and poetry. However, his critiques of social injustice, including his opposition to war and militarism, have persisted within his work right up to the present.

Dylan’s later critiques of social injustice have often been missed, as he intentionally has obscured the subversive nature of his songs in his recent approaches. He reveals this explicitly in one of his Theme Time Radio Hour episodes in the mid 2000s. A prime example of Dylan’s indirect commentary is his increasing use in recent years of his long-time interest, going back to high school, of Roman history and culture. In the albums “Modern Times” and “Tempest,” the Roman Empire serves as an analogue for the transgressions of the modern American empire.

Dylan’s Early Protest Songs

Dylan’s numerous famous 1960s protest songs that explicitly call out systemic injustice and oppression include “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and a bit later “George Jackson” in 1971 and “Hurricane” in 1975, among many others. These songs highlight economic exploitation, inequality, and racism.

“A Pawn in their Game” tells of the manipulation of the prejudices of poor whites by self-serving politicians. The song “Hollis Brown” depicts the tragedy of agribusiness destroying family farms, leading the desperate Hollis Brown to shoot and kill his family and himself. “Hattie Carroll” describes the casual cruelty of a murderous young man with political connections, and the so-called justice system that awards him a mere six-month sentence. William Zantzinger went on to a life as a harsh slumlord. But his true sentence was the infamy based on Dylan’s song that followed him the rest of his life, including in his 2009 obituary, for example, “William Zantzinger, convicted of killing Hattie Carroll and denounced in Bob Dylan song, dies at 69.”[1]

Masters of War

In considering Dylan’s ongoing social protest, I will focus onMasters of War,” which remains the strongest anti-war song ever written, just as relevant today as when Dylan wrote it. Recalling some key lines, the song begins:

Come you masters of war
You that build all the guns
You that build the death planes
You that build the big bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks

The powerful weapons industry was behind the scenes of national politics when Dylan wrote this. But it is much less hidden now, celebrated openly by our government with strong influence over military and foreign policy. Our most recent former president’s first official foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia for the avowed purpose of selling American weapons systems to their dictatorship. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing genocidal bombing against Yemen could not continue without United States weapons profiteers.

A little further Dylan sings:

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world

This is a current issue, as massive climate breakdown as well as endless wars with increased nuclear proliferation and threats, along with the Covid pandemic and possible future pandemics endanger the possibility of any human futures. Economic challenges for many, with massive student debt, continues to encourage the birth rate to fall among Americans. With the threat to the global future, many young people are deciding not to have children.

The song closes:

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.[2]

With all of Dylan’s put-down songs, this must be his most damning line, openly hoping for death for the war merchants who strongly encourage the global increase of new wars with deadlier weapons.

Voices of the Prophets

Bob Dylan’s songs responding to social injustice often function like the words of Old Testament prophets. Abraham Heschel says about these prophets, “The prophet is not only a prophet. He is also a poet, preacher, patriot, statesman, social critic, moralist.”[3]

For Dylan we must also add, this prophet is a song and dance man. All of Dylan’s prophetic songs of social criticism are complex and multifaceted. Heschel discusses how the prophets speak against pride, arrogance, cruelty, and violence, and support the humble. The prophets especially opposed masters of war. “The prophets were the first men in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil. Hosea condemned militarism as idolatrous.”[4] Beyond the cruelties that occur in peace, “Noise, fury, tumult are usually associated with battles of war, when nation seeks to destroy nation. … To the ear of the prophet, … Woe to him who builds a town with blood, and founds a city on iniquity.”[5]

Dylan borrows this line in “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in “John Wesley Harding.” Heschel adds, “The denunciation of violence committed by private individuals applied a millionfold to the brutal wars of aggression waged by insatiable and arrogant empires.”[6] Bob Dylan’s ongoing opposition to the masters of war and to the oppression of empires fully expresses the tradition and teachings of the Old Testament prophets, and exemplifies Dylan’s persona as a prophet.

