Is there a better vocal flourish in all of popular music than when Edwin Starr cries out "Hunh! Good Gawd, y'all!" in the timeless anti-Vietnam protest song War? It's the inflection of a maestro of the human voice. And with those few syllables, Starr injects a very believable sense of personal exasperation into a song that calls for the warmongers of the world to see sense.
A US Billboard No.1 hit single in August 1970, War's lyrics are completely unambiguous. There's scarcely a line that isn't quotable and memorable. And this isn't a song that makes any concessions to violence in a good cause. War "ain't nothing but a heart breaker," wrote Barrett Strong, Motown's chief lyricist. "They say we must fight to keep our freedom / But Lord knows there's got to be a better way."
Listening to the original recording by the Temptations, from the Psychedelic Shack album, the difference is the passion. Theirs is a superb rendition, notable for a "Hup, two, three four!" backing vocal that mocks the mindless drilling of the servants of war. But Starr brought something more to the song: an anger, railing at the powers that be.
At a time when black Americans were experiencing segregation in parts of America (despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964) and open hostility almost everywhere else, black families were expected to send their young sons to fight and die alongside their white peers in a grossly mismanaged and ill-considered war in Asia. Who wouldn't be angry? But how many of us could express that anger with such clarity?
Starr followed up War with the rather less inspired Stop The War Now with the lyrics "Stop the war! Good Gawd!". It was also recorded by The Temptations in a particularly trippy and laconic mood, a 12 minute anti-war chillout which features several minutes reprising its more celebrated predecessor, alternately chanting "Stop the war" and "War. What is it good for?" backed with the solemn tolling of a bell and a murmured recitation of the first few lines of the Lord's prayer over and over again. An eye-opening listen for anyone who wrongly imagines that the artistic ambition of The Temptations begins and ends with My Girl.
Over two million Americans served in uniform in Vietnam between 1964 and 1975, scarring an entire generation of young men. Almost 60,000 were killed and many thousands more permanently disabled. At least half a million North Vietnamese civilians and military personnel lost their lives. At the start of the Vietnam War, black soldiers made up a disproportionate percentage of the casualties. A new push to increase the number of "draftees" resulted in 246,000 newly conscripted soldiers, of whom 41% were black. Civil Rights leaders were appalled by the disparity and in due course the balance was redressed. But those numbers make it easy to understand the passion in Edwin Starr's voice when he says "War means tears to thousands of mothers' eyes / When their sons go to fight / And lose their lives".
You can learn more about Edwin Starr here
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.