Reflections on “Ohio”: 24 February 2020

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.

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.

What was the Best Year for Rock?

The Best Year in Rock Music

On Your Dad’s Car Stereo, most of the albums that I review right now were released between 1969 and 1981. As time goes on, I plan to add later years of rock to discuss hair metal, punk, grunge, and the more fleshed out version of heavy metal that came into its own in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But staying on topic with my current focus, I got to thinking, “What was the best year for rock and roll?” “Was there a year that will go down in history as the year where rock solidified itself as a legitimate, mainstream genre that would go on to influence musicians for decades to come, even if the artists who released albums that year didn’t know it yet?” As it turns out, there was such a year, and it was 1971. Let’s take a look at 1971 and some of the other years I considered that were influential but didn’t quite match the former’s grandeur.

First, I would like to discuss the years that didn’t make the cut, namely 1972, 1974 and 1976. Each of these years was influential in the greater development of rock and roll and had their fair share of fantastic releases, and I’d like to start by looking at the albums that defined those years. 1972 had hits like Close to the Edge by Yes, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars by David Bowie, Thick as a Brick by Jethro Tull, Machine Head by Deep Purple, Can’t Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan, and more from acts like Uriah Heap, the Doobie Brothers, Jackson Browne, the Jeff Beck Group, and let’s not forget the Eagles’ self-titled debut.

1974 brought us 461 Ocean Boulevard by Clapton, Queen II by the eponymous band, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis, Second Helping by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Not Fragile by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, just to name a few. Finally, 1976 came in with 2112 by Rush, Hotel California by Eagles, Jailbreak by Thin Lizzy, Boston by the band of the same name, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and High Voltage, both by AC/DC, Agents of Fortune by Blue Oyster Cult, Destroyer by KISS, Fly Like an Eagle by Steve Miller Band, and so many more.

Looking just at the year-by-year releases, 1976 is my favorite year for rock, and I think many people would say that ’76 and ’72 were their favorites from those choices. The albums were big and the bands were larger than life. To find the best year for rock and roll though, we have to take the year’s releases in context. 1972 was arguably a continuation of 1971, but by the time we reach 1974 and 1976, the bands releasing these big albums were finally coming into the mainstream view thanks to the efforts of those that came before them. Who were those predecessors?

1971. The year that brought us Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, Who’s Next by the Who, Aqualung by Jethro Tull, L.A. Woman by the Doors, Meddle by Pink Floyd, Master of Reality by Black Sabbath, Pearl by Janis Joplin, The Cry of Love—Jimi Hendrix’s first posthumous album, Tapestry by Carole King, Imagine by John Lennon, oh and Led Zeppelin IV. 1971 was a crossroads for rock. The earliest mainstream rockers like the Beatles, Hendrix, and Joplin coexisted with the acts that would carry the torch through the 70s like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. There was an amazing melding of sounds where you can hear psychedelic rock giving way to what would become progressive rock. The acts that played in 1971 would go on to influence the sound of rock and roll for the next decade. Heavier acts like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin would give way to what would become heavy metal and the punk movement while classic rockers like the Rolling Stones and the Who would lay the tracks for bands like Boston, Thin Lizzy, Chicago, and more. Timing is everything, and 1971 was both the end of the early era of mainstream rock and the beginning of the second wave, influencing acts for decades to come.

The opinion above is protected under the Fair Use provision of United States Copyright Law, 17 U.S.C §107 which allows for the fair use of a copyrighted work for criticism without infringement on the copyright.