(Pictured: Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash, 1970.)
The 50th anniversary of Kent State just sort of slipped by last week. I didn’t even find time to listen to “Ohio,” one of the most powerful artifacts of that time.
The story of “Ohio” is in this excerpt from Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970 by David Browne (which you should read in its entirety). Neil Young wrote it on May 19. It was recorded in two takes on May 21, sent immediately to Atlantic Records in New York, and first played on stage at New York’s Fillmore East on June 2.
I don’t know who played “Ohio” first, but KPOI in Honolulu, WMCA in New York, and WIXY in Cleveland first charted it during the second full week of June. In mid-July, “Ohio” spent two weeks at #1 at KADI in St. Louis, and a week topping the chart at KINK in Portland, Oregon. Although many influential stations charted it, some of the biggest did not, including WLS in Chicago, WABC in New York, and KHJ in Los Angeles.
(There’s a chart from KWHP in Edmond, Oklahoma, dated June 1 that would make it the first station in the nation to chart it, but it’s dated June 1 through July 8. I’m sure that “June” is a typo, and the chart is actually from the first week of July.)
“Ohio” debuted on the Hot 100 at #58 during the week of June 27, then went to #49 before debuting in the Top 40 at #30 on July 11. (That July 11 chart is the one used for the first episode of American Top 40 during the July 4 weekend; Casey referred to “Ohio” as “heavy.”) It went to #26 and then 18-17-14 (its peak, during the week of August 8), then 21-24 and out, gone from the Hot 100 for the week of August 29, 1970. Its swift arrival and departure is fitting, in a way. In its time, “Ohio” was not so much a song as it was a news story, and while the news cycle didn’t move as swiftly then as it does now, it still moved.
I used to be a political blogger and I remain an amateur historian, so we’re going there, on the flip.
As I think about “Ohio” in 2020, the line that resonates the strongest is “We’re finally on our own.” At Kent State, it became clear that young people who hated the war in Vietnam had no one in power to stand up for them. The Powers That Be were perfectly willing to kill them indiscriminately to perpetuate their agenda, without remorse. But Neil Young’s solution was not to turn away, but to stand and fight: “How can you run when you know?”
You can’t stretch historical analogies very far before they snap, but 50 years later, American leaders are once again willing to indescriminately kill fellow citizens to perpetuate their agenda, without remorse. For various reasons, they are willing to force people out into a deadly pandemic right now, today, with little or no concern about the risk it poses not just to the poor and working classes, but to each one of us, as COVID-19 infections inevitably spike and hospitals are overrun.
Apart from the heroic actions many governors have taken—actions which have limits when the federal government and/or their state legislatures actively obstruct them—we’re on our own. Each of us has to resolve to stand and fight, to push back against the powerful minority that doesn’t care if we live or die, to do what we know is right to the extent that each of us is able. Meaning: you may have to go back to work, but you don’t have to go other places just because other people do. Wear a mask. Protect yourself, your neighbors, and perfect strangers in every way possible, not because somebody tells you to, but because it’s right, and you know it’s right.
To stand and fight also means to speak out against, and eventually vote out, anybody who supports premature and dangerous “reopening” plans—especially when you consider that poll after poll in state after state shows consistent opposition to mindless “reopening,” across the political spectrum. When the time comes, remember who acted to save lives and who did not, and don’t compromise with the latter. “I like Senator X’s stand on some issues” is no longer good enough. Did he or she actively facilitate suffering and death by their actions? If so, and if you consider yourself a good and moral person, there’s no doubt about how you have to respond.
How can you run when you know?