Four Dead in Ohio

On May 4 1970, four students were assassinated by the United States National Guard on the Kent State University campus in Kent, Ohio while peacefully protesting the Viet Nam war.

On May 19, 1970 (15 days later), Neil Young saw an article in Life magazine about the shooting, and immediately picked up his guitar and wrote “Ohio,” an angry musical response to the events of just over a couple weeks prior. David Crosby wrote the harmonies.

Crosby called bandmate Graham Nash. “You won’t believe this fucking song Neil’s written.” Studio time was booked.

On May 21st 1970 (17 days later), folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young recorded “Ohio” in Los Angeles. Five takes. No overdubs.

In early June, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young released “Ohio,” and things have never been the same.

The band began as Crosby, Stills and Nash (CSN), a collection of seasoned performers who had left bands such as Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies and The Byrds. The CSN harmonies were lush and precise, and the music fell on the folk side of rock and roll. They eventually invited Neil Young to join the band, and he filled out the harmonies and brought an edgier rock and roll sensibility.

Deja Vu, their first album, was released in March of 1970, and featured classic tracks like “Teach Your Children”, “Helpless”, “Woodstock” and more. When they were on the road promoting Deja Vu throughout the spring. They heard the news from Kent State.

A savage guitar lick starts the song. It’s dark and plodding. You can almost imagine marchers slowly walking in a heavy downpour. The tone is set for the tragedy to come.

“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer, I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio”

The entire story is packed into those four short lines. Young college students, finally out of the house at an institution of higher learning, ready to discover their own voices for the first time. Young people are learning about themselves, learning what makes them happy, or sad, or angry. They are discovering the world on their own terms, they have discovered that the war in Viet Nam is meaningless, and soldiers are dying every day for no reason.

But they are coming for you. You are speaking your voice, and they don’t like what you are saying. They don’t like you. Your teachers don’t like you. Your government government doesn’t like you. Your president doesn’t like you. They are coming.

People create community around their anger and their passion. They march on campus (an implied birthright of every young college student in America), and then they are cut down by the very government that is supposed to protect them.

“Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?”

Crosby, Stills and Nash have now joined together in harmony behind Neil Young, and they are pleading, almost crying out.

Help us. Help her. Show us where to go.

The images of the Kent State massacre are seared in our collective memory, and this band is playing as loud as it ever has played. If the marchers were walking slowly at the beginning of the song, now they are walking with intent, they are walking with determination. They are not going to take this shit anymore.

The chorus is repeated again, followed by a repeat of the first verse. There are literally only 55 words in this entire song, and yet those few words have come to represent an entire movement of peace, and peaceful revolution.

Neil Young called out President Nixon by name, laying the blame for the entire incident with him. Indicted and convicted. David Crosby said of his band made, “including Nixon’s name in the song is the bravest thing I ever heard.”

“Ohio” is an elegy of anger and frustration. The guitars are massive and searing. The harmonies are less comforting than they are all-encapsulating. The recording was made quickly, and everything sounds a little rough and ragged, and yet everything is about the recording is perfect. There is nothing about this recording that is not perfect.

In 2011, David Crosby led a concert raising funds for the Santa Monica-Mailbu Unified School District arts program, and performed “Ohio” with professional musicians and students from through the combined music programs. The performance is massive, and the children here are not too much younger than the people whose lives were cut short in Kent State. They are talking to us.

Listen to us. You will always need to listen to us.

Written by Neil Young
Performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Released June, 1970

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