Published January 2020

Washington, D.C.

14. Bob Dylan – Masters Of War (1963)


The very existence of Washington, D.C. owes itself to a group of revolutionary war veterans violently besieging the federal government at its then headquarters in Philadelphia in 1793; a century later and Jacob Coxey and his ‘army’ became the first to march on the new capital in protest at economic conditions. Back then a march on Washington was done properly – rather than get the train down and stroll around the Mall, Coxey’s lot trekked the full 325 miles from Massillon, Ohio by foot.

In the time between the construction of D.C. and Coxey’s arrival, the city was also host to the baby steps of a very different kind of revolution, thanks to its status as a home of both military and corporate interests. In 1890, at the base of the newly founded Columbia Phonograph Company (so named after the District of Columbia), John Philip Sousa’s United States Marine Band took the short trip from their barracks to take part in one of the earliest music recording sessions in history.
Over time marches on the capital became a staple of American democracy, liberals and conservatives alike amassing at the iconic landmarks of the White House, the Lincoln Memorial or Capitol Hill. Musicians have found themselves involved here and there – from Phil Ochs appearing before the Mall ahead of an attempt to levitate the Pentagon, to D.C. punkers Fugazi keeping George Bush Snr awake on the eve of the Gulf War. 

Meanwhile the spirit of the ‘masters of war’ that Dylan so angrily denounced runs through the very veins of this city, with big business and military might aligning in a much more sinister way than Sousa’s Columbia recordings. The ever-increasing flow of favours, funds and personnel between Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and the many military contractors that inhabit D.C. and neighbouring Virginia and Maryland speaks volumes for the profitability of death – and represents the manifestation of President Eisenhower’s worst fears when he used his Oval Office farewell address in 1961 to warn of the ‘unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex’.


Eagle-eyed US100 observers may well raise an eyebrow as they are confronted by a repeat performer without us having yet reached the quarter mark of the full series. And yes, this partly can be explained by me indulging my own inherent love of all things Bob Dylan and for that I offer little in the way of apologies.

Fear not though Dylan sceptics, for the tale of this chapter is only loosely connected to the man himself. Rather, as we more firmly anchor ourselves to the political scene in the U.S. capital, Dylan’s Masters of War has been selected as a symbol for the symbiotic relationship between warfare and music. Indeed, much like the military-industrial complex is a three way flow chart between corporate, political and military interests, feel free to treat this chapter as my investigation into the ‘military-musical complex’ (see Fig 1). 

Fig 1: The military-industrial complex vs the military-musical complex

Despite the idea of protest music always piquing an interest in me personally, musical based activism wasn’t much at the forefront of anyone’s mind in the 1990s Britpop UK of my childhood, Manic Street Preachers aside. But shortly after discovering Dylan and his contemporaries, 1960s popular culture took on a near mythical status for me, to the extent that I basically believed that music had ended the Vietnam War and given black America the vote. Now a little more nuanced in my perspective, I remain fascinated by the extent to which music can or cannot make a difference. With the world seemingly a tinderbox once again ready to explode, it seems as an appropriate time as any to take a look at how music and war feed off one another.


Warfare, protest music and Washington, D.C. entered the post-colonial American landscape in that order. If United States DNA is at least two thirds violent struggle and subjugation, then it is underwritten by a healthy dose of glorifying song. Once the colonies turned their guns on the British, lyrics urging support for the rebellion were quickly written: Taxation of America (1765) by Connecticut’s Peter St. John (The cruel lords of Britain / who glory in their shame / rob us of our charter / in North America) might have a shout at being the USA’s first protest song, and beats George Harrison to the anti taxman punch by some distance. While revolutionary music was spread through pro-war elites due to their control of the printing presses, the horrors of bloodshed were nonetheless alluded to. The trick was to shift the blame onto the British, like in 1777’s direct address To Britain – ‘Think how unjustly you’ve begun the fray,’ it rails. 

