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 between four distinct protagonists in this protest song. The first half entails a fierce exchange between ‘slave’ and ‘slaveowner’ but then the song transfigures into a comparably merciless showdown between ‘Soldier’ and ‘Politician’. I’ve always considered it in some sense Dylan’s omniscient update of his own early period piece -‘Masters of War’.

I was translating Pay in Blood into Spanish for a friend when I realised a clear division between the first four lines of the verse and the subsequent four. Then it became apparent to me which characters he was representing in each 4 line stanza. Also, his voice changes markedly and the instrumentals shift to reflect the alteration.

To demonstrate this dialogue exchange I have presented the lyrics below and segmented each 4 line stanza to highlight the distinction between characters. I should preface by adding that my interpretation of the ‘identity’ of the characters should not be regarded as literal givens rather it is a broad-brush hypothesis of how one might interpret the song. Also there does seem to be some conjecture over who says what particularly in the last 4 verses.
Each character seems to use biblical rhetoric throughout which gives this world-view showdown a timeless quality and spiritual substrate.

Pay in Blood

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

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

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 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

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?
– soldier

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.
– Politician

“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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19 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

  2. Intense! What an important message. You break it down so well! 🙂

    • Hello! Thank you so much for your kind words. You have been so supportive towards me and my little blog. I hope you are having a wonderful day!

      • You are a great teacher, and I’m learning a lot from your perspective and your analytical skills.

      • Well, I am nearly speechless.
        Although my career is in Education, I wouldn’t consider myself having any teaching capacity here. However, it makes it all worthwhile if just one person can learn something from it. Your words really motivate me to continue with my blog and update new content. Really I’m touched. So, thank you.

      • I knew you were an educator! 😁 You have that vibe. As I told you before, when I see a “natural,” I’m going to express what I see.

      • I understand what you mean about ‘vibe’ amongst educators. I’m gathering you are in the education field as well or perhaps in ‘Health’ as your blog would suggest?

      • I was an elementary school teacher. 😊 How about you?

      • Oh wow, nice. What do you do now? I was a Navy Officer instructor for 15 years. I have been teaching English sometimes in the classroom and sometímes as a tutor.

      • I’m in transition. I had to heal myself from a stress-related health issue. I work in an administration office for education currently. That’s so cool that you were a Navy Officer instructor. How did you decide to take that path? I saw in your comments that you know Spanish. Do you tutor Spanish-speakers?

      • Well, I hope you are well and truly on the mend. I’m glad you are still working in the education field. Will you go back to teaching? It’s funny how you mentioned that you taught in an elementary school, because if I wasn’t accepted by the Academy I would have studied primary education. Great minds think alike, hey! Hehe.
        I became a Navy Officer cadet straight after school. I always wanted to serve in the military as an officer. You see, some of my family were service personnel including my Grandmother!
        Some years after I left the Navy in Australia I decided to come to Colombia to meet a Colombian lady who I had been in contact with for over a year. Now, that was ten years ago, so yes I understand Spanish pretty well although my pronunciation and grammar still needs lots of work. What I like about keeping this blog is it remains my only ‘english communication’ outlet since I communicate nearly entirely in Spanish.

      • Thank you for the well wishes! 🙏 I am well. The plan is to go back to teaching. I can see you as a primary grades teacher. Although, I could also see you teaching the older ones. It’s wonderful that you followed your family’s legacy and lived your dream. 😊 You’ve had quite the adventurous life! I’ve been learning Spanish, but it’s been slow going.

      • I am so glad you are well now and I hope your transition back into teaching is smooth sailing. Yes, I have always liked keeping life interesting and trying new things and living in other places. I’ve always had itchy feet but sometimes to my detriment. So you are learning Spanish! That’s fantastic. Why did you start learning Spanish? Can I ask why it has been slow going? I know it has been a rough ride for me especially in the early years.

      • I started learning because I’d like to teach students whose first language is Spanish. But I think I don’t make it enough of a priority.

      • Yes, having some fluency in their native tongue would be beneficial in a ‘support’ role. I imagine it would be difficult for you to find the sufficient time to study it. So much study is required to achieve even a minimum fluency in a second language. If you ever need any help regarding employing effective learning techniques with Spanish just give me a ‘hola’ lol

      • Haha! Thank you! 😁

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