The Mighty Hannibal is one of those Soul artists that is wrongfully obscure. The world of popular music is filled with myth building, myths sometimes becoming truth, facts obscured. A handful of people these days remember Hannibal. The kind of people who like to hang out in dusty record shops, swap endless amounts of stories and usually useless little facts about obscure and forgotten Soul singers that are God's gift only in our minds. I'm one of those people. I'm a Soul addict. But truth is, a lot of the singers I admirer are obscure for a reason. In the enormous flood of 45s between '54 and '64 there were just too many singles better than the ones my heroes churned out. The trouble is more I heard those classic singles just one to many times, so I spend my time digging through the obscure. Hannibal's "Hymn No. 5" is in my opinion an exception. It is one of those few obscure Soul records that should be saved from forgetfulness. "Hymn No. 5" is both a record of rare beauty and relevance. For a long time Hannibal was just a singer hanging out in Cali, getting friendly with Johnny Otis and Taylor, and getting into mischief with Little Richard or Larry Williams. Occasionally he would churn out an amusing and pleasant R&B single, all of who failed to make any real impact. Something that changed when he donned his trademark turban and added mighty to Hannibal somewhere around 1964. Armed with a new image, James T. Shaw by birth, penned the explicit (anti) Vietnam song that is subject of this little Blog post today, "Hymn No. 5". In my mind one of the most moving songs written about the subject.
Taking the form of a letter to his baby "Hymn No. 5" opens with Hannibal's mighty belting voice but soon moves into the claustrophobic clunking of a tambourine complemented by a haunting organ giving the song the feel of a feverish nightmare. "Hymn No. 5" doesn't spare the listener, it pulls you into the fear and feeling of senselessness that the soldiers in Vietnam must have felt. "Tell my father" Hannibal pleads "I'm way over here in these trenches covered with blood" he moans, baring naked the horrors of war. "There's no tomorrow" continues the song in harmonic desperation taking us in to moaning that seems to be somewhere between pain and hopelessness while remembering he has a family and a home far from that godforsaken jungle in Vietnam. An unlikely song to hit the R&B charts at #21 when picked up by Josie records for national distribution, reflecting the level of identification Vietnam veterans and those left behind must have had with it. This wasn't a song you exorcised you demons in the land of a 1.000 dances, with this song you stared them straight into the eyes.
"Hymn No. 5" wasn't the first Vietnam record recorded. Two years earlier Marvin Gaye recorded "Soldier's Plea". But unlike that patriotic and romanticized 45, Hannibal confronted the horrors of war in a direct manner that was unprecedented. After becoming active at political rallies Hannibal had decided that he needed to speak out. With segregation still in a fact in the South black soldiers were supposedly dying for freedom, a freedom that was denied them at home. They were treated as second rate citizens at home, as cannon fodder in the orient. Maybe it was that Hannibal didn't really have a career to lose that he dared to speak out, he had no audience he could lose, allowing him to sing fearlessly on the subject. When the song hit it must have inspired other artists to sing out. And as the decade pushed on many more social conscious hits dealing with the bleak realities in Vietnam hit the radio waves. I believe that it was "Hymn No. 5" that got the big players to speak up, that prompted Joe Tex to record "I Believe I'm Gonna Make It". I think Bill Wither's moving "I Can't Write Left Handed" or Marvin Gaye's legendary "What's Going On" are a direct result of the doors Hannibal opened.
With the war in Iraq still taking young lives on a daily basis I feel it is important that art like this is remembered. It is through art that we understand the true atrocities of war. If we left it up to our politicians war would be narrowed down to one-liners and personal interest. The news may gives us the facts, photographers may give us the images, but art gives us the personal implications. A song like "Hymn No 5" allows us to feel what war means, allows us to forget the bullshit of the politicians, the confusing statistics scientists use, transcend the daily cold news and actually feel what war does to people. Art allows us to experience the very human consequence of war.
"Hymn No. 5"
See Also: "The Mighty Hannibal's Triumphant Return"