Independence Hall, Philadelphia; the scene of Congress’ very own Fresh Prince of Bel-Air moment

Having successfully booted the British out, it was to be an angry group of revolutionary heroes who would frighten their fledgling government into seeking pastures new and creating a purpose built capital. When some 400 mutineering Revolutionary War veterans mobbed the Congress of the Confederation at its headquarters in Philadelphia in 1783, their pay-masters of war were sufficiently spooked and scarpered out of Pennsylvania, whose local governor had refused to come to their aid. The District of Columbia was designed so that the federal government’s personal security would no longer be at the mercy of a state militia and, like a particularly assured teenager who had run away from home, Congress moved into its new digs in 1800.

The city was around for nearly a century before attracting its first popular protest of significance: in 1894 Jacob Coxey’s army became the country’s first demonstrators to march on the capital. Alas this time the ‘army’ aspect was merely a nickname – Coxey had no military connections, and his group were protesting unemployment amidst a depression. His supporters were nonetheless familiar with the revolutionary power of song, as well as booze, as per the lyrics of ‘Go Join Coxey’s Army’: If you want your share of whisky or beer / just follow up Coxey’s band. Not that it did Coxey much good – although thousands of curious onlookers came to greet the curious spectacle of the first march on Washington, they soon lost interest and the event anti-climaxed with its leader being sentenced to 20 days in a workhouse for ‘trampling Congressional shrubbery’.  No Congressional shrubbery related protest songs are recorded.

John Philip Sousa

By this stage military and music ingredients had already begun to marinate in the District. A Washington local since birth, John Philip Sousa’s leadership and talent led to the United States Marine Band becoming the premier military band in the country. His legacy was immortalised before he’d even got around to inventing the sousaphone, with his band in 1890 invited to make the very first Columbia Records catalogue due to their barracks’ proximity to the company’s D.C. headquarters. Despite being made a star, Sousa hated the notion of recorded song – he valued how America’s democratisation of music was facilitated by the dissemination of sheet music, with amateurs communally combining European and African influences. For Sousa, the onset of the phonograph was a means of stunting such artistry, and he never actually set foot in the Columbia studio over the seven years of recordings. 

Sousa was undoubtedly correct in anticipating the number of amateur musicians dwindling in the wake of this new technology’s popularisation. But it also provided opportunity: fast forward to World War I and music on radio and on record creates an opening for more explicit, perhaps even subversive, anti-war sentiment. Alfred Bryan’s I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, for example, is written from the perspective of a grieving mother who laments her son’s induction into warfare, pre-empting Dylan’s anger at the ‘Masters of War’ by some 50 years (Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder / To shoot some other mother’s darling boy?). Not that this song was a direct challenge to government policy at the time: written in 1914, it pre-dated America’s entry into the war by three years and arguably could be interpreted as supportive of its then-isolationist policy. Future President Harry Truman, then a captain in the National Guard, didn’t see it that way – women who opposed the war belonged ‘in a harem, not in the United States,’ he harrumphed. Indeed the song sparked something akin to a rap response record clashing with a Nixon-Reagan era style anti-hippie backlash, with the pro-war lobby hitting back with the parody I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Coward

Future purveyor of schmaltzy Tin Pan goo, Irving Berlin, also attracted the ire of Great War hawks when he penned 1914’s Stay Down Here Where You Belong. This number assumes the slightly odd form of an exchange between the devil and his son, in which Lucifer Jnr is warned off a gap year in the realm of the living due to mankind’s immorality: ‘To serve their king, they’ve all gone off to war / And not a one of them knows what they’re fighting forKings up there are bigger devils than your dad.’ Perhaps prevailing sentiment may still have casually approved of the anti-royalist implications – whilst presumably still being bemused by its biblical subterranean setting – but it soon became an embarrassment for Berlin after the US entered the war. 

