by Taigen Dan Leighton Copyright © 2020 Taigen Dan Leighton
This is a much-expanded version of a talk presented at the World of Bob Dylan
International Symposium, May 30 to June 2, 2019, at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies.
Bob Dylan’s period of writing protest songs has been relegated conventionally to the early 1960s before he went electric. But actually, Dylan has continued to invoke ongoing concern and moral indignation against oppression throughout his career. He has movingly engaged a remarkably wide variety of themes and genres in his music and poetry. However, his critiques of social injustice, including his opposition to war and militarism, have persisted within his work right up to the present.
Dylan’s later critiques of social injustice have often been missed, as he intentionally has obscured the subversive nature of his songs in his recent approaches. He reveals this explicitly in one of his Theme Time Radio Hour episodes in the mid 2000s. A prime example of Dylan’s indirect commentary is his increasing use in recent years of his long-time interest, going back to high school, of Roman history and culture. In the albums “Modern Times” and “Tempest,” the Roman Empire serves as an analogue for the transgressions of the modern American empire.
Dylan’s Early Protest Songs
Dylan’s numerous famous 1960s protest songs that explicitly call out systemic injustice and oppression include “Only a Pawn in Their Game,” “Ballad of Hollis Brown,” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and a bit later “George Jackson” in 1971 and “Hurricane” in 1975, among many others. These songs highlight economic exploitation, inequality, and racism. “A Pawn in their Game” tells of the manipulation of the prejudices of poor whites by self-serving politicians. The song “Hollis Brown” depicts the tragedy of agribusiness destroying family farms, leading the desperate Hollis Brown to shoot and kill his family and himself. “Hattie Carroll” describes the casual cruelty of a murderous young man with political connections, and the so-called justice system that awards him a mere six-month sentence. William Zantzinger went on to a life as a harsh slumlord. But his true sentence was the infamy based on Dylan’s song that followed him the rest of his life, including in his 2009 obituary, for example, “William Zantzinger, convicted of killing Hattie Carroll and denounced in Bob Dylan song, dies at 69.”
Masters of War
In considering Dylan’s ongoing social protest, I will focus on “Masters of War,” which remains the strongest anti-war song ever written, just as relevant today as when Dylan wrote it. Recalling some key lines, the song begins:
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
The powerful weapons industry was behind the scenes of national politics when Dylan wrote this. But it is much less hidden now, celebrated openly by our government with strong influence over military and foreign policy. Our most recent former president’s first official foreign trip was to Saudi Arabia for the avowed purpose of selling American weapons systems to their dictatorship. Saudi Arabia’s ongoing genocidal bombing against Yemen could not continue without United States weapons profiteers.
A little further Dylan sings:
You’ve thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
This is a current issue, as massive climate breakdown as well as endless wars with increased nuclear proliferation and threats, along with the Covid pandemic and possible future pandemics endanger the possibility of any human futures. Economic challenges for many, with massive student debt, continues to encourage the birth rate to fall among Americans. With the threat to the global future, many young people are deciding not to have children.
The song closes:
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.
With all of Dylan’s put-down songs, this must be his most damning line, openly hoping for death for the war merchants who strongly encourage the global increase of new wars with deadlier weapons.
Voices of the Prophets
Bob Dylan’s songs responding to social injustice often function like the words of Old Testament prophets. Abraham Heschel says about these prophets, “The prophet is not only a prophet. He is also a poet, preacher, patriot, statesman, social critic, moralist.” For Dylan we must also add, this prophet is a song and dance man. All of Dylan’s prophetic songs of social criticism are complex and multifaceted. Heschel discusses how the prophets speak against pride, arrogance, cruelty, and violence, and support the humble. The prophets especially opposed masters of war. “The prophets were the first men in history to regard a nation’s reliance upon force as evil. Hosea condemned militarism as idolatrous.” Beyond the cruelties that occur in peace, “Noise, fury, tumult are usually associated with battles of war, when nation seeks to destroy nation. … To the ear of the prophet, … Woe to him who builds a town with blood, and founds a city on iniquity.” Dylan borrows this line in “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” in “John Wesley Harding.” Heschel adds, “The denunciation of violence committed by private individuals applied a millionfold to the brutal wars of aggression waged by insatiable and arrogant empires.” Bob Dylan’s ongoing opposition to the masters of war and to the oppression of empires fully expresses the tradition and teachings of the Old Testament prophets, and exemplifies Dylan’s persona as a prophet.
Eisenhower’s Warning, JFK Responses, and Dylan’s Tom Paine Speech
Dylan first performed “Masters of War” in February 1963, just two years and three weeks after President Eisenhower’s warning speech about the military industrial complex at the end of his presidency. Eisenhower warned that, “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence–economic, political, even spiritual—is felt [everywhere]. . . . [in] the very structure of our society. In the councils of government we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” This was the context in which Bob Dylan sang presciently against the weapons merchants and warmongers. Eisenhower gave his speech the very week that young Bob Dylan first arrived in New York City.
JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, was authored by James Douglass, a Catholic Worker who speaks sympathetically of John Kennedy’s Catholic social morality and his growing courage facing the militarists. Douglass documents meticulously and thoroughly how some of the hardline warmongers in Kennedy’s administration, Dylan’s masters of war, considered JFK a traitor for not allowing them to wage nuclear war against Russia during the Cuban missile crisis. They were further enraged that Kennedy thereafter publicly campaigned for peace and an end to the Cold War, notably starting with his speech at American University in June 1963. Kennedy’s peace campaign was gaining popular support at the time of his assassination. Douglass further asserts, with detailed documentation, that JFK was planning to withdraw troops from Vietnam upon returning from Dallas; that he had been working with Russian Premier Khrushchev to end the cold war, secretly from militarist hard-liners on both sides; and that members of the U.S. military establishment were directly involved in the conspiracy that assassinated Kennedy. All of this is worth noting in connection with Bob Dylan in relation to Dylan’s infamous speech December 13, 1963, exactly three weeks after Kennedy’s assassination, upon his receiving the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.
The Biblical prophets were willing to say or do anything to get their points across. Dylan’s Tom Paine speech is often considered a drunken ramble and was vigorously booed because of Dylan’s sympathetic mention of Lee Harvey Oswald. Reading the speech now and Dylan’s undated follow-up letter to the Emergency Civil Liberties Union, they seem eloquent and illuminating. Dylan spoke in the talk about the integrity of the young, and especially in the follow-up letter about not wanting to be controlled by the expectations of others, a familiar complaint from Dylan about not being labeled, either as solely a protest singer or otherwise. In his talk Dylan mocked all the old bald heads in the audience and especially extolled the young people who had gone to Cuba, despite travel bans. Ironically, according to extensive documentation from Douglass, at the moment of Kennedy’s assassination a French correspondent who was an unofficial envoy from Kennedy was having lunch together with Fidel Castro in Cuba, with JFK’s death terminating days of informal negotiations.
In Dylan’s speech, after saying he accepted the award on behalf of young friends who went to Cuba, he said, “I have to be honest, I just got to be, as I got to admit that the man who shot President Kennedy, Lee Oswald, … I saw some of myself in him.” Loud booing and hissing ensued. In his follow-up letter Dylan added that he had intended to refute the claim that we are always all to blame, as he took on personal empathy for Oswald. Dylan conveyed his personal connection with all downtrodden beings, a theme he expressed eloquently in his song first performed five months later, “Chimes of Freedom” honoring every hung-up person in the whole wide universe. It happened that the FBI had a file on Bob Dylan, partly because of the travel to Cuba and leftist associations of Dylan’s girlfriend Suze Rotolo, but also with FBI references to Dylan’s comments in this speech to the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.
The Pied Pipers in Prison
Even after Dylan went electric and started writing complex symbolist lyrics rather than overt songs of protest, the new material included elements of societal critique, along with comments on interpersonal conflict and injustice. His highly celebrated album “Highway 61 Revisited” from 1965 has many examples. In the title song a bored drunken gambler wants to create our next world war, and a promoter says it could be very easily done. In “Tombstone Blues” Dylan sings about Jack the Ripper sitting at the head of the chamber of commerce. The bombastic commander-in-chief sneers at John the Baptist that “the sun’s not yellow, it’s chicken,” heralding ongoing aggressions. The king of the Philistines “puts the pied pipers in prison,” presumably those preaching peace and love, then fattens the slaves and sends them out to the jungle, an obvious reference to Vietnam. Further, “the National Bank at a profit sells road maps for the soul to the old folks’ home and the college” as all institutions serve profiteers propagandizing old and young alike. “Desolation Row” begins “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” a reference to the open celebration of the lynching of black people in the Minnesota of Dylan’s youth. Along with mentions of the blind commissioner and the riot squad are colorful scenes of a range of hypocrisies and oppression, such as the insurance men who round up everyone who know more than they do, and make sure that nobody can escape from Desolation Row.
West Point, Unwinnable Wars, and the Threat of Catastrophe
Dylan’s deep concern with the effects of the masters of war has clearly persisted throughout his career. He has performed the song 884 times, performing only fourteen songs more frequently. He sang it most recently, as I write, in October 2016. In October 1990, Dylan even performed “Masters of War” at West Point, at the Eisenhower Hall Theater. The “Rolling Stone” magazine review of that concert said, “He was exceptionally comfortable on this stage, smiling and dancing and singing even his angriest songs with no hint of irony or contempt. … Dylan has become so willfully perverse, so completely unreadable, that even playing ‘Masters of War’ may have been a coincidence (although the fact that he opened his next show, at New York City’s Beacon Theater, with a quick, instrumental version of ‘The Marines’ Hymn’ might indicate that he knew exactly what he was doing).” Four months later at the Grammy Awards in February 1991, Dylan accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award and performed “Masters of War”; it was during the first Gulf War.
