On Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio”
Welcome back to YDCS. Today I’m doing an article that I’ve wanted to write for a long time. It’s sobering but musically and culturally significant. This week we’re looking at only one song. One song that was a hallmark for the anti-Vietnam war response in the United States and defining songs of early 1970s rock; “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The Vietnam War remains a politically charged subject to this day and I won’t pass judgement on anyone’s actions or opinions. I only care about the music.
By May 1970, the United States Army had conducted ground operations in Vietnam for five years, men had been drafted to join the war effort starting in December 1969, and anti-war sentiments started rising to the surface in the form of organized protests. Youth culture was changed, and much of the frustration, fear, and pain felt by the normal person on the streets was encapsulated in the popular music of the time. The result of these feelings came to a point in May 1970 on the campus of Kent State University and inspired a scathing response from the public.
In May 1970, students of Kent State University, frustrated with the Nixon Administration’s decision in late April of that year to expand combat operations into Cambodia, began organized and unorganized protests across the campus. While the majority of protests remained peaceful on May 1, the first day of protests, students began targeting police, military, and ROTC facilities and vehicles through May 3rd. Late in the day on May 2nd with protests becoming more threatening, including targeting pro-war businesses across the city of Kent, the Governor of Ohio activated the Ohio National Guard and sent them to help the local police maintain order in the city.
Action came to a head on Monday, May 4th on the Commons of Kent State University. A large group of 2000 students assembled to continue protesting the Nixon Administration’s pro-Vietnam War policy. University officials banned the protest but students refused to disperse, forcing the hand of the University who called the National Guard in to disperse the crowd. Initial attempts to end the protest with tear gas proved ineffective. Soldiers then fixed bayonets to their rifles and began to march towards the protesters, proving to be largely successful in dispersing the crowd. A smaller number of protesters remained on the Commons grounds, some throwing rocks towards the soldiers, when tensions boiled over. For 13 seconds, the National Guard opened fire on the protesters, killing four; Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder, and Sandra Scheuer. Faculty were able to convince remaining protesters that further action would result in more death. The protest had ended.
On reading about the shooting, Neil Young penned the lyrics to the song that would become “Ohio.” He felt the student’s pain and that reflected in the lyrics: “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio.” “Ohio” represents more than a reaction to the events that occurred on Kent State University and became a rallying cry for the anti-war effort and protests at universities that would last through the summer of 1970. If there were ever a song that symbolized domestic opposition to the Vietnam War, it was “Ohio.”
Musically, “Ohio” gives me chills ever time I listen to it. Starting with a simple, haunting guitar riff and a quiet voice that sings those famous words, almost whispering. The song builds into a cry for the dead in Ohio, adding additional vocal harmony throughout that begs the listener to hear their argument. It’s not just sadness and pleading in the last verse that you hear, it’s rage for those that died and disbelief that a government that was supposed to protect its people could commit such an act. The simplicity of the song makes its message more apparent: “The National Guard are pawns used by the Government and they killed innocent protestors. How could you do something like that?”
“Ohio” was the song that anti-war protestors needed to make themselves heard. There were plenty of other songs that spoke out against the war in Vietnam; “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix and “Fortunate Son” by CCR just to name two, but “Ohio” was personal. It put names to faces and the blame squarely on the government. Protests would begin to wane in number after 1970 as the United States began to seek exit strategies from Vietnam, leading to peace in 1973. Whether you agree with the pro-war or anti-war sentiment, it’s impossible to deny the cultural impact that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young had on America during a time fraught with tension.
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