Berlin quickly learnt his lesson and had thrown together the much less imaginative God Bless America by the war’s end, which he brought back for a comeback tour in 1938 as the world laid the groundwork for WWI’s sequel. Curiously, the singer’s turbulent First World War musical experiences were in some ways mirrored by the Second World War travails of Woody Guthrie – a man who wrote This Land Is Your Land in frustrated response to God Bless America, which he considered a meaningless patriotic puff piece. Following the line of unions affiliated to the Community Party USA, Woody’s Almanac Singers group had put out a number of songs opposed to American entry into the war on May 1941’s Songs for John Doe. 20 years before Eisenhower first coined the term ‘military-industrial complex’ the Almanacs were having a pop at J.P. Morgan for profiting through governmental defence contracts, and at President Roosevelt and Congress for bringing in the draft.

Unluckily for them, the German invasion of the Soviet Union followed the next month and the radical left’s talking points were torn to shreds. Songs for John Doe was quickly pulled from the shelves and destroyed, with a request made for those who had acquired copies to return them. Within a year the attack on Pearl Harbour, reports of Nazi excesses and union support for the war effort made the album look incredibly out of step with the times, and the Almanacs were not shy about reversing their position. 1942’s Dear Mr. President is an unashamed booster for Roosevelt’s intervention, and nowhere is this about-face quite as stark as in its title track*. When familiar with his future status as a 1960s counterculture peace icon, listening to the group’s Pete Seeger explicitly request a firearm from his government makes for a slightly alarming listen today:

So Mr. President, we’ve got this one big job to do
That’s lick Mr. Hitler and when we’re through
Let no one else ever take his place
To trample down the human race
So what I want is you to give me a gun
So we can hurry up and get the job done

This was much more typical of World War II America’s soundtrack. With the desires of the state and its people remarkably aligned, music was expected across the board to be patriotic and supportive, with songs such as Arms for the Love of America and Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition blending fluffy idealism with violent intent, giving the weapons manufacturers a thumbs up along the way. If anyone was using music as a form of protest at this time, it was those in Europe living under the yoke of Nazi occupation. Banned by the authorities (or simply snootily ignored by the state broadcaster, if you happened to be in BBC Britain), listening to American jazz and swing became a form of underground rebellion in itself**.  

And so US GIs became important cultural ambassadors as they swept across the continent – the gun in one hand, a radio in the other, tuned to the American Forces Network (AFN) that inducted so many Europeans into exciting new stateside trends. After the defeat of Hitler, GIs who remained on the continent found Cold War Europe ripe for the effects of glitzy aspirational Americanisation, particularly when Marshall Plan funds poured in to prevent the spread of communism. But while newly created propaganda stations in Europe merged music with a relentless sell of America as a beacon of liberty and freedom, many back in Washington were more interested in persecuting artists of the wrong political persuasion. Pete Seeger, now with the Weavers, found himself blacklisted from the airwaves and dropped by Decca Records, while songs such as Vern Partlow’s Old Man Atom were pulled from record stores and playlists – in McCarthyist 1950s America, opposing nuclear proliferation was akin to spreading communistic poison. 

“[The] conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience … we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications … we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military–industrial complex.”
President Dwight D. Eisenhower farewell’s address, January 1961

Should he have been watching the televised broadcast of Eisenhower’s 1961 Oval Office farewell address, Seeger may well have raised an eyebrow at the President’s warning against military and political conflicts of interest, considering he was now being victimised for having banged such drums some 20 years previous. One man who was paying attention to Eisenhower’s words from Washington was a future disciple of Seeger’s, the 20 year old Bob Dylan. By urging the American people to alert themselves to the pervasive influence of the military-industrial complex, the President had unwittingly planted the seeds for an era defining anti-war record, and a forebear to passionate and sometimes violent opposition to Eisenhower’s establishment.