“Masters of War” is still highly relevant, with major current influence on the United States government and media from the large weapons manufacturers. The United States has many hundreds of military bases all around the world, many more outside its borders than all other countries put together. Our military budget is massive, estimated at a trillion dollars a year, with bi-partisan support for sixty percent of the U.S. budget going to the military-industrial complex. The Pentagon Papers documented that several presidential administrations and their generals knew the Vietnam War was unwinnable and lied about it. The recent Afghanistan Papers from the Washington Post has confirmed the same about the two decades Afghanistan War that has brought massive devastation to the whole Mideast region. This war secretly was known to be unwinnable by administrations from both parties.
Moreover, we are now proceeding with a new nuclear arms race, more expensive and much more dangerous than in the Cold War around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and Dylan’s 1963 “Talking World War III Blues.” In his 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, Pentagon Papers whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg says, “For over fifty years, all-out thermonuclear war—an irreversible, unprecedented, and almost unimaginable calamity for civilization and most life on earth—has been, like the disasters of Chernobyl, Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, Fukushima Daiichi, and before these, World War I, a catastrophe waiting to happen, on a scale infinitely greater than any of these. And that is still true today. No policies in human history have more deserved to be recognized as immoral. And insane.”
Dylan’s War Masters through the 80s
While not his predominate mode throughout his career, Dylan’s responses to societal injustice and oppression have reappeared in a number of his songs up to the present. Dylan’s lyrics from works in the 80s continue to reference social injustice or masters of war. In 1981 in the title song from the album “Shot of Love” he says, “I seen the kingdoms of this world and it’s making me feel afraid,” warning of the dangers of empires, large or small. “License to Kill” from “Infidels” in 1983 includes the lines, “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth he can do with it as he please/ And if things don’t change soon, he will. … Now, he’s hell-bent for destruction, he’s afraid and confused/ And his brain has been mismanaged with great skill/ All he believes are his eyes/ And his eyes, they just tell him lies.” Dylan warns that people have been controlled to foster destruction, through war and environmental degradation. The chorus includes a neighbor’s plea to end unfettered murder, “There’s a woman on my block, Sitting there in a cold chill, She say who gonna take away his license to kill?” The song “Clean Cut Kid” from 1985 in “Empire Burlesque” has the chorus, “He was a clean-cut kid/ But they made a killer out of him/ That’s what they did.” The song includes the lines, “They said, ‘Listen boy, you’re just a pup’/ They sent him to a napalm health spa to shape up.” Here Dylan protests the lasting impacts of U.S. involvement in the disastrous, failed Vietnam War on its veterans. In 1989 “Political World” from “Oh Mercy” begins, “We live in a political world/ Love don’t have any place/ We’re living in times where men commit crimes/ And crime don’t have a face.” Dylan equates politics with hidden, faceless criminality. Later in the song is the line, “Life is in mirrors, death disappears/ Up the steps into the nearest bank.” The perpetrators of injustice and the masters of war are continuously profiteering from their cruelty and misdeeds.
Dylan’s album “Under the Red Sky” came out in 1990, seven years after U2’s album “Under a Blood Red Sky,” which included “Sunday Bloody Sunday” about British troops shooting and killing unarmed civil rights protesters in Ireland in 1972, and “New Year’s Day” about the Polish Solidarity movement. Dylan’s “Under the Red Sky” was mostly scorned critically for simplistic lyrics supposedly unworthy of Dylan. However, many of the songs in this album have the feel of nursery rhymes, often seen traditionally as harboring hidden political meaning. For example, “Baa Baa Black Sheep” is about the medieval wool tax, imposed in the 13th Century by King Edward I; “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary” may be about Bloody Mary, daughter of King Henry VIII and concerns the torture and murder of Protestants; and “Pop Goes The Weasel” is an apparently nonsensical rhyme that, upon subsequent inspection, reveals itself to in fact be about poverty, pawnbroking, the minimum wage. Even when not traceable to historical contexts, nursery rhymes often have dark, sinister climaxes. In the title song “Under the Red Sky,” Dylan sings that “One day the little boy and the little girl were both baked in a pie,” reminiscent of Hansel and Gretel from the Brothers Grimm, but with a bad ending.
