Masters of War

by Bob Schwartz

Freewheelin' Bob Dylan
There may be a few too many Bob Dylan albums, depending on whether you are a completist/fanatic. The number of albums, somewhere north of infinity, is supplemented this week by the release of The Bootleg Series, Vol. 10 – Another Self Portrait (1969-1971). On the other hand, this is what you would expect, and some would hope for, from a continuingly productive artist with a long and storied career.

Bob Dylan may be old school—maybe ancient school—but there are at least two things to note. For a time, he was one of the two most significant pop music artists in the world, matched only by The Beatles. And while his free form musical poetry combining the personal and the social may have owed something to folk music and beatnik coffee houses, it was something new, and is strangely part of the soil in which rap grew.

Masters of War is a track from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963. As a recording, it couldn’t be farther from current slick production values. It is a young guy strumming a guitar, singing in a way that then and now is pretty idiosyncratic. But like a lot of the great Dylan works, it grabs you and won’t let you go.

It is a song about war, but it isn’t an anti-war song; listening to it reveals that, and Dylan later confirmed it. It is about the people behind the curtain, the people on the battlefield, the people caught in the crossfire. War is a serious business, but it appears we are chronically not taking it seriously enough. Maybe we have to fight sometimes, maybe we don’t, but for God’s sake, let’s put our motives on the table for everyone to see, and let’s act, if we have to, from the deepest reaches of heart and mind. Elsewise, Dylan says, even Jesus would never forgive what you do.

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
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin’
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it’s your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten the triggers
For the others to fire
Then you set back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
As young people’s blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain’t worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I’m young
You might say I’m unlearned
But there’s one thing I know
Though I’m younger than you
Even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

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