* – Also released by the Almanac Singers that year was the merry ditty ‘Round Round Hitler’s Grave’.
** – Unless you happened to be listening to Joseph Goebells’ curious Charlie and his Orchestra project, an effort to undermine the allied war effort through beaming in versions of jazz records with new propagandised lyrics. For example, a version of Walter Donaldson’s You’re Driving Me Crazy appended a new stanza: “Here is Winston Churchill’s latest tear-jerker: / Yes, the Germans are driving me crazy / I thought I had brains / But they shot down my planes.”


“I’ve never written anything like that before. I don’t sing songs which hope people will die, but I couldn’t help it with this one.”
– Bob Dylan

There is not enough salt in the world to provide ample pinching supplies for a Bob Dylan memoir, but it is nonetheless intriguing that he refers in his Chronicles to childhood ambitions of being a soldier: “I’d always pictured myself dying in some heroic battle,” he writes. He also recalls that in his early Greenwich Village pre-electrification years, he didn’t seem himself as “protesting anything any more than I thought Woody Guthrie songs were protesting anything [and] I didn’t think of Woody as a protest singer.” 

Whatever one chooses to believe, it’s difficult to deny that by 1963 he found himself on the more pacifistic side of the Soldier-Protester scale – as well as Eisenhower’s farewell address, he cites the ‘gruesome inhumanity and crushing of human innocence’ depicted in Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front as an influence in writing Masters of War. The subsequent succession of the 71-year old Eisenhower by the youngest ever President in John F. Kennedy was hugely symbolic of the youthful impudent optimism of early 1960s America, with boomers providing a groundswell of youth hungry for a change. Whether Dylan passionately believed in such ideals or merely chose to reflect the ‘spirit in the air’, 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan was an incredibly important staging post in popular music’s attempts to plug into this youthful zeal. 

You certainly couldn’t call Masters of War an anthem of optimistic idealism, but it does at least speak to a countercultural desire for the overthrowing of establishment norms. It may seem counterintuitive to treat ‘I hope that you die / and your death will come soon’ as lyrics of positivity, but the demise that Dylan desires is not that of an individual, but of a system that profits from death. ‘Stand over your grave / til I’m sure that you’re dead’ is not a reference to gleefully dancing on any one person’s resting place, but to ensuring that the world is now a safer place for future generations.

Masters of War – the number 1 protest song of all time according to the readers of Rolling Stone – is what R. Serge Denisoff terms a ‘rhetorical’ protest song, one that expresses individual dissatisfaction or alienation without citing a tangible solution*. Like many of Dylan’s numbers, it takes its baseline melody from an old folk standard, and one can see how the original Nottamun Town, with its surrealistic depictions of ‘stark naked drummers a-beating the drum, would appeal to him. Contained within the English tale of ‘Nottamun’ (Nottingham) is a reference to ‘ten thousand got drownded that never was born’, and similar themes of the unborn can be found in one of the most scathing Masters of War verses:

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

The ‘masters of war’ as imagined by artist James G. Todd

Masters of War is the angry sibling of I Didn’t Raise My Boy To Be A Soldier, with their similar targets of ire differentiated only by 50 years of technological advancement: Who dares to place a musket on his shoulder becomes You fasten all the triggers for others to fire. And like his hero Woody before him, Dylan looked beyond both the battlefield and the corridors of power, shining a spotlight on big business’s unscrupulous exploitation of suffering. While The Almanac Singers sarcastically scoffed at being ‘told that J. P. Morgan loves me so’ while wearing khaki jeans and eating army beans, Dylan is less specific in naming his targets but more direct in eviscerating their moral compass: those that build the death planes while hiding behind desks are reliably informed that all of their money will never buy back your soul

Whether he genuinely believed in the impending demise of defence contractors and weapons manufacturers at the time, the Bob Dylan of today may view with some alarm the extent to which things have since travelled in the opposite direction.

