The Infinite Jukebox: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s ‘Ohio’

I heard of this song long before I heard it. It is a classic, but for a long time it was a banned classic. The song was written by Neil Young, and recorded during his first spell as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. It was a response to the infamous and tragic Kent State Massacre, and it was for that political content, and that Young and his band-mates did not back the Establishment in the first term as President of Richard Nixon, it was not allowed to pollute the airwaves and influence the minds of those who were younger than or contemporary to the dead.
A little history is here necessary. The Kent State Massacre took place at Kent State University, Ohio, on 4 May 1970. Tricky Dicky Nixon was President, the Vietnam War was dragging on, and slowly expanding. Nixon and his Foreign Advisor, Dr Henry Kissinger, had secretly and illegally extended the War into Cambodia, commencing the process that would eventually lead to the Khmer Rouge regime that slaughtered millions. America was wracked by divisions, with continual protests against the continuation of the War.
A rally featuring three hundred or more students was held to protest Nixon’s recent announcement of expanding the War into Cambodia, and the presence of the Ohio National Guard on campus. The Guard were armed. The students were not. The Guard attempted to enforce a ban on the protest but the students refused to disperse. The Guard were in retreat when, suddenly, first a sergeant and then several Guardsmen turned and began firing into the crowd who, according to eyewitnesses including Chrissie Hynde, later of The Pretenders, were at that point retreating. Four students, aged 19 and 20, two girls and two boys, were killed, three instantly, the other before he could be got to hospital.
Yes, in that time and that place, America fired upon its own children, cutting down four unprotected and defenceless students. The incident rattled the country like nothing before it, further emphasising the divisions that had already run deep. Many people, the older generation, thought that what the National Guard had done was not just right, and justified, but also necessary. There were and still are those who will say that the true Victims of Kent State were the young men of the Guard, who were pilloried for killing compatriots of their own age.
It was a nadir that seemed impossible to ever recover from, and one that was never resolved in any way that genuinely seemed to close the book.
As well as the four dead, nine others were wounded. No-one shot, whether wounded or killed, were less than 71 feet, twelve yards, from the Guard. The nearest of the four killed was sixty-five yards away. Several of the Guard claimed they were in fear of their lives, a claim rejected by the official FBI enquiry as fabricated afterwards.
The outrage and the horror was instant. David Crosby, hearing of it, suggested that Neil Young should write a song about it. Within an hour, Young had completed ‘Ohio’. The track was recorded on May 21, in just a few takes, and rush-released as a single, despite the band being already on the Billboard Chart with Graham Nash’s ‘Teach Your Children’. It reached no. 14.
Young doesn’t shy away from the horror of what had happened. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, he sings, (with Crosby later commenting that leaving Nixon’s name in the lyrics was the bravest thing he ever heard), we’re finally on our own. This summer I heard the drumming, four dead in Ohio.
And then that chorus, bitter with irony, as the band’s harmonies stand up against the rock backing: Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down, should have been done long ago. And then, What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground, how can you run when you know? It’s the plainness of the words, the directness, the unflinching and unblinking stare that stripped what had been done down to its most basic aspects, coupled to an aching melody, full of heartbreak at what things had come to, that made ‘Ohio’ into an anthem, and a statement that made all the more impact by being as much as everything else, a fucking brilliant song.
Even today, over fifty years on, ‘Ohio’ burns with the anger and the despair of that day at Kent State. And it never will dim. What was done was the greatest horror of those days and no matter how long past it becomes, it holds the moment alive. We cannot forget, we must never forget and, just as the Silmarils of Tolkien locked in the light of the Trees of Valinor, Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash locked in the darkness. Gotta get down to it, soldiers are cutting us down. Should have been done long ago. And it was.

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