Bob Dylan’s ‘Pay in Blood’ – A Wise Ol’ Man’s ‘Masters of War’.

Dylan is using his voice in Pay in Blood to project a dialogue and a distinct character. I thought from the first listen he is imitating someone. I was actually translating this song into Spanish for a friend and I realised the contradiction between the first four lines and the subsequent (in each of the verses) are too obvious to ignore and that he had to be playing two characters. Then the more I read the lyrics it became apparent which characters were which and also when he transfigured between the 2 characters. I couldn’t help but notice after each 4th line in the verse his voice changes markedly (kind of deepens and bellows) and the instrumentals also change to reflect the transfiguration. Simply masterful.

This song starts as almost a dialogue between 2 characters, Slave and Slaveowner/Master. In the first two verses we are hearing the thoughts of a slave (in the first four lines) and then we are hearing the slave owner in the subsequent 4 lines. From the third verse the same again but this time from the soldier and politician.

For the first third he has concentrated on the thoughts of slaves and their owners then for the remainder he has transfigured the characters to soldiers and their owners – the government.

Dylan is brilliant.

See how it works below the live version of the song:

Well I’m grinding my life out, steady and sure
Nothing more wretched than what I must endure
I’m drenched in the light that shines from the sun
I could stone you to death for the wrongs that you done

– slave (4th line slave or slave owner, but christian religious paradox)

Sooner or later you make a mistake,
I’ll put you in a chain that you never will break
Legs and arms and body and bone
I pay in blood, but not my own.

– slaveowner/master

Night after night, day after day
They strip your useless hopes away
The more I take, the more I give
The more I die, the more I live

– slave

I got something in my pocket make your eyeballs swim
I got dogs could tear you limb from limb
I’m circlin’ around the Southern Zone
I pay in blood, but not my own.


Low cards are what I’ve got
I’ll play this hand whether I like it or not
I’m sworn to uphold the laws of God
You can put me out in front of a firing squad

– soldier (the soldier is being court-martialed)

I’ve been out and around with the rowdy men
Just like you my handsome friend
My head’s so hard, must be made of stone
I pay in blood, but not my own.

– politician

Another politician pumpin’ out the piss
Another ragged beggar blowin’ you a kiss
You’ve got the same eyes that your mother does
If only you could prove who your father was

– soldier

Someone must’ve slipped a drug in your wine
You gulped it down and you crossed the line
Man can’t live by bread alone
I pay in blood, but not my own.

– politician (or the devil referring to Jesus)

How I made it back home, nobody knows
Or how I survived so many blows
I’ve been through hell, what good did it do?
You bastard! I’m supposed to respect you?

– soldier

I’ll give you justice, I’ll fathom/fatten* your purse
Show me your moral virtue first
Hear me holler and hear me moan
I pay in blood but not my own.

– politician

(Dylan gels and mixes lots from here)

You pet your lover in the bed
Come here, I’ll break your lousy head
Our nation must be saved and freed
You’ve been accused of murder, how do you plead?

– politician, lawyer, government

This is how I spend my days
I came to bury, not to praise
I’ll drink my fill and sleep alone
I play in blood, but not my own.

– Possible blending of all 4 characters

You should also note the slave owner and politician repeat the same lines, ‘I pay in blood, but not my own’ and of course the final verse ‘I play in blood’. Mind you the final verse could be quoted from a myriad of characters possibly blending the 4 voices together as one. It makes perfect sense. Didn’t Dylan once say that his songs were about mathematics or trigonometry?

It is abundantly clear which characters Dylan plays in the song and why he does it. Dylan ties all the loose ends.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Music
4 comments on “Bob Dylan’s ‘Pay in Blood’ – A Wise Ol’ Man’s ‘Masters of War’.
  1. great breakdown… I love anything and everything bob dylan

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Matthew Kick

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