At least a couple of the songs in “Under the Red Sky” directly echo the concerns of “Masters of War.” The song “Unbelievable” includes the following lines:
It’s undeniable what they’d have you to think
It’s indescribable, it can drive you to drink
They said it was the land of milk and honey
Now they say it’s the land of money
Who ever thought they could ever make that stick
It’s unbelievable you can get this rich this quick
Following up on “Political World,” this song highlights the ubiquitous nature of the cynical, mercenary manipulations that society’s masters use to control ordinary people. The last song on “Under the Red Sky” is the highly foreboding “Cat’s in the Well” including the lines:
The cat’s in the well and grief is showing its face
The world’s being slaughtered and it’s such a bloody disgrace
Endless wars have been unrelenting throughout the world since the Vietnam War, as persistent as Dylan’s never-ending tour. Dylan offers a lament, an acknowledgement of grief in the face of bloody disgrace.
The cat’s in the well, the horse is going bumpety bump
The cat’s in the well, and the horse is going bumpety bump
Back alley Sally is doing the American jump
Dylan doesn’t shy away from the U.S. responsibility, citing “the American jump.” This conjures up Mustang Sally and the other kids on the American bandstand, forced to jump to the tunes of the masters of war, and perhaps also recalling parachute jumps by U.S. secret ops throughout non-privileged countries.
The cat’s in the well and the servant is at the door
The drinks are ready and the dogs are going to war
The servants proceed, drunk with the promise of spoils of war.
The cat’s in the well, the leaves are starting to fall
The cat’s in the well, leaves are starting to fall
Goodnight, my love, may the Lord have mercy on us all
Dylan does not call for marching in the street in protest. But he grieves over the workings of the masters of war, and he pleads for Oh Mercy.
Masked and Anonymous, and Imperial Cruelty
In 2003 the fascinating film “Masked and Anonymous” was released, written by and starring Bob Dylan as Jack Fate, a rock singer just released from prison. It depicts a cruel, corrupt American empire amid widespread urban poverty and a threat of revolution, along with police brutality and martial law. Interspersed with fine performances of Dylan songs, a fundraising concert featuring Jack Fate is being organized, supposedly to encourage peace and reconciliation. With a stellar cast, and amid family rivalries and palace intrigue, the fall and rise of empires persists. In the closing scene Jack Fate, Dylan himself with grim stoic demeanor, rides back to prison in the back of a bus.
Theme Time Radio and Subversive Songs in Hiding
From May 2006 to April 2009 Bob Dylan served as Disc Jockey and commentator for the excellent weekly Theme Time Radio Hour show, with selections of songs fitting into a wide range of colorful themes. Dylan proves his great expertise as a musicologist of the history of American popular music. He had also done so with his many albums of cover songs, from his debut “Bob Dylan” in 1962 with all of its masterful versions of blues songs, through the highly under-appreciated “Self Portrait” in 1970, to “Good as I Been to You” and “World Gone Wrong” in 1992 and 1993, to the recent “Shadows in the Night”, “Fallen Angels”, and “Triplicate” in 2015, 2016, and 2017, with standards previously covered by Frank Sinatra. In his Theme Time Radio Hour commentaries Dylan also disarmingly expressed aspects of his own personality, with wise-cracks, anecdotes about musicians he had encountered, bad puns, and occasional personal foibles.
In his Theme Time Radio Hour show, season 1, episode 45, the Trains episode, broadcast around 2007, Dylan reveals his later approach to exposing injustices. Dylan includes in the episode an Anti-Vietnam War song. I was active myself in the movement against the ruinous Vietnam War, including being arrested in the week-long Columbia University building occupations as a student in 1968. I thought I knew all the Vietnam protest songs, but Dylan mentions one I did not know about. Dylan introduces the song with the striking declaration, “I’ve always believed that the first rule of being subversive is not to let anybody know you’re being subversive.” In other words, the best protest songs are the ones that are not explicit, like most of Dylan’s recent subversive songs. Of course, in his early 60s folk songs he was not trying to obscure his protest perspective.
Dylan continues on the Theme Time Trains episode, “Here’s a song that became number One in 1966. According to the authors they wrote it as a protest to the Vietnam War. They had to disguise that fact to get it recorded and on the radio, but they say it’s about a guy that gets drafted and goes to fight in the war. The train is taking him to an army base, and he knows he may die in Vietnam. At the end of the song he sings ‘And I don’t know if I’m ever coming home.’” Then Dylan introduces the familiar Monkees song, “Last Train to Clarksville.” How many people ever knew that the Monkees did an anti-war song? How many people realize how much of Dylan’s original songwriting of the past twenty years are subversive social critiques?
