The lyrics and the music: Masters of War

An index to the current series appearing on this website appears on the home page.    A list of the previous articles in this series appears at the end.


“The Lyrics and the Music” is a series by Tony Attwood which tries to find out what happens when one reviews a Dylan song not primarily as a set of lyrics, but as a piece of music which includes lyrics.   An updated list of previous articles in the series is given at the end.

Masters of War

There is a pulsating relentless feel about the music of Masters of War which grabs the listener by throat and won’t let go.    The guitar part is unvarying, there is only one chord, only the last line offers any variation, and that only slight – and with a sense of desperation.   The music is in fact utterly relentless is delivering the message that is in the words.

And more, verse after verse continues: there is no inter-verse instrumental break, apart from an occasional extra bar, which Bob can be forgiven as the music pounds on without any chance of us (or him) pausing for breath.

The message is clear there is no escape: it is as relentless as the build up for war is relentless.  Even the end won’t give up – he is not just talking about defeating the Masters of War he doesn’t even trust them to stay dead once they are buried.

There is also the extra power put into the third line of each verse with its strong accent at the end

  • You that build the death planes
  • You play with my world
  • A world war can be won
  • Then you sit back and watch
  • Fear to bring children
  • You might say that I’m young
  • Will it buy you forgiveness
  • I’ll follow your casket

These are all challenging lines which Dylan punches out so we cannot miss them, or the importance of the words.

Not surprisingly for such a powerful forceful song that resonated so much with the times, Bob played the song in concerts no less than on 884 occasions across 53 years (at least according to the official site).

The last recording we have from the Never Ending Tour comes from 2010 and I found myself wanting to hear how on earth Bob could retain the menace all those years later but without playing the song exactly as he did when it was first recorded.

In fact he does it masterfully, primarily by adding one or two beats after each line.   It is a simple but incredibly effective musical device.  We all know the song so well, we all know what happens even if we are not recognizing the way the beats work, and here is something totally upsetting to that rhythmic pattern, but without in any way destroying the message.  In fact the message is enhanced.   As is the repeat of the last verse.

And of course the song is as utterly relevant today as it was which is why Bob kept that power right the way through to the final performances.

Indeed it could not be any other way.  It pounds into the heart just as it pounds into the brain.

The songs reviewed from the music plus lyrics viewpoint…

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