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"Masters of War" is a song by Bob Dylan, written in 1963 and released on the album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. It is an adaptation, with new words by Dylan, of "Nottamun Town".As with many of the major songs Dylan composed at this time, he often adapted or "borrowed" melodies from traditional songs. On this occasion however, he had borrowed an arrangement by veteran folksinger Jean Ritchie. The arrangement of "Nottanum Town", unknown to Dylan, had been in her family for generations, and Ritchie wanted an acknowledgement on the writing credit. This, however, was not to be the case, as Dylan's lawyers paid her $5,000 to settle and agree not to make further claims.

There is a live, electric version on Dylan's Real Live album. In his 1994 Hiroshima concert, Dylan played the first acoustic version of "Masters of War" since 1963. Dylan also played the song in Oshkosh, Wisconsinmarker on the night of the 2004 U.S. presidential election.

Dylan about the song

Dylan spoke to USA Today's Edna Gundersen about the song the day before the September 11th attacks. In the article, Dylan is quoted as saying that the song "is supposed to be a pacifistic song against war. 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."

Notable cover versions


Pete Seeger: in another country with an interpreter, who spoke the lines in another language very fast.

Live performances

  • (date unknown) • Rx Bandits singer Matt Embree covered this song at a Sounds of Animals Fighting show. A video of the cover can be seen on their myspace blog.
  • (date Unknown) Gary Og. A Scotish singer who most likely transposed the topic of the song to the northern Ireland troubles. A lot of people agree it is an outstanding version because of his "tortured" voice.

1963: Pete Seeger performed this song in a poverty stricken country somewhere in Latin America, with a spoken interpreter, with the singing.
  • 1976 • Don McLean • live in the Netherlandsmarker A recording of this, with banjo accompaniement, also appears on his 1976 live album recorded in the UK.
  • 1998 • Broadside Electric • at a "Bob Dylan live performance retrospective" concert on September 17, 1998 at The Living Room in New York Citymarker.
  • 2005 • Ratdog • in concert at The Orange Peel in Asheville, North Carolinamarker in 2005; Chastain Amphitheatre in Atlanta, Georgiamarker in 2007; and at the Mizner Amphitheatre in Boca Raton, Florida, on 11/17/2007
  • 2006 • Pearl Jam • in concert in Boston on May 24, 2006, Bob Dylan's birthday. They have covered it on numerous other occasions, including in a September 30, 2004 appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and at the Benaroya Hall show from 2003. A live version of the song played by Eddie Vedder, Mike McCready and G.E Smith, was part of Dylan's 30th anniversary celebration in New York City in the early 1990s, dubbed Bobfest by Neil Young.
  • 2006 • The Roots performed "Masters of War" at "The Music of Bob Dylan, a Benefit for Music for Youth" on November 9, 2006 at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall. In a review of this performance, The Village Voice commented, "Just a shocking, volatile, incredible 10 minutes of carnage. 'Masters of War' has always seemed to me more like a possibly futile prayer than an inevitable blood oath, the warmonger's funeral described in some hypothetical future Bob can only hope will come soon. The Roots just killed it." They again performed it at the 2007 Coachella Music Festivalmarker, the 2007 Bonnaroo Music Festival, as well as most of the concerts on their Game Theory tour that year, including at Virginia Techmarker , the Nokia Theatre Times Squaremarker, and Swarthmore Collegemarker. The band recently covered the song during their performances at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on May 3, 2008, at the 80-35 music festival in Des Moinesmarker, Iowamarker on July 5, 2008, and at the Mile High Music Festival in Denvermarker, Coloradomarker on July 20, 2008.
  • 2007 • Ben Harper • on his 2007 tour, with The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) joining as a special guest; also at his 2007 Lollapalooza performance with Eddie Vedder joining as a special guest.
  • 2008 • Viggo Mortensen • at a January 2008 People Speaks event; he was unanccompanied by instruments and held a copy of the lyrics during his performance
  • 2008 Eddie Vedder on his solo tour across Canada and the US
  • 2008 Norwegian singer Susanne Sundfor sings it on norwegian national television (NRK)


  • Although technically not a cover, the Sage Francis song Hey Bobby is a reference to the song with the lyrics "Hey Bobby, the masters are back, and they're up to no good just like the old days. They played dead when you stood over their graves, Bobby, they played dead when you stood over their graves."
  • American contemporary classical composer John Corigliano set the song's lyrics to music in his 2000 song cycle Mr. Tambourine Man. Like the other six Dylan settings that make up the cycle, Corigliano's version is musically unrelated to the original.


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