Dylan’s Recent Protest Songs and the Roman Empire
A couple of Dylan’s recent protest or subversive songs are continuations of the message of “Masters of War,” specifically, “Workingman’s Blues #2” from “Modern Times” in 2006, and “Early Roman Kings” from “Tempest” in 2012. The latter song exemplifies Dylan’s use of the Classical realm to portray indirectly modern inequities.
Dylan’s longtime connection to the Roman world goes¯ back to Robert Zimmerman in the Hibbing High School Latin Club. His early interest in Rome and classic culture proceeded through Dylan’s early 60s visits to Rome, to the 1971 song “When I Paint My Masterpiece” that opens on the streets of Rome, and Dylan noted this interest in his book Chronicles. Dylan speaks in Chronicles of the maturing and decay of classic societies, of appreciating Thucydides, of reading about Alexander’s conquests, and he compares Virginia slave plantations and Cuban sugar plantations to elite rule in the Roman republic. Dylan has even said that if he had to do it all over again he would “probably teach Roman history or theology.”
Richard Thomas delineates various occasional references to Rome and Roman poets throughout Dylan’s career, then masterfully details the special importance of classical references in Dylan’s brilliant series of works starting with “Time Out of Mind” in 1997, continuing through “Love and Theft,” “Modern Times,” “Together Through Life,” and “Tempest.” This includes specific lines and themes Dylan takes from Virgil, Ovid, and Homer. Thomas explicates how Dylan’s references to Roman history depict the current American empire as echoing the period under Augustus Caesar when Rome morphed into an empire with the power of Augustus absolute, despite retaining the pretense of a republic. Dylan’s “Lonesome Day Blues” from “Love and Theft” in 2001 includes references from Virgil that correlate Roman civil wars with the Vietnam War. Via lines from a novel about a yakuza gangster the song also references Japanese imperial soldiers from World War II, and via references from Mark Twain the American Civil War as well. In an interview about “Love and Theft” Dylan said that, “the album deals with power, wealth, knowledge and salvation. … [ideals] across the ages.” Dylan has long had a particular interest and affinity for the American Civil War, and nineteenth century America in general. In “Honest with Me,” also from “Love and Theft” Dylan sings sardonically, speaking as one of the warmongers, “I’m here to create the new imperial empire/ I’m going to do whatever circumstances require.” Throughout these lyrics and images, Dylan traces and explores much of the long history and dynamics of imperialism and militarism, the background of the masters of war in his own time.
A lot is happening in the songs from this period. Some of them continue the concerns of “Masters of War” and Dylan’s other related songs of social criticism. As in numbers of his earlier songs, in recent albums especially Dylan speaks alternately in first person or third person from differing point of view, both as oppressed victim and gangster brutalizer. This is part of how the subversive aspects of these songs may not be apparent for those not fully paying attention.
Workingman’s Blues #2
“Workingman’s Blues #2” from “Modern Times” is one of Bob Dylan’s most beautiful songs. Among other things, it expresses concern about the murderous effects of poverty and inequality caused by social systems, with references to the masters of war. The song opens:
There’s an evenin’ haze settlin’ over the town
Starlight by the edge of the creek
The buyin’ power of the proletariat’s gone down
Money’s gettin’ shallow and weak
Well, the place I love best is a sweet memory
It’s a new path that we trod
They say low wages are a reality
If we want to compete abroad
There may not be another rock song with the word proletariat in it. The Rolling Stones did sing of the salt of the earth, John Lennon sang of a working-class hero, and many other fine political rock songs deal with class or war. In “Workingman’s Blues #2,” Bob Dylan effectively mourns the downfall of the working class, and the complete loss of a living wage for many honest workers who can no longer manage in the new reality. He adds a plea for peace and love:
My cruel weapons have been put on the shelf
Come sit down on my knee
You are dearer to me than myself
As you yourself can see
Then comes a reference to Woody Guthrie riding the rails during the Depression:
I’m listening to the steel rails hum
Got both eyes tight shut
Just sitting here trying to keep the hunger from
Creeping its way into my gut
Dylan later expresses personal sadness that his previous efforts at encouraging change have been futile, a concern he repeats a few times in this period. He sings,
Sometimes no one wants what we got. Sometimes you can’t give it away.
More lines evoke the effect of poverty, enforced by the masters of war, or perhaps by police states:
They burned my barn, and they stole my horse
I can’t save a dime
I got to be careful, I don’t want to be forced
Into a life of continual crime. …
All across the peaceful sacred fields
They will lay you low
They’ll break your horns and slash you with steel
Then Dylan adds, with a sense of self-irony:
I say it so it must be so.
