'Ohio' Reflected Emotions of a Generation in Wake of Kent State Shootings

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Kent State Shooting 1970
FILE - In this May 4, 1970 file photo, Mary Ann Vecchio cries out as she kneels next to the body of student Jeffrey Miller lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, Kent, Ohio. National Guardsmen killed four when they fired into a crowd of demonstrators protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. (AP Photo/John Filo)

From the opening notes that sound like a military march played on an electric guitar to the plaintive cries of "Why?" that fade into nothingness at the end, Neil Young's "Ohio" has, for 50 years, captured the anger, frustration, cultural division and sadness of the Kent State University shootings that took place on May 4, 1970.

Young wrote the song soon after seeing coverage in "Life" magazine about four college students killed by Ohio National Guardsmen, while they protested against the Cambodian Incursion and the soldiers' presence on campus.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded "Ohio" on May 21 and immediately released the song that became popular on underground FM radio stations.

"It's still hard to believe I had to write this song," Young wrote in the liner notes to "Decade," a anthology released in 1977. "It's ironic that I capitalized on the death of these American students. Probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning."

"Ohio" begins by drawing a clear dividing line between the protestors and the soldiers, along with indicting President Richard Nixon.

"Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

"We're finally on our own.

"This summer I hear the drumming,

"Four dead in Ohio."

"It was pretty risky to put Nixon in there as well," said Vanessa Thomas, executive director of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which inducted Young in 2017. "That was pretty edgy at the time. 'Nixon coming,' right?"

Young's song paid tribute to the unarmed students who died -- Jeffrey Miller, Allison Krause, William Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer -- and confronted listeners with a question about the incident in which American soldiers shot and killed fellow American citizens.

"What if you knew her

"And found her dead on the ground?

"How can you run when you know?"

Young chose not to speak about the song leading up to the 50th anniversary of the event, even though there were "numerous" people interested in talking to him, according to his press contact at Warner Records. The Tribune-Democrat requested an interview.

But, over the years, musicians, fans and critics, have all commented on "Ohio."

In a clip posted on YouTube by documentary filmmaker David Hoffman, Graham Nash recalls Crosby calling him immediately after Young wrote the song when they were together in northern California. "(David) Crosby telling me that he saw Neil's face," Nash said. "He saw Neil go off into the woods. Neil came back an hour later and played him 'Ohio.' Crosby called me and Stephen (Stills). We were in Los Angeles at the time. He said, 'Neil has written this song, you're not going to believe it. We've got to get into the studio right away.' "

The single was released less than two weeks later, even though CSNY already had a hit on the radio.

"We killed our own single of 'Teach Your Children,' which was my song," Nash said. "And we didn't care. We didn't care about any of those rules. We didn't care about the record company saying, 'Listen, you don't want to do this. Let 'Teach Your Children' get up there, do its thing, and then, you know, a couple months later, bring it out.' What we wanted to do was bring it out instantly now.

"We were angry now. The kids were angry now. We wanted to speak and scream about this now. We wanted to put that record out on top of our other record, and we killed it stone dead. And we didn't care."

In 2014, "Rolling Stone" magazine readers ranked "Ohio" as the second-best protest song ever.

After Young saw 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over Miller's dead body in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph, he "poured his rage and sorrow into the lyrics to 'Ohio,' " as described by "Rolling Stone" reporter Andy Greene.

Young wrote the song amid the political and cultural turmoil of the late-1960s and early-1970s -- the Vietnam War, protests, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Kent State, later Watergate. It became a defining counterculture anthem of the generation and one of Young's many songs with political messages, including "Rockin' in the Free World," "Campaigner," "Mideast Vacation" and "Let's Impeach the President."

"I think it's so emotional," Thomas said. "It speaks to something that happened in society. Anyone that was around that time knows the impact of that event."

Crosby made his commentary at the end of the song, crying "Why" repeatedly.

"I remember getting nuts at the end of the song, I was so moved," Crosby told Young's biographer, Jimmy McDonough, in a comment reprinted in a article at theguardian.com around the 40th anniversary of the Kent State shootings. "I was freaked out because I felt it so strongly, screaming, 'Why? Why?' "

Thomas said the song still resonates in today's society that is often divided politically.

"It's still happening," Thomas said. "Nothing's changed. Good songwriters write about what's happening in the world around them. That's where that came out of.

"It's happening now. The stuff that's coming out of this global pandemic is unbelievable. Neil was really good writing about the historical stuff around him and how it affected him and everybody else. It's a beautiful song."

This article is written by Dave Sutor from The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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