* – The other form of protest song being ‘magnetic’: intended to persuade people of the merits of specific movements or actions


Considering the song’s subject matter and the near ubiquitous presence of the Vietnam War in 1960s popular culture narratives, it is easy to see how Masters of War has come to be conflated with opposition to the US presence in southeast Asia. But Dylan had written the song prior to any significant US deployment in the country – there were a few hundred troops there by early 1963 – and the vast majority of the anti-war movement’s most prominent musical figureheads came in the wake of Dylan’s departure from the protest scene. Rather than complementing him, the anti-Vietnam voices of Phil Ochs, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young combined to fill the void that Dylan had left behind having exited stage left.  

It was the Vietnam War and the wider social turbulence of the 1960s that saw Washington, D.C. truly become crystalised as a theatre of popular protest. Dylan had made his appearance atop the steps of the Lincoln Memorial not long after the release of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, participating in the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that was immortalised by Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. On the march itself Dylan expressed scepticism as to whether the White House or Congress were paying any attention, and he wasn’t to be found on any of the anti-war demonstrations that soon became a near permanent fixture in the capital. While Maggie’s Farm at Newport may have definitively announced his musical crossover to folk rock, it was Dylan being booed for his rambling drunken and somewhat insulting acceptance speech of the Tom Paine Award two years previous that had spiritually cut his ties to the protest movement. 

‘Flower Power’ by Bernie Boston

Joan Baez was always much more comfortable in these circles*, and was an enthusiastic participant in the April 1965 Washington March Against the Vietnam War, alongside Phil Ochs and Judy Collins; she later made a trip to the communist north of the country in 1972 to witness first hand the terrifying reality of US air raids. Ochs was also a serial performer at such demonstrations, showing his face at the October 1967 march that is perhaps most famous for Bernie Boston’s photograph of a protester placing a carnation in the barrel of a military policeman’s rifle. The singer was close to Abbie Hoffman’s radical Youth International Party (‘Yippies’) movement, and it was Hoffman who led 50,000 across the Potomac River to perform a bizarre piece of theatrical absurdity in which they attempted to levitate the Pentagon through meditation and chanting. Despite agreeing with authorities to restrict the height of levitation to 3ft (down from the original application of 300ft), there is sadly no evidence that the world’s largest office building made it off the ground. 

Plans for the exorcism and levitation of the Pentagon

The rapid momentum of opposition to the war was matched by a soundtrack of rebellion. While the likes of Ochs and Country Joe and the Fish sardonically clipped the establishment around the ear (Draft Dodger Rag; Lyndon Johnson Told The Nation; I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag), P.F. Sloan channeled his best Dylan impression into Eve of Destruction, as made a hit by Barry McGuire in 1965. Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo, got in on the act when his 1967 Alice’s Restaurant Massacre became something of an esoteric anti-draft anthem, albeit a particularly long and rambly one**. In 1970, Edwin Starr’s War injected some funk into the protest, while Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were moved to comment on the tragic violent escalation of anti-war demonstrations in Ohio, an expression of horror at the Kent State University massacre. Far from being ignorant of countercultural trends back home, the troops were backed by the same soundtrack even as they took the fight to the Vietcong, with AFN DJs spinning everything from Jimi Hendrix through to their unofficial anthem for the campaign, We Gotta Get Out Of This Place by The Animals. The popularity of this tune among the GIs highlighted the transatlantic circular nature of the military-music complex’s cross-pollination: The Animals were a product of a blues boom in the UK that partially had its origins in the US military presence in Great Britain during the Second World War. 

With US withdrawal hastened by April 1975’s Operation Frequent Wind, Vietnam as a topic of protest song was dumped as unceremoniously as an army helicopter thrown off an aircraft carrier. By the time the 80s rolled around, western anti war songs tended to focus less on specific conflicts (bar several Troubles related numbers in Ireland and the UK) and more on the terrifying threat of the Cold War turning hot – and with it the promise of mutually assured destruction. Despite the macabre theme, this particular soundtrack often took a distinctly dancey turn: in quick succession, Prince’s 1999 (1982), Nena’s 99 Luftballons (1983)*** and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Two Tribes (1984) showed us that the nuclear apocalypse needn’t be depressing. 