Before the final chorus, the last verse closes with a line about those who profit from inequality, echoing his closing damnation of the “Masters of War”:
Some people never worked a day in their life
Don’t know what work even means
Richard Thomas points out numbers of lines in “Workingman’s Blues #2” that Dylan transforms from Ovid’s later period, when he was exiled by Augustus, who had converted the Roman republic into an empire. We might see this context as reinforcing Dylan’s concern about imperialist oppression. More is going on in this song, as in all of Dylan’s later non-explicit subversive songs. The poignant “Workingman’s Blues #2” evokes memories of old lovers and friends, the fading of such memories, and the ultimate imminence of all loss in the touching line, “No man, no woman knows/ The hour that sorrow will come.”
Another line from “Modern Times,” from “Ain’t Talkin,” warns of the threat of the oppressors, “They will crush you with wealth and power, Every waking moment you could crack.”
The Early Roman Kings Back in the U.S.A.
For “Tempest” from 2012, Richard Thomas discusses how Dylan has adapted Homer’s Odyssey, using its lines and its themes of journeying and homecoming. Dylan has identified with the figure of Odysseus as trickster, traveler, adventurer, and storyteller, including having a statue of Odysseus’s patron goddess Athena (the Roman Minerva) onstage during his recent tours. “Early Roman Kings” from “Tempest” further connects Rome and the American empire, and the arrogance of all imperial aggression. The song begins:
All the early Roman kings
In their sharkskin suits
Bow ties and buttons
High top boots
Drivin’ the spikes in
Blazin’ the rails
Nailed in their coffins
In top hats and tails
From their garb, these early kings of industry are like Dylan’s 19th century Americans, not two thousand-year-old Romans wearing togas.
They’re peddlers and they’re meddlers
They buy and they sell
They destroyed your city
They’ll destroy you as well
Like the masters of war, they are profiteers from mass destruction. The ruin of cities also descends on individuals personally. These Roman kings brag,
I can strip you of life
Strip you of breath
Ship you down
To the house of death
These lines serve as a general threat to the audience. The modern context is confirmed in the following:
I was up on black mountain
The day Detroit fell
They killed ‘em all off
And they sent ‘em to hell
The song closes:
I’ve had my fun
I’ve had my flings
Gonna shake em all down
Like the early Roman kings
This evokes the casual cruelty of both these early Roman kings and all the masters of war.
As Richard Thomas explicates, “Pay in Blood,” also from “Tempest,” directly echoes the vow by Odysseus when he finally reaches home to force his wife’s suitors besieging Ithaca to pay in blood. Here are a few lines from the song that additionally speak to themes from “Masters of War.” First, the song’s refrain:
I pay in blood, but not my own
Emperors and presidents always pay with others’ blood, mostly that of young soldiers and those they conquer, never with their own. Later in the song:
Our nation must be saved and freed
Oppressors always claim to be acting for the good of the nation, with God on our side. Then:
You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?
This sounds like “Is your money that good? Will it buy you forgiveness?” in “Masters of War.”
Dylan’s Three Nobel Prize Classics Highlighting War and Aggression
In his brilliant Nobel Lecture in response to receiving the much-deserved 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan cites three specific influential books he read when young whose themes permeate all his work. One is Homer’s Odyssey, already discussed, which Dylan describes as the struggle to return home from war. Another is Moby Dick, a complex masterpiece about the obsessive and ruinous revenge of the demented Captain Ahab. The erudite Herman Melville, very well-read it’s well known, includes in the novel an extensive catalog of whaling lore and also a wide-ranging history of social injustice from the early nineteenth century back through antiquity. Dylan describes the white whale itself as an emperor and the embodiment of evil. The book features a strikingly diverse crew and contemplations on whiteness. “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” from “Bringing It All Back Home” in 1965 is a lengthy, humorous, and satirical tale about Captain Ahab (in the song called “Captain Arab”) discovering an immoral and hypocritical America. Dylan says that the book’s themes would work their way into more than a few of his songs.
The third of Dylan’s most influential books is the powerful anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front, which graphically details over and over again the horrors of war from World War I. Dylan vividly describes these distresses, a nightmare in which he says you lose faith in a meaningful world. After reading this he never wanted to read another war novel, and claims he never did. It led Dylan to despise the older generation who keep sending the young into the madness and torture of war, the message Dylan would repeat in “Masters of War” and in his speech accepting the Tom Paine award from the Emergency Civil Liberties Union.
All three of the books Bob Dylan cites as seminal to his work in his Nobel Lecture feature themes related to the damages of war, its challenging after-effects, and to aggressive obsession.
Masters of War Fifty Years Later and the Long, Lonesome Road
In Dylan’s interview with Bill Flanagan from March, 2017, appearing on bobdylan.com, Dylan discusses “Triplicate,” his collection from the great American songbook covered by Sinatra, as well as his own various changes since 1970. Bob Dylan says, “From 1970 till now there’s been about fifty years, seems more like fifty million. That was a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time. Entire industries go, lifestyles change, corporations kill towns, new laws replace old ones, group interests triumph over individual ones, poor people themselves have become a commodity.” Dylan has clearly not abandoned his social concerns. Rather, he sees a wall of time since the 60s in which inequality has multiplied. Corporate interests have taken control, destroying towns and making individual people into commodities, mere pawns in the corporate profit margins.