Eisenhower’s Warning, JFK Responses, and Dylan’s Tom Paine Speech

Dylan first performed “Masters of War” in February 1963, just two years and three weeks after President Eisenhower’s warning speech about the military industrial complex at the end of his presidency. Eisenhower warned that, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual—is felt [everywhere]. . . .  [in] the very structure of our society. 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 rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”[7] This was the context in which Bob Dylan sang presciently against the weapons merchants and warmongers. Eisenhower gave his speech the very week that young Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City.[8]

JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, was authored by James Douglass, a Catholic Worker who speaks sympathetically of John Kennedy’s Catholic social morality and his growing courage facing the militarists.[9]

Douglass documents meticulously and thoroughly how some of the hardline warmongers in Kennedy’s administration, Dylan’s masters of war, considered JFK a traitor for not allowing them to wage nuclear war against Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. They were further enraged that Kennedy thereafter publicly campaigned for peace and an end to the Cold War, notably starting with his speech at American University in June 1963.

Kennedy’s peace campaign was gaining popular support at the time of his assassination. Douglass further asserts, with detailed documentation, that JFK was planning to withdraw troops from Vietnam upon returning from Dallas; that he had been working with Russian Premier Khrushchev to end the cold war, secretly from militarist hard-liners on both sides; and that members of the U.S. military establishment were directly involved in the conspiracy that assassinated Kennedy.[10] All of this is worth noting in connection with Bob Dylan in relation to Dylan’s infamous speech December 13, 1963, exactly three weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, upon his receiving the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.[11]

The Biblical prophets were willing to say or do anything to get their points across. Dylan’s Tom Paine speech is often considered a drunken ramble and was vigorously booed because of Dylan’s sympathetic mention of Lee Harvey Oswald. Reading the speech now and Dylan’s undated follow-up letter to the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, they seem eloquent and illuminating.

Dylan spoke in the talk about the integrity of the young, and especially in the follow-up letter about not wanting to be controlled by the expectations of others, a familiar complaint from Dylan about not being labeled, either as solely a protest singer or otherwise. In his talk Dylan mocked all the old bald heads in the audience and especially extolled the young people who had gone to Cuba, despite travel bans. Ironically, according to extensive documentation from Douglass, at the moment of Kennedy’s assassination a French correspondent who was an unofficial envoy from Kennedy was having lunch together with Fidel Castro in Cuba, with JFK’s death terminating days of informal negotiations.[12]

In Dylan’s speech, after saying he accepted the award on behalf of young friends who went to Cuba, he said, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, … I saw some of myself in him.” Loud booing and hissing ensued.

In his follow-up letter Dylan added that he had intended to refute the claim that we are always all to blame, as he took on personal empathy for Oswald.[13] Dylan conveyed his personal connection with all downtrodden beings, a theme he expressed eloquently in his song first performed five months later, “Chimes of Freedom” honoring every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. It happened that the FBI had a file on Bob Dylan, partly because of the travel to Cuba and leftist associations of Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo, but also with FBI references to Dylan’s comments in this speech to the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.[14]

The Pied Pipers in Prison

Even after Dylan went electric and started writing complex symbolist lyrics rather than overt songs of protest, the new material included elements of societal critique, along with comments on interpersonal conflict and injustice.

His highly celebrated album “Highway 61 Revisited” from 1965 has many examples. In the title song a bored drunken gambler wants to create our next world war, and a promoter says it could be very easily done. In “Tombstone Blues” Dylan sings about Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the chamber of commerce. The bombastic commander-in-chief sneers at John the Baptist that “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” heralding ongoing aggressions. The king of the Philistines “puts the pied pipers in prison,” presumably those preaching peace and love, then fattens the slaves and sends them out to the jungle, an obvious reference to Vietnam. Further, “the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul to the old folks’ home and the college” as all institutions serve profiteers propagandizing old and young alike.

“Desolation Row” begins “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” a reference to the open celebration of the lynching of black people in the Minnesota of Dylan’s youth. Along with mentions of the blind commissioner and the riot squad are colorful scenes of a range of hypocrisies and oppression, such as the insurance men who round up everyone who know more than they do, and make sure that nobody can escape from Desolation Row.

