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.