As chosen by famous fans, Dylan associates and Uncut writers
22 Masters Of War
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: There’s so many songs I want to put in my list. But, right now. because of what’s going on, I’d have “Masters Of War” in there. Because, if nothing else, the war party gas gained ground since Bob wrote that stuff. It really is the scariest time on the planet that I can remember. And I can remember Eisenhower – Eisenhower, of all people – warning in one of his farewell speeches about the military industrial complex, its growth in power. And that’s who’s running the show today. And getting everything they want because it’s “The War on Terror”. It’s very depressing to realise we killed off all the visionaries who had a vision of peace. To still have Bob Dylan around – and ticking on all cylinders, too – we should feel very grateful. To have a man his age be able to express himself, and still willingly do it. And he looks so good! I swear to God, to this day, nobody looks that interesting. If you put a camera on his face, put it on his eyes, you can’t take your eyes off it. If you saw him performing at the Gramm’s, you’ll know. I loved that. It soared my spirit. It was just who he is. Watching that, I thought, somebody’s gonna get hip and film this guy: can you imagine Bergman working with Dylan? I like the look he’s got just now. But it’s his eyes that are doing it. Anything works for Bob. Like I say, I love Bob, unconditionally For what he’s done. But for what he’s doing I love him, too. He’s telling you just what it’s like.
RICHIE HAVENS: That song goes to the crux of the problem. It’s an indictment of cruelty and disrespecting human beings. Dylan was coming out with this on the Freewheelin’ album when I first arrived in Greenwich Village in 1962, but it’s still as relevant today. I was very fortunate because I got to sing songs that changed my life. I sang “Masters Of War” because I wanted everybody to hear those lyrics.
NATALIE MERCHANT: I really am drawn to the earlier Dylan material, protest songs, and I think he really sums up the feeling at the time about the madness of the Vietnam war and the build-up of the military machinery in America. He learnt so much from Woody Guthrie and that really comes through in the early material, especially “Masters Of War”. He gave us a musical language to discuss our feelings about war in songs like this and “With God On Our Side”. They’re certainly still relevant today, but I don’t think they’d be as popular. People have different feelings towards the present conflict than they did towards Vietnam, and for good reason. It’s a very different conflict. I think it’s valid to just question the madness of violence, whoever is perpetrating it against whatever victim. That’s what musicians can do. They can ask us to envisage a different world, maybe a world where people don’t kill each other, even if they only do it for five minutes.
EILEEN ROSE: Very dark – the best ‘angry young man’ song ever. He was smart enough to make a point eloquently, but young and pissed off enough to be super-dramatic. He seems to have surprised himself by actually wishing someone dead, according to various quotes – it’s about as extreme as you can get lyrically, foolish and brave. Extreme times though – Cuban missile crisis, violent civil rights demonstrations and his first broken heart.
21 The Times They Are A-Changin’
From The Times They Are A-Changin’ (January 1964)
MIKE SCOTT: Dark words, bright words of ice and fire, as if an angel did desced and use the writer as a pen.
THEA GILMORE: I didn’t hear this song until I was about 12. It played out of an episode of The Wonder Years, and it was probably what made me sit and really listen to the lyrics of Dylan songs that I knew really well. I identified with it, even though it was so tied up with the world 30 years before. It had a kind of resonance with me that I couldn’t explain. At the time, I didn’t know much or anything about the civil rights movement and the world-changing events that were happening around 1964, but it seemed as directed at my generation as anyone’s at the time. Knowing the history more now, you can hear Dylan deciding to write a song which captures the spirit of the folk music movement and the civil rights movement, but you can also hear unexplained predictions in the lyrics.
IAN MacDONALD: Genuine modern broadsheet writing, this epic outburst of the early Sixties youth renaissance still thrills with its quasi-biblical prophecy of a new era just coming into flower.
JIM SCLAVUNOS: Easy to take this one for granted, but I find the song is especially poignant having grown up in the Sixties (I first heard it shortly after the JFK assassination). In the long run it probed to herald not only a changing social consciousness but, along with “Blowin’ In The Wind”, unleashed the potential of pop music, introducing timely yet timeless lyrics into the mainstream’s idiot idiom. Even early on, the born-again Bob was in full effect, bristling with youthful verve and prophetic wrath, admonishing the elders.
JAMIE CATTO: This song made me realise that the joy of words could be enough. They say that anyone who tells you what a Dylan song is about is only really telling you about themselves.
20 Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right
From The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (May 1963)
BRYAN FERRY: With Dylan you’ve got a really brilliant writer of wonderful, well-crafter songs, somebody who loves language. The lyrics possess beautiful, powerful imagery. “When your rooster crows at the break o’dawn, look out your window and I’ll be gone” – that’s so bluesy. This is probably my favourite track on my new album – it’s the simplest thing, just piano and me singing and playing harmonica live, which is unusual these days. It was great for me as a singer not to have to compete with a hundred other instruments: perhaps I should try it more often. That richness of language which he uses makes him very good for a singer like me to interpret. “I’m on the dark side of the road/But I wish there was something you would do or say, to try and make me change my mind to stay.” It;s a thoughtful, quite deep song. “You just kinda wasted my precious time.” I can’t think of Dylan much for a long time, then when it’s time to think of a good song to do there seem to be so many of his that I really like, like this one – I can’t say that about many other writers.
HOWARD SOUNES: An almost perfect song – tender, deceptively simple yet very clever. Looking at Dylan’s whole catalogue, it is songs like this, perhaps, that have the best chance of enduring through the decades, even through the centuries, partly because “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is not tied to social issues and will never date.”
CHARLIE GILLET: I heard Dylan for the first time in a San Francisco record shop in the summer of 1963, when a customer asked for “Blowin’ In The Wind” by Peter, Paul and Mary. “Listen to this version by the guy who wrote the song,” said the sales clerk. The horrified customer ran off with the record he had heard on the radio, and I paid a dollar for the spartan version by the gruff-voiced man who wrote it, a radio promo single with “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on the other side. Having been first fascinated by the ‘protest lyrics’ of “Blowin’ In The Wind”, I was even more amazed by the confident humour of this ‘let’s fall out of love’ song.
EILEEN ROSEL How did such a young guy sound like such an old man? Locking himself in a room with Woody Guthrie, I guess.
DAN BERN: It’s just one of his perfect songs, and I like the finger-picking. It sounds really intimate, how he sang it.