Looking back, the very existence of Bob Dylan really is quite extraordinary. He seemed to arrive at the perfect time, at a moment in which the world was on the cusp of cultural upheaval. With his unique blend of folk music, he was able to capture the zeitgeist of the age with the precision of a man who had lived countless lifetimes. And yet, when he wrote ‘Masters Of War’, he was a mere boy of 21.
How someone so young was able to provide such insight into American culture is almost beyond explanation. Perhaps it was because, as a descendent of Jewish immigrants, he was always made to feel like an outsider. By being treated as ever so slightly other by the rest of society, perhaps he was able to interrogate that society’s failings with a keener eye.
Then again, perhaps his skills as a social commentator were the result of his voracious reading. When he first moved to New York, Dylan was homeless and slept on his friend’s floors, devouring all the books he could get his hands on. It’s possible that, by sampling the literature of so many young people, he was touched by the burgeoning mood of the age. At that time, it was still in utero but it would soon take its first steps towards the light.
Whatever the reason, there’s one thing that is abundantly clear: Dylan’s music was one of the most important catalysts for the worldwide political awakening of the 1960s. The decade saw the birth of a new type of political action, one based not on military force but on psychological renewal. The counterculture of the 1960s said that the only way to change the world was to change people’s minds, and one of the most effective vehicles for doing that was music.
In a recent interview, Led Zeppelin’s god-like frontman Robert Plant described the way in which Dylan’s music affected his political outlook. Plant remembered how, on listening to Dylan’s 1963 track ‘Masters of War’, he discovered an artist using music as a weapon in the “this machine kills fascists” tradition. “Something happened when Dylan arrived,” Plant began. “I had to grapple with what he was talking about. His music referenced Woody Guthrie, Richard and Mimi Farina, Reverend Gary Davis, Dave Van Ronk and all these great American artists I knew nothing about. He was absorbing the details of America and bringing it out without any reservation at all, and ignited a social conscience that is spectacular.”
In an age where radical politics was still associated with violent revolution, Dylan’s liberal outlook heralded an alternative. Plant went on to describe how the messages in Dylan’s songs acted like a shot to the heart: “In these Anglo-Saxon lands, we could only gawp, because we didn’t know about the conditions he was singing about. Dylan was the first one to say: ‘hello, reality’. I knew that I had to get rid of the winkle-pickers and get the sandals on quick.”
In ‘Masters Of War’, Dylan condemns the US government as being just that, masters of war. However, Dylan always maintained that it was not an anti-war song. In a television interview in 2001, he said: “It’s not an anti-war song. It’s speaking against what Eisenhower was calling a military-industrial complex as he was making his exit from the presidency. That spirit was in the air, and I picked it up.”
Despite this, the song was quickly adopted as an unofficial anthem of a country riling against a foreign war in Vietnam. Lines like: “You play with my world/ Like it’s your little toy/ You put a gun in my hand/ And you hide from my eyes” had a profound impact on the advocates of the peace movement. Ironically, however, it’s also one of the only Dylan songs which openly encourages violence, with lines such as: “And I hope you die, and your death will come soon.”
For someone who became a symbol of the civil rights moment, it certainly feels like something of a contradiction. But Bob Dylan never claimed to be an advocate of peaceful protest or even the peace moment as a whole. He was just a young man who became intimately bound to a society in transition. Of ‘Masters Of War’, Dylan said: “I’ve never really written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one. The song is a sort of striking out, a reaction to the last straw, a feeling of what can you do?”