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
- The song with numbers in the title.
- Ain’t Talkin
- All I really want to do
- Apple Suckling and Are you Ready.
- As I went out one morning
- Ballad for a Friend
- Ballad in Plain D
- Ballad of a thin man
- Frankie Lee and Judas Priest
- The ballad of Hollis Brown
- Beyond here lies nothing
- Blind Willie McTell
- Black Crow Blues (more fun than you might recall)
- An unexpected cover of “Black Diamond Bay”
- Blowin in the wind as never before
- Bob Dylan’s Dream
- You will not believe this… 115th Dream revisited
- Boots of Spanish leather
- Born in Time
- Buckets of Rain
- Can you please crawl out your window
- Can’t wait
- Changing of the Guard
- Chimes of Freedom
- Country Pie
- Crash on the Levee
- Dark Eyes
- Dear Landlord
- Desolation Row as never ever before (twice)
- Don’t fall apart on me tonight.
- Don’t think twice
- Down along the cove
- Drifter’s Escape
- Duquesne Whistle
- Farewell Angelina
- Foot of Pride and Forever Young
- Fourth Time Around
- From a Buick 6
- Gates of Eden
- Gotta Serve Somebody
- Hard Rain’s a-gonna Fall.
- 42 Heart of Mine
- 43: High Water
- 44: Highway 61.5
- 45: Hurricane
- 46: I am a lonesome hobo
- 47: I believe in you
- 48: I contain multitudes
- 49: I don’t believe you.
- 50: I love you too much
- 51: I pity the poor immigrant.
- 52: I shall be released
- 53: I threw it all away
- 54: I want you
- 55: I was young when I left home
- 56: I’ll remember you
- 57: Idiot Wind and More idiot wind
- 58: If not for you, and a rant against prosody
- 59: A Dylan cover a Day: If you Gotta Go, please go and do something different
- 60: If you see her say hello
- 61: Dylan cover a day: I’ll be your baby tonight
- 62: I’m not there.
- 63: In the Summertime, Is your love and an amazing Isis
- 64: It ain’t me babe
- 65: It takes a lot to laugh
- 66: It’s all over now Baby Blue
- 67: It’s all right ma
- 68: Just Like a Woman
- 69: Knocking on Heaven’s Door
- 70: Lay down your weary tune
- 71: Lay Lady Lay
- 72: Dylan Cover a Day 72: Lenny Bruce
- 73: That brand new leopard skin pill box hat
- 74: Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts
- 75: Dylan Cover a Day: License to kill
- 76: Like a Rolling Stone
- 77: Love is just a four letter word
- 78: Love Sick
- 79: Maggies Farm!
- 80: Make you feel my love; a performance that made me cry.
- 81: Mama you’ve been on my mind
- 82: Man in a long black coat.