This Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong written anti-Vietnam War classic was originally recorded by the Temptations and included on their March 1970 release, Psychedelic Shack. Motown declined to issue it as a single out of concern that it might offend conservative fans of the group whose base crossed racial and political lines. With high demand for it to be released as a single, the label compromised by allowing it to be re-recorded with a different singer and produced by Whitfield. Enter Edwin Starr, who did a more dramatic take on the track. His version reached number one on the Billboard Pop Chart for three weeks and earned a Grammy nomination for best R&B male vocal. The song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.
When I heard this song growing up, I tended to think of it simply as another of the many classic songs of the era I liked. Admittedly, I wasn’t familiar with the Temptations version as it was an album-only track. Psychedelic Shack represents a glaring omission in my music education.
Moving forward, when I heard Bruce Springsteen’s version on his live box set in 1986, it was clear he was bringing a current sense of relevance to the song. My fifteen year old ears could hear it, but my naive fifteen year old mind couldn’t grasp what that song had to do with 1986. As I understood the world at the time, the “next” war would be of the nuclear variety, and deciding whether or not I believed in the cause would be irrelevant. Turned out I was wrong.
In the wake of the killings at Kent State University on May 4, 1970, Neil Young, as the story goes, walked into the woods and spilled out the lyrics and music to Ohio after seeing photos of the tragedy in Life magazine. CSNY took it into the studio and recorded it in just a few takes on May 21, and Atlantic rush-released it shortly thereafter in June, though I’m unable to locate the exact release date.
Amazingly to me, this could’ve actually been considered a double-A sided single, and if Side A hadn’t been Ohio, then its mournful B side, Stephen Stills’s Find the Cost of Freedom, might’ve been in the running for greatest protest song ever. It’s certainly one of the most powerful in my book. As I write this I’m thinking how silly it is to put it in terms of some sort of ranking since that’s not what it’s all about anyway. I guess that’s just what we do in blogs.
There would be more protest songs down the line, including another notable one that same month. Neil Young himself would pen a couple more angry classics. But what is the role of the protest song in 2020? I’m not about to say it doesn’t exist anymore when I’m utterly clueless about most of what’s current, especially hip-hop. I suppose I’m wondering if the topical song genre is able to traverse the various societal divides and strike a collective nerve anymore. Did it ever? Or, am I simply projecting what I think it was like to hear Blowin’ in the Wind in ’63 or Ohio/Find the Cost of Freedom in ’70? Considering the awful state of affairs in the world today, not to mention the protests taking place at this moment for different reasons involving folks from all walks of life, what will be considered the “soundtrack of the early 21st century” 50 years from now?