It wasn’t long before Washington was once again attracting pacifistic indignation, and music and anti war protest coalesced once more at the White House gates at midnight on January 12 1991, courtesy of a very local movement. George H. W. Bush never did quite manage to attract the level of opprobrium that was hurled in the direction of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, but he was on the receiving end of a particularly noisy late night censure of his imminent Gulf adventure when godfathers of D.C. punk Fugazi showed up at his home. On a cold rainy night, under a banner that proclaimed ‘There Will Be 2 Wars’, 3000 ‘harDCore’ enthusaists rocked out within earshot of a grumpy President who bemoaned ‘those damned drums keeping me up all night’. The D.C. punk scene – linked spiritually and practically with the Riot Grrrl movement in the Pacific Northwest – was interconnected with Fugazi singer Ian Mackaye’s ‘straight edge’ mantra that steadfastly rejected alcohol, drugs, and violence, and the political and charitable activism of Mark Andersen’s Positive Force which tied events such as the White House protest to demands for urgent action on homelessness, abortion rights and gun control. The ‘2 Wars’ banner was not a prophecy of Bush Junior, but a comment on the domestic challenges that also had to be tackled.

Fugazi aside, Gulf War I did not provide too many other memorable musical moments, save for Dylan reviving Masters of War after a 30 year hiatus when receiving a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1991. The story goes that he was told not to do anything controversial, so predictably responded by making a pointed dig at Operation Desert Storm, before following it up with an acceptance speech as inebriatedly bemusing as his 1963 Tom Paine effort. But in 90s USA, protest music seemed almost solely the preserve of Rage Against The Machine, and it took George W. Bush’s own venture into the Gulf in 2003 to spark a collective musical backlash. This took on a very direct, near-abusive form, whether 2004’s American Idiot by Green Day; Mosh by Eminem in the same year (Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war /  Let him impress daddy that way); 2005’s When The President Talks To God by Bright Eyes (Does he ever smell his own bullshit?); or 2006’s particularly bitchy Let’s Impeach the President by Neil Young (Thank God he’s cracking down on steroids / Since he sold his old baseball team). 

Despite this many on the left continued spend the next 15 years or so lamenting the decline of protest music – or perhaps more accurately the loss of an anti war protest music movement. Among other factors such as the lack of military conscription, Politico’s Richard T. Cullen cites a more fragmented and disparate modern means of consuming media – “back in the pre-digital … era we all fed from the same cultural trough”, whilst the iPod/Spotify generation pick and choose their musical poisons. Others might point to 1960s idealists who grew up to become the establishment. Take former anti nuclear activist John Hall: as part of rock band Orleans, he was a songwriter and session musician for the likes of Janis Joplin and a member of protest group Musicians United For Safe Energy; as a man in his late 50s, he was a member of Congress. 

“The right question is not ‘where have all the protest songs gone?’ but ‘is anybody listening?'”
Dorian Lynskey

For keen student of protest music history, Dorian Lynskey, the 2003 Iraq war was – when judged in volume – just as rich as Vietnam for musical opposition. But such songs simply failed to gain cultural traction – whereas Vietnam anti war numbers ‘snowballed into a movement, myriad individual [anti Iraq War] protest songs lay on the ground like flakes’. Perhaps embodying this most symbolically is the fact that the most high profile musician-led opposition to the war came not in the form of a song or album, but an off the cuff remark made on a stage in London. As tanks prepared to roll on Baghdad, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks declared to the Shepherd’s Bush Empire audience that the group was ashamed that Bush was a fellow Texan, and the country superstars became the instant subject of an old fashioned blacklisting and hate campaign. Unlike Seeger and the Weavers, they did not fall foul of governmental attempts to censor their music, but their experience shared the same hallmarks of ostracisation at the hands of pro establishment conformity.