West Point, Unwinnable Wars, and the Threat of Catastrophe

Dylan’s deep concern with the effects of the masters of war has clearly persisted throughout his career. He has performed the song 884 times, performing only fourteen songs more frequently. He sang it most recently, as I write, in October 2016.[15] In October 1990, Dylan even performed “Masters of War” at West Point, at the Eisenhower Hall Theater.

The “Rolling Stone” magazine review of that concert said, “He was exceptionally comfortable on this stage, smiling and dancing and singing even his angriest songs with no hint of irony or contempt. … Dylan has become so willfully perverse, so completely unreadable, that even playing ‘Masters of War’ may have been a coincidence (although the fact that he opened his next show, at New York City’s Beacon Theater, with a quick, instrumental version of ‘The Marines’ Hymn’ might indicate that he knew exactly what he was doing).”[16] Four months later at the Grammy Awards in February 1991, Dylan accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award and performed “Masters of War”; it was during the first Gulf War.

“Masters of War” is still highly relevant, with major current influence on the United States government and media from the large weapons manufacturers. The United States has many hundreds of military bases all around the world, many more outside its borders than all other countries put together. Our military budget is massive, estimated at a trillion dollars a year, with bi-partisan support for sixty percent of the U.S. budget going to the military-industrial complex.

The Pentagon Papers documented that several presidential administrations and their generals knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable and lied about it. The recent Afghanistan Papers from the Washington Post has confirmed the same about the two decades Afghanistan War that has brought massive devastation to the whole Mideast region. This war secretly was known to be unwinnable by administrations from both parties.[17]

Moreover, we are now proceeding with a new nuclear arms race, more expensive and much more dangerous than in the Cold War around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Dylan’s 1963 “Talking World War III Blues.”

In his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg says, “For over fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been, like the disasters of  Chernobyl, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, Fukushima Daiichi, and before these, World War I, a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infinitely greater than any of these. And that is still true today. No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. And insane.”[18]

[1]  In the L.A. Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-zantzinger10-2009jan10-story.html.

[2]   All lyrics of Bob Dylan songs are from: http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/, unless otherwise specified.

[3]  Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperPerennial, 2001; first published Harper & Row, 1962), p. xxii.

[4]  Heschel, The Prophets, p. 212.

[5]  Habakkuk, 2:11-12.

[6]  Heschel, The Prophets, pp. 205-206. See also Seth Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (New York: Scribner, 2012).

[7]  James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (New York: Touchstone, A division of Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 136-137.

[8]  Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), pp. 318-319.

[9]  Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable.

[10]  Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable. Just reading through Douglass’s introductory Chronology, pp. xxi-xxxi is quite compelling and persuasive.

[11]  See: http://www.daysofthecrazy-wild.com/watch-listen-bob-dylans-infamous-1963-tom-paine-award-speech/.

[12]  Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pp. 84-90.

[13]  http://www.daysofthecrazy-wild.com/watch-listen-bob-dylans-infamous-1963-tom-paine-award-speech/2/

[14]  “FBI Tracking of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo Foreshadowed Future Abuses,” https://truthout.org/articles/fbi-tracking-of-bob-dylan-and-suze-rotolo-foreshadowed-future-abuses/

[15]  http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/

[16]  See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-plays-west-point-245933/.

[17]  See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/

[18]  See Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 20.

The series continues…

In case you missed it:

Bob Dylan and Mythologies

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1 Response to Bob Dylan’s Ongoing Critique of Social Injustice and Masters of War

  1. Susan Teague says:

    I was a flowerchild in the summer of 1965 and hitch hiked with my friends from Cape Cod to the Rhode Island Folk Festival to hear you and watch you and Joan Baez sing together “Where have all the Flowers Gone”…Your words and music that helped to start the changes and social protests that helped to end the Vietnam war and saved thousands of lives still echo in my head and heart today. Thank you for your music, words and work to teach peace. Happy Birthday! We love you Bob Dylan!

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