Why does Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ work?

Don't Look Back - Bob Dylan documentaryTwo chords, no chorus and a whopping eight verses, Bob Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ goes for four and a half minutes and still keeps me interested.

How can that be?

Last night I spent two hours, guitar in hand, analysing the lyrics, chord progressions and melodies of songs in the Bob Dylan Little Black Songbook.

Aside from confirming that Dylan is a lyrical master who despite occasional use of two chords has also been the progenitor of some wonderful chord progressions, the experience brought to light an often ignored fact:

Bob Dylan’s fundamental draw is his melodies.

And Masters of War is a perfect example of this.

The lyrics to the song are undoubtably impressive. A direct address of a disgruntled citizen to the world’s leaders, almost every phrase gets to the emotional core of the issue with elegance and wit.

But write the best lyrics in the world and sing it to a crap melody, derivative melody or non-existant melody (as the case may be), and no one will listen.

The reason, I concluded, that Masters of War works is the melodic arc in the phrasing of each verse.

It’s by no means complicated.

In fact, it’s as simple as they can get.

But one thing that many songwriters, myself included, regularly fail to do with their melodies is to take them on journeys with phrases (or movement) concluding (or resting) in places at variable distances from the satisfying, but monotonous comfort of home – the root note.

The phrasing goes like this:

First Phrase: Starts on the root note, ends on the root note

Second Phrase: Starts on the fifth, ends on the fifth

Third Phrase: Starts on the fifth, ends on the eighth

Fourth Phrase: Starts on the fifth, ends on the fifth

Fifth Phrase: Starts on the fifth, ends on the eighth

Sixth Phrase: Starts on the fifth, ends on the fifth

Last Phrase: Starts on the fifth (possibly the fourth), ends on the root note.

In other words, you start walking across a plain, at sea level, to a mountain. You make a steep climb to a plateau where you have a picnic with a great view of the surroundings. You then climb to a mountain peak and feel exhilarated (and strangely it feels like home). Then you stumble down to another plateau and catch your breath before climbing another equally high peak. Then it’s time to go home. You descend to another plateau and have afternoon tea, before descending, with the joy of the return, to a seaside town for some satisfying ales and righteous indignation.

Admittedly, you then need the motivation to take this journey eight times.

To achieve this, Dylan’s lyrics turn you into a hobbit on a quest to destroy the ring of power and reward you at the end by placing you over the grave of the evil one.

If you don’t have a copy of Masters of War, it’s the third track on Dylan’s ‘The Freewheelin Bob Dylan’ album. You can check out a sample of it here.

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photo by: SanFranAnnie

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