The Dixie Chicks furore was simply the latest in a long tradition of angry conservative responses to peacenik musicians – distinguishable, in this case, because it didn’t actually involve any music (up until 2006’s Not Ready To Make Nice was released as something of a middle-finger-to-the-haters record). But historically pro war and anti liberal voices – the counter-counterculture if you like – have had musical backing of their own. The troop championing Ballad of the Green Berets, written by special forces medic Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, was number one for five weeks in 1966, but the most famous example was Merle Haggard’s Okie from Muskogee (1969). Okie is a proud Middle American salute to supporting the military, staying free from drugs, and generally living life as differently as possible to the way ‘the hippies in San Francisco do’. Released in the same year that President Nixon first popularised the term ‘silent majority’ for those who supported the effort in Vietnam, the deep political resonance of Haggard’s number should not be understated. By tying traditional Oklahoman values to support for authority – and by extension the Republican government of the time – Okie was not just an anthem for the patriotic right, but also a symbol for Nixon’s southern strategy that electorally coloured the south a shade of deep red that remains to this day. Some 23 years later, the 1992 mockumentary Bob Roberts brilliantly imagined such politicians not just co-opting but performing popular music, as Tim Robbins depicted a 1960s-hating singing senatorial candidate who thrills supporters with numbers like The Times Are Changin’ Back

Haggard, for his part, shifted his position notably in later years: he went from proudly declaring that ‘we don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee’ to calling the outlawing of pot a ‘cooperative government brainwashing project’; and having jumped to the defence of the Dixie Chicks in 2003, he released America First in 2005, which implored the Bush administration to ‘get out of Iraq and get back on track’. But by then his latter day country music equivalents were already invigorated by the anger surrounding the September 11th attacks, and were eagerly invoking the spirit of Okie From Muskogee on numbers such as Toby Keith’s Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) (2001), Alan Jackson’s Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning) (2002) or Darryl Worley’s Have You Forgotten (2003). Like or loathe it, heartfelt yet uber corny sentiment has helped to establish modern country as one of the most cohesive pro-conservative musical movements in history. 

“Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military–industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented. Anything else would be an unacceptable shock to the American economy.”
– George F. Kennan, 1987

Bob Dylan’s hopes for the imminent demise of the Masters of War were not to be realised. Quite the opposite in fact – the monster that is the military-industrial complex is one of the only things almost certain to outlive Dylan, its relentless bloated rate of expansion the most pervasive influence on day-to-day machinations in Washington’s corridors today (see Fig 2). At the start of the 90s, rather than treat the Cold War’s conclusion as an opportunity to reverse this trend, the Pentagon instead awarded a $9m contract to a company named Brown & Root Services – a subsidiary of oilfield specialists Halliburton, then headed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney – to investigate how private military companies could further support American soldiers in combat zones. Just over a decade later and, with Cheney as Vice President, the second Iraq invasion became known as an ‘outsourced war’ due to the critical role played by such contractors. For Peter W. Singer of the Brookings Institute, the American dependence on military contractors is ‘the last downward spiral of an addiction … it can’t win with them, but can’t go to war without them’. 

Fig 2: Top 10 military-industrial complex facts (click to enlarge)

Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Image

Eisenhower’s unheeded warnings may have been prescient****, but even he would have struggled to foresee an entire war being cooked up to feed the congressional corporate contract cycle, with a military and political rationale invented post-identification of the target, as per Saddam and the WMDs. In that regard, the intensity of Dylan’s lyrics may be seen as particularly prophetic, yet the blurring of lines between contractor and soldier may soon render elements Masters of War outdated: those that ‘build the big planes’ are quickly becoming those that also fly them. And whilst the likes of Halliburton or Lockheed Martin very occasionally attract the ire of musicians – British-Iraqi rapper Lowkey’s Hand On Your Gun perhaps the finest example – not a lot of musical attention is centred on this aspect of warfare. This could yet change: any possible opening of a new US-Iranian theatre of conflict in the Middle East would likely be one of the bloodiest ever to hit the region, and could well mark a new chapter for the confluence of war, protest music, and the streets of Washington, D.C. 

