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The Story Behind the Song: The tragedy of Neil Young track ‘Ohio’

The world might seem like it is docked in a tempestuous bay right now, but as any student of history will tell you, turmoil is nothing new. In the two years prior to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young releasing the iconic protest anthem ‘Ohio’, Vietnam tensions had reached a crescendo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been assassinated and Fred Hampton, the leader of the Black Panther’s movement, had been killed by the Chicago Police Department. American home soil was being torn apart by division and its foreign policy was in wreck and ruin.  

At the precipice of this fevered fraction was an incident that has, and will continue to go down, as one of the most pivotal events in post-industrial American history. In retrospect, it would seem America was a boiling pot with the lid left on, and something was inevitably going to spill over: The Kent State Shooting was that grisly moment that crystalised a cataclysm in the discourse of history.

On May 4th, 1970, the National Guard opened fire on a group of unarmed protesters at the Kent State University in Ohio. Four people were killed, and a further nine were seriously injured. In total, 67 shots were fired at the anti-Vietnam War protesters. National polls conducted at the time showed that most Americans thought the protestors were in the wrong as opposed to the guards. 

It was a horrific incident that would have been indelibly etched into the annals of history regardless, meaning that the token epithet of ‘immortalised in song’ doesn’t quite apply here, but the song coming only a matter of weeks after the actual incident, kept it in the public eye with a visceral edge. The Kent State Shooting occurred on May 4th, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young recorded it on May 21st, and it was released in June. 

The song’s message was simple. Although it seems incredulous today that, what was, essentially, an act of State terrorism, would be viewed among the American public as the fault of the protesters, this was clearly a notion that came from a stubborn political position. Neil Young’s lyrics ask those holding this opinion to reassess their position with an ounce of empathy in mind; “What if you knew her? / And found her dead on the ground,” he asks in an attempt to usurp uncaring nationalism with a more emotive response. 

“What was so important about that song was that it didn’t let the moment die,” David Karen, a sociology professor at Bryn Mawr College told Esquire on the 50th anniversary of the incident, “Neil Young underlined just how corrupt and awful the government was, not only about Vietnam.” 

What’s more, the boldness of the singer’s stance stood out most of all. Neil Young and his folk quartet stepped into the studio and set out to tackle an incident with a protest song that history shows ran counter to the majority of public opinion. This earmarked CSNY as a collective willing to brave the slings and arrows that would inevitably follow to lend an important voice at a pivotal time. This illuminating effect and the maelstrom of defiant support that they gathered up in the wake of the release would prove pivotal in motivating publications to pursue huge anti-government stories and, ultimately, the Watergate campaign. 

Speaking to Howard Stern in 2013, Graham Nash recalls receiving a phone call from David Crosby in which he yelled, “Book the studio right now! I’m coming down tomorrow. Wait until you hear this song!” This impassioned energy is what makes the track one of the most essential in protest music history. Lyrically, it is a tour de force of simple songwriting, leaving the stark catastrophe that spawned it to sit, unflinchingly front and centre, as the message rides home in a boom of fuzz pedalled defiance. 

The song shunned the old folk stylings associated with CSNY for the visceral power of rock ‘n’ roll, underlining the importance of dealing with the incident in that very moment and tackling the times head-on.

In 2006, four decades after retiring the song, Neil Young joined CSN on the Freedom of Speech tour and declared, “For years I couldn’t sing it because I felt it was kinda taking advantage of something that happened and we were trading on somebody’s misfortunes to give the audience a rush of nostalgia. In this period of time, that doesn’t apply. What it is now is, it’s history. We’re bringing history back.”

That’s a notion that seems just as pertinent today as ever.