The Funk, The Frenzy, The Finale: Black Music and the Vietnam War


What the hell was going on in the 60s?! It was tough, and not just for Black people either. It was tough for America as a whole as we watched change become the only true constant in our worlds. And stuff like that is scary, let’s be honest.

A decade that started with a WWII army general as president ended with a man on the freaking moon — how’s that for rapid change? And in between, there were assassinations, riots everywhere, color TVs, Woodstock, and the final days of Jim Crow. The 60s were not one bit short on good-old fashioned civil unrest, that’s for sure.

Oh, and did I mention Vietnam?!

It was happening rather quietly for most of the decade, but once Nixon was sworn in in ‘69, much to the chagrin of younger people everywhere, it incited general discord. Most notably, hundreds of Kent State students famously protested and four of them were shot and killed by the National Guard.

This was as close as the war had gotten to American soil and was one of the main catalysts to the Vietnam-crazed aesthetic we grew up seeing in textbooks and documentaries.

Town hall meetings, riots, protests, you name it, it was going on! However, not all of the heroes were out in the streets. Some folks were in Studio A of Motown’s Hitsville in Detroit trying to tell our story too.

They brought the funk, the frenzy, and the eventual finale to how the war would forever age in our minds. And the songs were all recorded that same summer of 1970 within weeks of each other.

The Funk

War — Edwin Starr | Recorded March 1970

“What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’.”

This song was the definition of countercultural when it dropped. It was risky, it blurred the line between politics and race, and it had an edge to it that could cut the heart out of an already bleeding country… And for that, it was perfect for 1970 — even though it almost didn’t happen.

It was actually written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong for the Temptations, but Barry Gordy, head of Motown, wasn’t trying to paint his golden boy chart toppers in that light, so he demanded someone else sing it.

It sounds lame, but this song needed a lot more “hell” than it did “harmony” and Edwin Starr was hell on wheels on this. Motown loved him for it, of course, and by the middle of the summer it was the #1 song in the entire country.

“it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
(War) it’s got one friend that’s the undertaker
Oh, war, has shattered many a young mans dreams
Made him disabled, bitter and mean
Life is much too short and precious
To spend fighting wars these days
War can’t give life
It can only take it away”

Black folks and white folks, both here and abroad, were feeling this in a major way and I’m not sure The Temptations would’ve had the same effect. Lucky for them, though (and us), not many days after Edwin left Studio A in March of ’70, Norman and Barrett walked in with another hit up their sleeve.

The Frenzy

Ball of Confusion — The Temptations | Recorded April 1970

“… and the band played on.”

When this song comes in, you can feel the angst of not only the group (oh they were ready for this one) but the country as a whole. This beat has that “chug-a-lug-a-chug-a-lug-a” train-on-the-tracks feel that drew everyone in from the military huts in the Vietnamese DMZ, all the way to the White House in DC.

There was a lot going on, but the bottom line of these times was usually this: when the Temptations started moving, everybody started listening — it peaked at #2 on the charts almost immediately.

“Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration, aggravation,
humiliation, obligation to our nation…”

This song fights the turmoil of the day not with aggression like “War” (above), but with the direct acknowledgment of the chaos everywhere. They didn’t try and silence it, they leaned in. We’d just finished the 60s, my dude, why hide it?! Doing so would’ve been inauthentic anyway. That’s why this one was able to take off the way it did.

“Chug-a-lug-a-chug-a-lug-a” — the ball of confusion, rolling downhill and gaining steam, screaming for help, never even stopping to check its own pulse. And still, “…the band played on” (perhaps one of the most telling 1/2-liners in American history — because “the band” almost always plays on).

And not long after a job well done, they left Hitsville’s Studio A to make room for…

The Finale

What’s Going On? — Marvin Gaye | Recorded June 1970

“Come on talk to me, so you can see what’s going on.”

And, this one was the haymaker. A song that, for many people, has come to narrate the entire Vietnam conflict itself. To be honest, you could play this over a montage of today’s societal plight and it would be fitting. This song can just transcend time and space like that.

That’s probably why they waited until the following year, 1971, to release it the right way — headlining an entire studio album of the same name.

“War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.”

The lyrics, the feel, the cries are all so us, sure, but it was also perfect for the US that is the “United States”. And though it was made smack dab in the middle of everything, it’s grown to soothe us a bit.

Of course with any great battle there’s a time to fight fire with fire, or even butane. But by the time this peaked on the Billboard, also at #2, I can only imagine it felt like a tall glass of ice cold water to a tired ass country.

Were these songs the calm or the storm? Would they have been as powerful if not for each other? Were there other studios in America also killing it that I just don’t know about? Unclear. But this Motown trio: the funk, the frenzy, and the finale, is yet another iteration of the Black American proverb that reminds us that just like all good things, bad things must eventually come to an end too.

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My thoughts from the worlds of Music, History, Poetry, and Culture. For lack of a wetter bird, I can show you better than I can tell you.

Atlanta, GA

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