The Meaning Behind Edwin Starr’s Bold “War”

Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong were out to make a statement when they wrote the fiery song “War.” Originally recorded by The Temptations for their 1970 album, Psychedelic Shack, it was re-recorded by Edwin Starr, who ran it up the charts three months later. “War” has solidified itself as a classic protest song released amid the Vietnam War. But it rarely saw the light of day as a single.

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The Meaning Behind the Song

“War” was written by two of Motown Record’s principal songwriters and frequent collaborators, Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, with the former handling the production. After fans got their hands on Psychedelic Shack, many of whom were in college, they started flooding the Motown offices with letters urging the label to release it as a single. However, the band and the label were trepidatious about releasing “War” as a single, wanting to appease the band’s more conservative fanbase.

Recognizing the rampant requests for it, the label decided to have one of its lesser-known acts sing it, with Edwin Starr volunteering. The two versions are starkly different. The Temptations‘ version packs a punch with the signature lines of the chorus: War / Huh / What is it good for? / Absolutely nothing / Say it again, y’all. Yet melodically, it leans more into soul and R&B. Starr’s version is more in-your-face, as he and a choir of singers chant the signature line the moment the song starts. Starr’s vocals are backed by a blistering melody of electric guitar, drums, and a fiery horn section, his version truly embodying the phrase, “protest anthem.”

[RELATED: 10 Top Anti-War Songs]

For Strong, the lyrics of the song came from a real place, as he had family members and friends who served in the Vietnam War and he saw the damage that the war caused to those on the frontlines. “With ‘War,’ I had a cousin who was a paratrooper that got hurt pretty bad in Vietnam. I also knew a guy who used to sing with Lamont Dozier that got hit by shrapnel and was crippled for life,” Strong explained in an archived interview. “You talk about these things with your families when you’re sitting at home, and it inspires you to say something about it.”

Starr admitted that “War” was a “touchy song” at the time of its release and a “very hard” situation to navigate with the assertive stance of the lyrics being anti-war during a time when the country had conflicting opinions about being involved in the Vietnam War. “But as the song grew in popularity so did the relaxed attitude of the people saying, ‘Well you know that’s anti-American,'” Starr told Palace FM radio station in a 1994 interview. “They kind of took it on to it being exactly what it was. It was not anti- anything it was just simply saying we’re in a fruitless situation and it needs to come to an end. So during that time I was working doing concerts, primarily college because the college students were very much into the anti-war thing.”

Starr said he felt a sense of responsibility carrying the song’s message. “It was necessary to understand and appreciate the lyrics,” he said. “I was given the opportunity to record the song but I made the stipulation that I must record it with the feeling that I thought was right for it and I was given that privilege to do so.” Starr’s version shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 where it sat for three weeks and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. More than 50 years after its release, “War” remains Starr’s signature hit.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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