I am an alum of a state university in Ohio, and while that university is not Kent State, I will never forget the day I visited the main campus in Kent, Ohio. It was a cold February weekend in 2002 and the grounds felt like any other major college. Until I passed the May 4th Massacre Memorial statue.
If memory serves, the skies darkened above my head and I felt an overwhelming sense of dread. I could hear neither birds singing nor students laughing. The rest of the campus felt alive, full of energy, but not around the memorial. The aura of death still lingered there even over 30 years after President Nixon ordered the Ohio National Guard to advance on an unarmed and peaceful protest of teenagers and college students and they fired into the crowd, murdering four in cold blood and wounding nine more for no reason whatsoever. It was a dark day for the counterculture movement and a darker day for America.
When Neil Young saw photographs of the shootings he was horrified, appalled, and shocked. I realize these are all synonyms and perhaps one would suffice; however, the sheer magnitude of this event isn’t often given credit for its cruelty and seriousness. For those of you who aren’t familiar, please let me summarize what happened.
A few days before the protest, Nixon announced the Vietnam conflict would be expanding into Cambodia. Americans were split down the middle regarding the war already, half wanted out and half wanted to remain fighting. Across colleges and universities from sea to shining sea, students assembled in an outpouring of anger, compassion, and demur. Four million went on strike, thereby affecting public opinion. When the National Guard was called in, over 2,000 people had gathered, and they believed they had a right to disperse the crowd. Just after noon, the soldiers opened fire with their M1 Garand rifles.
The question of why remains a mystery even to this day.
What is clear is the reaction during the aftermath: more protests which included eleven people being bayonetted at the University of New Mexico a few days later (and 10 days after that, two more deaths at Jackson State), Pulitzer Prize winning photographs that fueled the outcry against the conflict in southeast Asia, Nixon himself being evacuated to Camp David for his safety, provided the fuel for hundreds of protest war songs to be written – including "Ohio."
David Crosby commented that Young’s inclusion of Nixon’s name in the lyrics was "the bravest thing I ever heard." Given the state of affairs within the United States at that time, it was quite feasible that Young might have been arrested on some trumped up charge for what could’ve been construed as treason. However, freedom of speech won the day and the counterculture movement adopted CSN&Y as their own – giving them spokesperson and leaders statuses.
The single, along with its B-Side, "Find the Cost of Freedom," peaked at #14 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and has since been covered by a dozen artists including, most recently, Ben Harper in 2011. Originally formed as a super-group, CSN&Y went on to success both together and separately. They each released high-profile solo albums in 1971, mere months after the release of "Ohio."
The 1960s were a violent decade of social unrest and massive changes. Musical artists, through their art, helped to release the steam valve and focus the people’s anger in more positive ways. Without Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Country Joe and the Fish, America might have reached a full-scale revolution in the early 1970s. Thankfully, through music, the crisis was averted, but the unwarranted deaths in the spring of 1970, will never be forgotten. ~ Justin Novelli
The Kent State shootings had a profound effect on some of the students who later became prominent musicians. Chrissie Hynde was a student at the time, and eventually formed The Pretenders. Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale were also on campus, and after the shootings, they developed the band Devo based on the concept of "De-Evolution," meaning the human race was regressing. Said Casale, "It refocused me entirely. I don't think I would have done Devo without it. It was the deciding factor that made me live and breathe this idea and make it happen. In Chrissie Hynde's case, I'm sure it was a very powerful single event that was traumatic enough to form her sensibility and account for a lot of her anger." Mothersbaugh added, "It was the first time I'd heard a song about something I'd been a participant in. It effected us. It was part of our life." (thanks to Jerry and Mark for their help with this)
Album : Four Way Street Released : 1970 US chart position : 14