Flanagan asks, “In Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ you’re supposed to be the jester.” Dylan responds, “Yeah, Don McLean, ‘American Pie,’ what a song that is. A jester? Sure, the jester writes songs like ‘Masters of War,’ ‘A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,’ ‘It’s Alright, Ma’– some jester. I have to think he’s talking about somebody else. Ask him.” Dylan vehemently denies that his life is but a joke (he has been through that, along the watchtower). If he were the jester, he would not have written “Masters of War” and his related scorching songs, and he would not have continued singing them.
Even though in his more recent subversive songs Dylan is not always explicit about his protests, he has continued to speak out against systemic injustice, oppression, and masters of war. Dylan says in “Honest with Me” from “Love and Theft,” in 2001, “I’m not sorry for nothin’ I’ve done, I’m glad I fought—I only wish we’d won.” Like the Old Testament prophets, Dylan feels like his critiques of the masters of war and other oppressors have not been effective. The warmongers continue, but he has no regrets about his efforts. Bob Dylan has at times been a recluse hiding from his fans, but now recognizes that he has not been alone in this struggle. “I’ve got nothin’ but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me,” Dylan sings in “Mississippi” from “Love and Theft” in 1997. Dylan is committed to continuing his never-ending mission, the faith on the long road which includes responding to injustice and warmongers, but also faithful, artistic expression in the many other realms Dylan has engaged throughout his brilliant career of singing the blues. In his recent tours Dylan’s singing is clear and luminous. In 2006 in “Ain’t Talkin” in “Modern Times” he sings,
All my loyal and much-loved companions
They approve of me and share my code
I practice a faith that’s been long abandoned
Ain’t no altars on this long and lonesome road.
Dylan’s code and faith are non-explicit, enigmatic, but also never-ending, including communal concerns as well as poetic genius.
Murder Most Foul and Rough and Rowdy Ways
In March 2020 Dylan released the album “Rough and Rowdy Ways” amid a global pandemic in which all the people of the world were inextricably united in a life-and-death struggle with the Corona virus. Many people around the world sheltered in place seeking shelter from the storm of Covid. As a preview of the album the song “Murder Most Foul” was released early on bobdylan.com, the first original Dylan song released since the album “Tempest” in 2012. At almost seventeen minutes, it is the longest song Dylan has ever recorded, surpassing “Sad-eyed Lady of the Lowlands” from 1966, “Brownsville Girl” from 1986, and even (by less than a minute) “Highlands” from 1997.
“Murder Most Foul” is an elegy for John F. Kennedy and his assassination, discussed previously in this article as an occasion for Dylan’s response to the aged militarists promoting war for the young, also referencing the information about the assassination in JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass, including JFK’s late opposition to war. The title of Dylan’s song echoes the “murder most foul” of Hamlet’s father the king. Dylan includes many specific references and questions about the day of the assassination. These include the “long black Lincoln limousine ridin’ in the back seat, next to my wife” to “the grassy knoll,” which has been considered the site of the shot that actually killed Kennedy, perhaps from one of the “three bums comin’ all dressed in rags” as a disguise. He refers to the untenable, ludicrous “magic bullet” official theory of the assassination. Dylan includes the botched and buried autopsy where “they mutilated his body and took out his brain. What more could they do, they piled on the pain.” Dylan even quotes the ironic last sentence John Kennedy ever heard, from the wife of Governor John Connelly who was also in the car, “Don’t say Dallas don’t love you, Mr. President.” Dylan mentions “merchants of death,” directly recalling the masters of war. This song is quite explicit, a departure from the Theme Time Radio approach of masking subversive songs, though the many cultural references perhaps serve to hide this somewhat.
Much of “Rough and Rowdy Ways” recalls “Desolation Row,” with arrays of challenged characters reacting to an often brutal world. Among multitudes of themes, most of the songs have an ambience of violence and weapons or at least images of aggression. For brief examples, in “Black Rider” we hear “My soul is distressed my mind is at war. … I’ll take out a sword and hack off your arm.” The context of ancient Rome reappears. In “My Own Version of You” Dylan sings, “I ask myself what would Julius Caesar do.” Later in the song he sings, “I can see through the history of the whole human race. It’s all right there.” In his treatment of empire and wars Dylan indeed reaches overall patterns of human history. Later that verse adds, “Where the Trojan women and children were sold into slavery, Long ago before the First Crusade. Way back before England or America were made.” Here Dylan returns to Homer’s war, its patterns prefiguring all imperial conquest since.
