A Dylan Cover a Day: Masters of War

by Tony Attwood

I’m sure everyone knows that “Masters of War” originated with the English folk song Nottaman Town.    The earliest recording of that song that I can lay my hands on is by Jean Ritchie in 1954 but the version on the internet is not particularly fine – and indeed the recording I found jumps at one point.  But if you want to go back it is here.   However thankfully a later recording by the same artist is available.

And of course singers still venture back to our musical history to reconsider the work in contemporary terms.   Here’s a rather inventive approach by Jowe Head.  I’m not sure I would want to go back and play it again – I rather feel the vocalist tries too hard – but in terms of re-imagining the song it is most certainly worthy of note.

Judy Collins was one of the first to make a cover version of the Dylan song, and used the gentle repeating string-based accompaniment which very slowly grows.  It is a rather obvious effect to use, but nonetheless incredibly effective, simply because it is such a simple idea, and one that is used with delicacy.

Indeed it is very hard to build a piece that slowly and make it work – although of course the exquisite lyrics help enormously, but it still needs the beautiful musicianship that we have here.

But there is a problem, as we can see here – because we all know the lyrics so well, and the impetus to let the song build is so strong, not much else is allowed to enter the song.   When the acoustic guitar has reached a powerful almost frenetic level, where does one go next?

Don McLean took the song as slowly as anyone could – at least in his on stage solo rendition – it is a very brave try indeed.  I’m not at all sure it works for me completely because of that old problem of us all knowing every syllable so well, but it is certainly an interesting approach.

And of course, eventually, the idea started to catch on that this did not have to be one singer and one instrument.  Valérie Lagrange tried this but perhaps discovered that lots of pounding of the beat and voice emphasis isn’t quite enough.

One of the most interesting points from a musical point of view is how reluctant subsequent artists have been to change the time signature.   The song is written in what musicians would call 6/8 – two groups of three beats which allows two words in every line to have a strong accent, followed by six beats of music but no vocals.

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs

While Pearl Jam keep the essence of that, after the first verse the accents change so that it also feels at times like a conventional four beats in a bar.  It’s a clever trick – change, but not quite a change.  Definitely worth a listen.

Of course, as ever there is the problem that we all know the song so well that it is hard to retain the essence of the song and its frightening message and yet do something different.  However thankfully musicians tend to be an inventive lot, and they will keep trying, and just sometimes, something rather exciting and chilling emerges.   For that accolade, I’d offer the Swedish singer/songwriter Daniel Östersjö.

And I would add a PS, for even after playing through multiple versions of the song, it still sends a chill through me.   Maybe because I heard the song first of all in my teens, grew up knowing that I was an only child, only to find in recent years that all this time I had an older brother who I never knew about, while also having my own children and grandchildren…. maybe all that makes the song still so important to me on a personal level as well as appreciating it as a great work of art.  “Fear to bring children” indeed.

The Dylan Cover a Day series

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