Finally On Our Own

History geek that I am, May 4 never comes without reminding me of the deaths of four students at Kent State University, shot by National Guard troops who were on campus to quell disturbances that had broken out, not just there but across the country, in the wake of President Nixon’s decision to invade Cambodia in the spring of 1970. I don’t remember Kent State when it happened, but because the radio news was on in the house every morning as we got ready for school, the story must have been in the air. Only later did I learn the details, see the pictures, understand the enormity of it. I don’t recall hearing Neil Young’s famous song until several years later, perhaps not until college.

“Ohio” remains the most scarifying artifact of the event, apart from the photo of the girl kneeling over one of the victims. But those of us who don’t remember Kent State firsthand can’t possibly hear it the way young people must have heard it that spring and summer.

Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio

In other words, says Young, get ready. If you believe that the Vietnam War is wrong, you had better be prepared to lay down your life for what you believe, because your government is ready to kill you for what it believes, and nobody’s going to stop them.

If “Ohio” has lost some of its power in 40 years, perhaps it’s because we are no longer shocked by the idea that the American government can be an enemy of its own people.

Young began writing the song after seeing the photos of the shooting in Life magazine; Crosby Stills Nash and Young recorded it on May 15. It first shows up at ARSA on a survey from WBBF in Rochester, New York, dated June 10, although it’s listed there alongside CSNY’s other then-current release, “Teach Your Children.” It appears on several other surveys starting the next week, and it hit the Hot 100 dated June 27, 1970. It rose as high as Number 14 in Billboard the week of August 8, although it hit Number One in St. Louis, and made the Top 10 in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Denver, Toronto, Vancouver, B.C., Manchester, New Hampshire, and San Bernardino, California.

Sometime in the mid 90s, I saw Crosby Stills and Nash in concert. Although Stephen Stills is a monster guitar player, part of the power of the original “Ohio” comes from Young’s searing, angry guitar work. Without it, the song lacked much of its power. During a long coda, Graham Nash encouraged the audience to chant along, “Four dead in Ohio . . . four dead in Ohio.” Turning such a grim chant into a singalong seemed strange that night, and in years since it’s come to seem weird and creepy whenever I think of it. If there’s a rock song that should be treated reverently out of reverence for its subject—and isn’t that a mighty short list of songs?—“Ohio” should be.

At the end of “Ohio,” you can hear David Crosby crying “Why?” and asking “How many more?” On the day CSNY recorded the song, May 15, there had indeed been more. Just after midnight that day, two students were killed and 12 injured in a similar shooting by National Guardsmen at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. When we remember the victims at Kent State, we should remember the Jackson State victims as well. They were casualties of the same war.

My pal whiteray at Echoes in the Wind takes note of the anniversary each May 4, and rarely does so more eloquently than today. Read it now.

One More Thing: My latest post at WNEW.com is a meditation on mono versus stereo. If you have any thoughts on the subject, please leave a comment there. It would be great to hear from a live human being instead of a spambot for once.

6 thoughts on “Finally On Our Own

  1. I agree, the sing-along idea is odd. And I’m not sure there is any other rock song with the gravitas of “Ohio.” Lennon’s “Imagine” comes to mind, but I don’t think that’s quite the same. The Association’s “Requiem for the Masses” has some of that quality but wasn’t nearly as well known. I’ll have to think about it, but I have a feeling I’ll come up empty. Thanks for the nod.

  2. Yah Shure

    “If “Ohio” has lost some of its power in 40 years, perhaps it’s because we are no longer shocked by the idea that the American government can be an enemy of its own people.”

    Having been a college freshman at the time of Kent State and “Ohio,” I think the bigger difference is that the draft had a far more direct affect on college campuses in 1970, making the sense of outrage over Kent State immediate and passionate. The impact of the song itself on campus – at least at the University of Minnesota – was incredible. That record spoke to a generation like no other. Even though I was completely uninterested in politics at the time, I understood how rock music could serve as the catalyst in changing mainstream America’s opinions about the injustices we faced.

    We really need to have that sense of outrage and unrest from time to time to make the government more accountable for its actions. But it’s a different world now. The wars don’t affect the student population like they did then; It’s “somebody else’s” war now. And how on earth would the successors to records like “War” and “Ohio” make it past the corporate music and radio industries forty years later? “Ohio” was one of those truly pivotal moments in rock music; a field which doesn’t seem to have many of those anymore.

  3. jb

    @Yah Shure: Excellent point, as usual. Kids in 1970 were staring down the barrel of Vietnam in a way nobody is staring down the barrel of Iraq or Afghanistan today. Hell, there are millions of people in this country who have no one of their personal acquaintance in either place, which means they have no personal stake in the war. As a result of both factors, there’s no need for young people to protest something that happens only on a couple of TV channels. It would be like the kids of 1970 marching against “Gunsmoke” or Flip Wilson.

  4. Yah Shure

    jb, while Vietnam was the biggest protest target in 1970, for us it wasn’t the only one. “Ban The Red Barn!” was the cry heard ’round Dinkytown, where the Red Barn fast-food chain wanted to build a second campus-area location. It was a colorful saga right out of 1970, complete with a drawn-out student occupation of a half-block of condemned buildings, a middle-of-the-night police raid and teardown, someone creating their own “drive-thru” at the existing Red Barn and a temporary “People’s Park” arising from the rubble of the Dinkytown site. By then, Red Barn had had enough, and gave up the fight.

    Power to the people, right on! Only in 1970…

  5. porky

    “We really need to have that sense of outrage and unrest from time to time to make the government more accountable for its actions. But it’s a different world now. ”

    I agree. I thought that the bank, AIG, fill-in-the-blank bailouts of Fall 2008 would have sent people to Washington with pitchforks but the employment rate has to drop significantly for that to happen (i.e. no one can take off work to protest).

    Kids today might protest poor wi-fi connectivity.

  6. It’s lesser known as it was merely an album cut on Chicago’s 1969 debut, but they did a song about the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Someday (August 29, 1968). Those of course weren’t as deadly as the Kent State or Jackson incidents a couple years later but I believe that’s where the initial seeds of that government distrust started to really show– where the seeds for Kent State were initially planted.

    I have bootlegs of Chicago performing the song live in 1968 prior to the convention with completely different lyrics and a completely different song title (Girl). Apparently Robert Lamm re-wrote the lyrics after the events at the Democratic Convention that year. It starts with audio from the protests (Protesters chanting “The whole world is watching!”) The song is largely about the police brutality in response to the protests (some of the lyrics include “Do you feel the rumblings as your head comes crumbling down”, “twist and turn your arm around until it is not there”, “Feel the Wind of something hot come whistling past your ear”)As a history buff, it’s actually one of my favorite Chicago songs.

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