“Mother of Muses” celebrates inspiration, love, and beauty. Yet also, “Sing of the Heroes who stood alone, Whose names are engraved on tablets of stone. Who struggled with pain so the world could go free.” Then Dylan celebrates generals who were positive, constructive masters of war rather than war profiteers.
Sing of Sherman – Montgomery and Scott
Sing of Zhukov and Patton and the battles they fought
Who cleared the path for Presley to sing
Who carved out the path for Martin Luther King
Sherman fought against Confederate slavery. Zhukov and Patton defeated Hitler, allowing the worthy in modern America. In the song “Crossing the Rubicon” Dylan sings as Julius Caesar proceeding from Rome across the Rubicon River to his conquest of Gaul. “The Rubicon is the Red River, going gently as she flows. Redder than your ruby lips and the blood that flows from the rose.” Here is foreboding, and the red blood will flow, including from Caesar himself upon his return and his own assassination. Caesar’s and President McKinley’s assassination in “Key West” precede JFK’s murder most foul.
Returning to the song “Murder Most Foul,” along with references to the actual Kennedy assassination, Dylan focuses on the reverberations of this murder in the decades since. In the 2017 Bill Flanagan interview Dylan speaks of the past fifty years as “a wall of time that separates the old from the new and a lot can get lost in this kind of time.” In the song Dylan refers to some historical consequences of the event, such as “your brothers are comin’ … we’ll get them as well.” Mostly Dylan recalls the intervening years to the present via cultural references, mainly through music and naming many specific songs and musicians, from Charlie Parker to Stevie Nicks. “Murder Most Foul” clearly evokes the lasting consequences of Kennedy’s murder, and with elements of other songs on “Rough and Rowdy Ways” confirms that Dylan’s ongoing response to injustice and masters of war have continued up to the present, along with all of his many other concerns.
Rev. Taigen Dan Leighton PhD, Sōtō Zen Buddhist teacher, leads the Ancient Dragon Zen Gate congregation in Chicago. He is online professor at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. Leighton’s ten books of Buddhist commentaries and translations include numerous references to Bob Dylan. Leighton’s Zen Questions includes an essay interpreting “Visions of Johanna” as a song about Zen Mind. Just This Is It: Dongshan and the Practice of Suchness features discussions of “I’m Not There” and other Dylan songs.
 In the L.A. Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-zantzinger10-2009jan10-story.html.
 All lyrics of Bob Dylan songs are from: http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/, unless otherwise specified.
 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001; first published Harper & Row, 1962), p. xxii.
 Heschel, The Prophets, p. 212.
 Habakkuk, 2:11-12.
 Heschel, The Prophets, pp. 205-206. See also Seth Rogovoy, Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet (New York: Scribner, 2012).
 James W. Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters (New York: Touchstone, A division of Simon & Schuster, 2008), pp. 136-137.
 Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2017), pp. 318-319.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable. Just reading through Douglass’s introductory Chronology, pp. xxi-xxxi is quite compelling and persuasive.
 See: http://www.daysofthecrazy-wild.com/watch-listen-bob-dylans-infamous-1963-tom-paine-award-speech/.
 Douglass, JFK and the Unspeakable, pp. 84-90.
 “FBI Tracking of Bob Dylan and Suze Rotolo Foreshadowed Future Abuses,” https://truthout.org/articles/fbi-tracking-of-bob-dylan-and-suze-rotolo-foreshadowed-future-abuses/
 See: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/bob-dylan-plays-west-point-245933/.
 See: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/
 See Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 20.
 See also: https://pioneerproductions.blogspot.com/2019/03/dylans-masters-of-war-didnt-just-apply.html.
 See: https://ultimateclassicrock.com/bob-dylan-under-the-red-sky/; and https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-album-reviews/under-the-red-sky-194817/.
 Clemency Burton-Hill, “Goosey Goosey Gander may be about religious persecution, while Lucy Locket is about 18th Century prostitutes” http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150610-the-dark-side-of-nursery-rhymes.
 See: http://www.themetimeradio.com/
 For the Theme Time Radio Hour Trains episode, see: http://www.themetimeradio.com/episode-45-trains/. “Last Train to Clarksville” was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart.
 Bob Dylan, Chronicles: Volume One (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), pp. 35, 36, 37, 85, 89.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, p. 52.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 4, 56-57.
 All the foregoing on “Love and Theft” are from Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 195-203.
 I am citing the original lyrics from the “Modern Times” album. Since the album Dylan has revised some of the lyrics including the last two verses. See http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 238-241.
 Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 254-265.
 The lecture was actually given in June, 2017. See comments in Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, pp. 311-319.