Mind you, at least the spirit of John Philip Sousa can rest easy: recorded music has not stopped the US military making it own tunes. As well as the United States Air Force having its own rock band (Max Impact), the army has also been busy subtly disguising recruitment campaigns as hip hop bangers: 

* – Baez was so saddened by Dylan’s departure from the protest movement that she wrote ‘To Bobby’ in 1972, imploring him to listen to the ‘voices in the night … crying for you’.
** – A Guthrie family yarn is that Woody died upon his first hearing of the song in October 1967.
*** – Anglicised to 99 Red Balloons a year later.
**** – One could draw a haunting parallel between Eisenhower’s unheeded warnings and those given in George Washington’s farewell address: the father of the American nation reviled political parties, seeing them as a pathway to despotism and using his own goodbye to caution against ‘the alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, [leading to men seeking] security … in the absolute power of an individual.’

Learn More

The Pentagon has double the amount of toilets it needs. This is due to the fact that in 1941, the year of its construction, Virginia still enforced legally mandated racial segregation. However they needn’t have bothered: President Roosevelt immediately ordered the removal of ‘Whites Only’ signs, and the Pentagon became the only building in the state not to enforce its segregation laws (eventually abolished in 1965).

US100 interview: ‘The extraordinary mystery and magic of human life’: Mark Andersen on D.C. hardcore
Accidental Americanisation: An analysis of the American Forces Network as a soft propaganda tool – Jarek Zaba (2019)
Protest Movements: Class Consciousness and the Propaganda Song – R. Serge Denisoff, The Sociological Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 2 (1968)
The Armies of the Night: History as a Novel / The Novel as History – Norman Mailer (1968)
Joan Baez in Hanoi: 12 Days Under the Bombs – Rolling Stone, February 1973
Can’t Win With ‘Em, Can’t Go To War Without ‘Em: Private Military Contractors and Counterinsurgency – P. W. Singer, Brookings Institute Policy Paper, Number 4 (2007)
Anti-war songs fall flat – Politico, March 2008
33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs – Dorian Lynskey (2012)
The day they levitated the Pentagon –, October 2012
Pete Seeger’s Biggest Day – The Nation, January 2014
Readers’ Poll: The 10 Best Protest Songs of All Time – Rolling Stone, December 2014
Positive Force: the film that remembers when punk took on the White House – The Guardian, August 2015
Songs of War: The Evolution of Protest Music in the United States – Harvard Political Review, March 2016
The Military-Industrial Complex Is on Corporate Welfare – The Nation, February 2018
The US Army Somehow Thought This Rap Recruitment Video Was a Good Idea – Vice, February 2019

Bob Roberts (1992)
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2010)
Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History; Episode 1: Kent State & The Vietnam War (2018)

United States Marine Band – The Washington Post (1890) Spotify / YouTube
The Almanac Singers – Dear Mr. President (1942) Spotify
Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965) Spotify / YouTube
Fairport Convention – Nottamun Town (1969) Spotify / YouTube
Merle Haggard – Okie From Muskogee (1969) Spotify / YouTube
The George W Bush Singers – Songs In The Key of W (2004) Spotify / YouTube
Dixie Chicks – Not Ready To Make Nice (2006) Spotify / YouTube
Various artists – Songs That Won The War (2009) Spotify
Lowkey – Hand On Your Gun (2011) Spotify / YouTube
Spotify playlist: 1960s protest songs
Spotify playlist: Kingston RPM: Strangers From Another Land (US Army)

Kingston RPM heritage project: ‘Strangers from another land: the US Army at Bushy Park’

US100 cover of choice
Leon Russell (1970) Spotify / YouTube