by Taigen Dan Leighton
Workingman’s Blues #2
“Workingman’s Blues #2” from “Modern Times” is one of Bob Dylan’s most beautiful songs. Among other things, it expresses concern about the murderous effects of poverty and inequality caused by social systems, with references to the masters of war. The song opens:
There's an evenin' haze settlin' over the town Starlight by the edge of the creek The buyin' power of the proletariat's gone down Money's gettin' shallow and weak Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory It's a new path that we trod They say low wages are a reality If we want to compete abroad
There may not be another rock song with the word proletariat in it. The Rolling Stones did sing of the salt of the earth, John Lennon sang of a working-class hero, and many other fine political rock songs deal with class or war. In “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Bob Dylan effectively mourns the downfall of the working class, and the complete loss of a living wage for many honest workers who can no longer manage in the new reality. He adds a plea for peace and love:
My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf Come sit down on my knee You are dearer to me than myself As you yourself can see Then comes a reference to Woody Guthrie riding the rails during the Depression: I’m listening to the steel rails hum Got both eyes tight shut Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from Creeping its way into my gut
Dylan later expresses personal sadness that his previous efforts at encouraging change have been futile, a concern he repeats a few times in this period. He sings,
Sometimes no one wants what we got. Sometimes you can't give it away.
More lines evoke the effect of poverty, enforced by the masters of war, or perhaps by police states:
They burned my barn, and they stole my horse I can't save a dime I got to be careful, I don't want to be forced Into a life of continual crime. … All across the peaceful sacred fields They will lay you low They'll break your horns and slash you with steel
Then Dylan adds, with a sense of self-irony:
I say it so it must be so.
Before the final chorus, the last verse closes with a line about those who profit from inequality, echoing his closing damnation of the “Masters of War”:
Some people never worked a day in their life Don't know what work even means
Richard Thomas points out numbers of lines in “Workingman’s Blues #2” that Dylan transforms from Ovid’s later period, when he was exiled by Augustus, who had converted the Roman republic into an empire. We might see this context as reinforcing Dylan’s concern about imperialist oppression. More is going on in this song, as in all of Dylan’s later non-explicit subversive songs. The poignant “Workingman’s Blues #2” evokes memories of old lovers and friends, the fading of such memories, and the ultimate imminence of all loss in the touching line, “No man, no woman knows/ The hour that sorrow will come.”
Another line from “Modern Times,” from “Ain’t Talkin,” warns of the threat of the oppressors, “They will crush you with wealth and power, Every waking moment you could crack.”
The Early Roman Kings Back in the U.S.A.
For “Tempest” from 2012, Richard Thomas discusses how Dylan has adapted Homer’s Odyssey, using its lines and its themes of journeying and homecoming. Dylan has identified with the figure of Odysseus as trickster, traveler, adventurer, and storyteller, including having a statue of Odysseus’s patron goddess Athena (the Roman Minerva) onstage during his recent tours. “Early Roman Kings” from “Tempest” further connects Rome and the American empire, and the arrogance of all imperial aggression. The song begins:
All the early Roman kings In their sharkskin suits Bow ties and buttons High top boots Drivin’ the spikes in Blazin’ the rails Nailed in their coffins In top hats and tails
From their garb, these early kings of industry are like Dylan’s 19th century Americans, not two thousand-year-old Romans wearing togas.
They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers They buy and they sell They destroyed your city They’ll destroy you as well
Like the masters of war, they are profiteers from mass destruction. The ruin of cities also descends on individuals personally. These Roman kings brag,
I can strip you of life Strip you of breath Ship you down To the house of death
These lines serve as a general threat to the audience. The modern context is confirmed in the following:
I was up on black mountain The day Detroit fell They killed ‘em all off And they sent ‘em to hell
The song closes
I’ve had my fun I’ve had my flings Gonna shake em all down Like the early Roman kings
This evokes the casual cruelty of both these early Roman kings and all the masters of war.
As Richard Thomas explicates, “Pay in Blood,” also from “Tempest,” directly echoes the vow by Odysseus when he finally reaches home to force his wife’s suitors besieging Ithaca to pay in blood. Here are a few lines from the song that additionally speak to themes from “Masters of War.” First, the song’s refrain:
I pay in blood, but not my own
Emperors and presidents always pay with others’ blood, mostly that of young soldiers and those they conquer, never with their own. Later in the song:
Our nation must be saved and freed
Oppressors always claim to be acting for the good of the nation, with God on our side. Then:
You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?
This sounds like “Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness?” in “Masters of War.
 I am citing the original lyrics from the “Modern Times” album. Since the album Dylan has revised some of the lyrics including the last two verses. See http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 238-241.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 254-265.